By Donella Meadows
–July 12, 1990–
I got a poignant letter the other day from a friend who works in the environment ministry of an East African nation. He was asking for help:
“Of late my government has taken interest in global environmental issues, namely the depletion of the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect. But when I graduated in environmental studies in 1981, I had not learned about these matters, and out here it’s difficult to find information. Therefore I find myself out-dated, yet I’m supposed to advise my government with objectivity.
“I therefore need your personal frank opinion on the following propositions:
“That for developing countries like mine the greenhouse issue is irrelevant because these places are warm in any case, so an increase of 2-4 degrees won’t make any difference.
“That the ozone layer depletion is also irrelevant to us, because it occurs only in polar regions, and because the developing countries consume such insignificant amounts of ozone-depleting substances that they do not need to join the international conventions to eliminate those substances.”
Well of course I had plenty of personal and frank opinions to offer my friend. His questions are urgent and typical; they reflect the general level of misunderstanding, as governments around the world try to respond to the fast-changing science and politics of the global environment. Here’s what I wrote back:
Unfortunately the greenhouse effect is both relevant and threatening to your country, not so much because of warming, but because of changes in wind, rain, ocean currents, and sea level that would accompany the warming.
If the greenhouse effect is allowed to increase, most of the warming will occur at the poles, and that will set up temperature differences that will change weather EVERYWHERE. Your country might get more rain, or less, or more in some places and less in others. However your climate changes, it will GO ON CHANGING for a century or more. Farmers and wildlife will not only have to adapt, they will have to keep adapting. Your agricultural systems and your magnificent wild ecosystems will be in jeopardy.
The worst effect for you, however, might come from rising sea levels. I have seen the beach erosion on your coast that is nearly undermining your tourist hotels. If we don’t stop the warming, that erosion will move still farther inland. Tropical storms will also be more frequent and more severe, which could devastate your ports and coastal cities.
I believe we can prevent this warming from happening. Your nation can do its part by adopting efficient energy systems and by preserving and restoring your forests. Both these steps will be worth doing anyway. Preserving the forests will protect your waters and ecosystems and give you a sustainable source of forest products. Saving energy will save you money. I’ve seen, for example, all over your capital city air conditioners working away with windows and doors open! No one can afford to pump money out windows like that — we can’t and you can’t.
When it comes to the ozone problem, you’re right, it doesn’t affect you in the tropics as much as it does us in the mid-latitudes. But the most recent measurements say that the ozone layer is depleted not only 50 percent or more over Antarctica in the south polar spring (which we already knew) but also 10 percent in the mid-latitudes and 3 percent in the tropics! That came as a surprise to everyone. For each one percent drop in the ozone layer, there is a two percent rise in harmful ultraviolet light from the sun, which can cause a 3-6 percent increase in skin cancer.
People with black skin are less susceptible to skin cancer than people with white skin, but all human eyes are equally sensitive to damage from UV light. And the green plants of your country, the animals, insects, bacteria, and above all the life in the water — both fresh and salt-water — will be damaged if UV radiation increases.
You’re also right that your country is not a big contributor to either the ozone or the greenhouse problem. The average African uses one-twentieth as much ozone-destroying CFC chemicals as the average American. (We have just agreed, however, in the latest international convention, to bring our use to zero.) Africa as a whole, with ten percent of the world population, accounts for only one percent of the world’s use of CFCs. Africa contributes only four percent of the greenhouse gases (mostly from deforestation). You’re not a major cause, but you, along with everyone else, will feel the effects.
Because my own country is the largest contributor to both the ozone and the greenhouse problems, I have much more of an obligation to change my ways and to push my government than you do. But you can help. First, you can tell your government to play an active role in the international negotiations (which, so far, are going well — there’s a real chance that we can head off these problems.) Second, your country can, with the help of international funds just becoming available, reduce your own releases of CFCs and other greenhouse gases.
Thanks for asking. Thanks for being there, working in your nation, as I’m working in mine, to bring about a human society that lives in harmony with the laws of the planet. It will take a lot of us, working everywhere, to do that. The good news is that there ARE a lot of us already at work!
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990