What you need to know:
- The climate changes when everything you thought is normal suddenly and dramatically changes your life. Something like rainfall patterns used to be sort of a God-given phenomenon, sometimes it rains, and sometimes it doesn’t.
- Using meteorology, our ability to measure rainfall over long periods of time has allowed us to recognise how rainfall patterns change over time.
- But over time, the rainfall patterns have become unpredictable.
What can you tell an ordinary Kenyan about climate change?
If say, your parents lived for 50 years on the coastline of Lamu and never had their house flooded and now we have a storm and the entire house is washed away...that’s not just a one-off event. Indeed, sea levels are rising; and all of this is connected. What we do has an impact and those effects in turn can either harm us or improve our lives.
The climate changes when everything you thought is normal suddenly and dramatically changes your life. Something like rainfall patterns used to be sort of a God-given phenomenon, sometimes it rains, and sometimes it doesn’t. Using meteorology, our ability to measure rainfall over long periods of time has allowed us to recognise how rainfall patterns change over time.
But over time, the rainfall patterns have become unpredictable. And when you become a parent or an ancestor, 300 years later, your children will no longer be able to practise agriculture because the rainfall is simply proven to be inadequate. Things like fertile land becoming a desert and land degradation are real.
How can young Kenyans contribute to the conversation on climate change?
The wonderful thing is that they already are. I sat on a podium here with Elizabeth Wathuti, an environmental activist, and she rightly asked the question, just like we are talking right now, “I am about half as old as UNEP, which means you’ve spent twice my lifetime debating these issues”.
In an extremely compelling way, she was challenging the inertia, the pace and speed in which we are addressing these issues. Let’s go back to Wangari Maathai, a young girl from a village in Kenya who ended up inspiring the world by winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I was privileged to launch with her the billion tree campaign which ended up inspiring countries and communities across the world to plant more than 10 billion trees. Many young Kenyans have contributed to this global environment community.
But also during my visit here in Kenya, I met with some young social entrepreneurs and innovators who chose to use digital technology to benefit the community. We can also encourage children in school to choose STEM subjects by giving them a chance to experience programming. These are the youths of Kenya—extraordinary in their ingenuity, energetic, having a sense of innovation and ready to use it for the benefit of their communities.
Are there any climate change and environmental implications on development to nations?
Well, one that remains profoundly relevant is that of the water towers. In the new Constitution, there was a provision that explicitly recognised that forests and the water towers of Kenya are an integral part of the life support system of this country. And yet the way forest resources have been depleted has essentially made Kenya more vulnerable.
So I think it’s imperative to recognise the value of functioning ecosystems where water comes from. Water has a lot to do with how you manage land, forests, and watersheds. Another area is clearly the impact of climate change on agriculture. A large part of Kenya is semi-arid and arid land.
Losing 50 millimetres of water on average a year or maybe 100 millimetres can fundamentally change the ability of people to live off the land. With population and livestock growth, there’s increased conflict as people have to move around and begin to compete for land and water resources.
How does development hurt our climate?
I think the way we practise development is like engaging in a sort of mining operation whereby we exploit nature rather than use it sustainably. We’ve run out of other places to run to and worse, pollution footprint has begun to come back and haunt us. We have to reinvent our economy and invest in a different way of doing development.
As you mentioned in a TED talk last year, the planet is shaping humans instead of humans shaping the planet. The 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report said it is a “code red for humanity”. How can we reverse this?
We live in an age where increasingly, through the kind of economies we are running, we are affecting the fundamental support systems of our planet. From the Holocene to the Anthropocene, the era we’re currently living in, we are faced with very different choices.
And I think we have even through the 50 years of UNEP’s existence been on a pursuit to fully comprehend the environmental impacts of our land use choices, pollution footprints have affected our planet. If you continue to pollute, degrade and over-exploit natural resources, you will run out of arable land, water, fish, and you will actually not have clean air to breathe. And none of this is fiction science.
All of this is happening around us right now. To reverse these occurrences, it will require us to move away from fossil fuels, it will mean reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and revolutionalising our transport sector to electric mobility. The way we practise agriculture should be changed such that it’s not just about what one can get out of the soil but also maintaining soil productivity.