Energy & Environmental Policy

Attitudes at the Knife’s Edge


For the last week and a half, I have been in Ethiopia, conducting research on climate change and adaptation. Rambling around Addis Ababa and the Central Rift Valley has been an exercise in patience and flexibility, but also enormously informative and enjoyable.

Ethiopia is a country that has been particularly hard-hit by climate-related disasters, as the majority of its citizens are pastoralists or farmers. Pastoralists suffer losses of flocks or livestock from disease or lack of pasture, farmers lose crops to the lack of rains or the floods, less and less land is productive. Measles and other diseases threaten the population, internally displaced populations are on the rise, and refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea continue to enter and stress the resources of the country.

Ethiopia's poverty and chronic underdevelopment has attracted an astonishing number of foreign aid donors and development partners. Everywhere you look in Addis Ababa are buildings with NGO names and the symbols of international aid agencies or bilateral aid missions. Half of the cars on the road have a U.N. insignia, the USAID logo, a European country's flag, or some combination of the words development, aid, assistance, international, and hope. The Ethiopian citizens with whom I have spoken are naturally prone to be far more aware of the structure of foreign aid institutions than most educated Americans appear to be.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the Pew Center's surveys on attitudes and beliefs in relation to climate change here in the United States, discussing how only a slight majority of Americans believe global warming is a problem or even that it is definitely occurring. Anecdotally, it seems that Americans either don't believe in climate change, believe but don't care about climate change or feel obligated to act, or are positively rabid about climate change, the latter being a small contingent. In contrast, Ethiopian attitudes toward climate change are overwhelmingly serious – it is hard for anyone living here to deny that climatic shocks exist, have become more frequent in recent years and have serious ramifications.

Other factors contribute to this attitude. The prevalence of international development agencies, most of whom have recently begun to focus heavily on climate change adaptation in Ethiopia, has helped to spread the terminology and importance of climate change throughout the country. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has set himself up as the spokesman for Africa on climate change at U.N. conferences on climate change and in discussions with Western countries. The head of the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority uses fiery rhetoric when calling for greater development aid for adaptation, saying that Europe and the United States owes Africa "reparations" for their careless actions and consumption that have created the problems rocking Africa's economies and poor populations today.

Ethiopians, whether poor farmers in the Rift Valley, college students, shoppers at a market or heads of native NGOs, believe wholeheartedly in mitigation and adaptation as the keys to their salvation. Climate change is on everyone's lips and in everyone's thoughts when they make any decisions or discuss almost any topic.

Should Americans care about climate change? I would argue yes.

Is it sometimes difficult to care when we are so far removed from the worst effects? Again, I would argue yes.

Should we discuss climate change when discussing development with Africans? Certainly yes.

This is their reality, and as such should be incorporated into development projects as widely as possible. Most donors are actively turning their attention and funds to adaptation projects or climate-proofing existing development projects. The United States, however, has its hands tied by Americans' lack of support for governmental or financial support for adaptation activities.

In Ethiopia, and perhaps in other countries dealing with climate change fallout, we are not the most important or influential player in the development game. We need to allow our aid and foreign policies to engage with other countries on the level they choose, addressing the problems they are concerned about, rather than disregarding their fears.

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