I stood on the edge of a small stagnant pond, lightheaded from a mile hike in 100-plus degree temperatures across a rocky, acacia-strewn landscape. An empty three-gallon jug hung on my back, but I was hesitant to unload it. The water, ringed with livestock and dangerously close to drying up, looked hazy and putrid. Unfortunately, we didn’t have another option. The pond was the only water around.
It was 2005 and I was an undergraduate student at St. Lawrence University living with the Maasai in southern Kenya. The country was in the midst of a drought. While the immediate region wasn’t the hardest hit, it was still feeling the effect of less than average rainfall. Women had to walk farther than normal to collect water and those pools that remained wet had to serve both the pastoralist community’s household and livestock needs. Surprisingly, at least to me, none of the locals even recognized the phrase “climate change” in either English or Kiswahili.
When I left the continent after six months, I found out this ignorance wasn’t unique to southern Kenya. According to a 2009 Gallup poll, nearly half of the population in Sub Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East has never heard of climate change or global warming. The same goes for a quarter of Asian populations.
This total unawareness of climate change in the regions that are and will be most vulnerable to it, and yet have barely contributed to it, completely jarred me. It was this realization that motivated me to focus my journalism career on science and environmental issues, particularly climate change.
As a reporter, I’ve closely watched and covered the political and ideological debates in America about whether to accept evidence of global warming and pass climate change legislation. Both continue today despite the near-unanimous agreement among climate scientists that climate change is happening and human activity is the major contributor. While we debate, those that have barely contributed suffer the biggest consequences. The decisions—or until now, the lack of decisions—made in the U.S. affect those that live thousands of miles away. Seven years later, I wonder how likely it is that Maasai community in southern Kenya remains unaware of what is happening and who is responsible for their thirst.
I suppose that is why I continue to write about climate change, from the science to the politics surrounding it. It is with the same motive that has influenced journalists for centuries—maybe, someday, the information in one of my articles will help a reader understand just how big of a problem this is.