Listening to the news from Paris these past few days I, like so many Britons, think of climate change as a terrible possibility which may or may not materialise: an appalling possibility we learn to live with, like the threat of nuclear armageddon we’ve had hanging over us this past seventy years. But as with so much else in this crazy world of ours, those who’ve gained the least are called on to pay the highest price. For some, climate change is not a future possibility ‘the experts will sort out’ but a a devastating reality right now. This is an abbreviated version of the words of Saiba Suso, a Gambian demonstrating outside the Paris Climate Change talks, posted on the New Internationalist blogsite yesterday.
I’m in Paris to campaign for climate justice. I came by plane but my brother Surakata and his friend Mamadou crossed illegally on a boat that got into trouble. Mamadou died.
Images of people streaming in from Syria, Afghanistan and other war zones are common. But why do people like my brother attempt the journey, and how does that make a fair climate deal so important?
Growing up in our village in the Gambia, we’d talk about what we’d do when older. I wanted to go to the capital and study communications. Surakata and Mamadou wanted to make it in Europe. Mamadou was quiet but ambitious. He’d do anything, as long as it would allow him money to send home.
At home there was no money. The rice we’d survived on for generations stopped growing and our village struggled. The rains had gradually started coming later, crops went from scratch dry to sodden so suddenly that nothing could grow. Year after year it was the same. Then the flooding began to spread from the fields to block roads to market and health centre. No food became no food, no trade, no medicine. This was climate change.
So at 18 I left home to go to the city and study, leaving Surkata and Mamadou in the village. With no money for college fees I worked in a gas station and also sent something back to my family. When I couldn’t make ends meet I’d go onto the streets and hustle, buying and selling bits and pieces. But living hand to mouth while trying to study got too much. I dropped college and focused on feeding myself and family.
My brother and Mamadou saw me on the brink, and in that reflection the need for their own and family survival. As young men with a duty to bring money home, climate change had faced them with a choice – stay at home and face certain hardship or go where there was opportunity. To them, and I think to anyone, that is no choice at all.
They decided, with a small group of men in my village, to make the journey to Libya, where they’d wait a few weeks before crossing to Italy. It would cost $150, equal to over a month’s food for a family. It took a long time to save. Mamadou, from a poorer family, sold his bull and convinced his mother to sell hers. They traded both incomes for Mamadou to make a go of it in Europe. It was the family’s last chance.
A month after they left I got a call from my brother to say they’d be crossing the sea the next day. We waited a week. No news. Then a confused call from the trafficker in Libya was followed by one from my brother. The boat had capsized. Only he had survived.
It is so painful to see Paris climate negotiators go back and forth with the euphemism, ‘loss and damage’, concealing what that really is. To our community in the Gambia it is everything we are battling, the damage climate change has already done to us and to Mamadou, already lost.
The Paris talks this week will decide whether rich countries acknowledge the harm their emissions over two centuries are doing to us and other developing nations. We believe it only fair that developed countries support poorer ones to deal with the effects of climate change. And to acknowledge and support us when we lose everything, as Mamadou’s family has.