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Drought crisis in Ethiopia shows price of climate change on world's most vulnerable


If you want to know how climate change is affecting the world today, you could ask scientists, who track weather patterns, or you could ask humanitarian relief workers, who are trying to help people facing drought and starvation. In East Africa, years of failed rainy seasons have created a humanitarian crisis. Earlier this week, we heard about the situation in Somalia. Today we're joined by David Miliband of the International Rescue Committee, who has just returned from a trip to Ethiopia. Good to talk to you again.

DAVID MILIBAND: Good to be with you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Tell us what you saw on your visit to Ethiopia.

MILIBAND: Yeah. I traveled to the eastern part of Ethiopia. It borders with the country of Somalia. With Kenya and Somalia, it makes up the three countries of East Africa. And what you see there is unmistakable evidence of the price of the climate crisis being paid today by some of the poorest people in the world. I mean, this is a country that doesn't just have a history of poverty - it's got a history of conflict. And when you meet internally displaced people from five or seven years ago and you hear from them that resources and stress on resources were one of the reasons for the conflict, when you meet farmers who tell you that their family herd of 40 cattle is down to just one - which I saw and heard about - when you look out of the window of your car and when you stop and look at the sorghum plants, you see they're yellow at the bottom and you see there isn't proper nutrition in the flowers at the top, you can see that this is not just a one-off. This is fundamental change in the climate, facing vulnerable communities around the world. So it was an appropriate visit last week for the first week of the U.N. conference.


MILIBAND: This week is meant to be discussing how to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The message is, you've got to adapt to climate change that's already happening, as well as mitigate further change down the road.

SHAPIRO: I want to ask you about the climate conference. But before we leave the scene in Ethiopia, can you tell us about somebody you met who you vividly remember?

MILIBAND: Yes. I mean, we - the International Rescue Committee, we run water projects around the country. And for every project there is a steering committee elected of the local community. I talked to a woman in her early 30s, and I said to her, look; one year, two years drought, that doesn't make a climate crisis. Tell me how the climate, or whether the climate, has changed in your lifetime. And she said to me, just think about Lake Haramaya. This was a source of fish and, therefore, nutrition, but also employment 30 years ago, when she was born. Now it hardly exists. And the image of that woman adapting to climate change - the climate crisis in her own community - trying to adapt, trying to work to sustain her family, that really sticks with me.

SHAPIRO: This conversation, of course, is happening during the U.N. climate summit in Egypt. And the nature of climate change is that this situation is only going to get worse. The world is only going to get hotter. And so what is the long-term solution?

MILIBAND: Well, I think that the long-term solution is obviously to get off the addiction to fossil fuels. We know why climate change is happening. We know the risks that we're taking. And don't be fooled by the statistic of the danger of a 1.5 degrees average rise in global temperatures. That average rise is associated with more extreme weather events. The tragedy is that because of 20 years of inaction, we're now in a situation where we don't just have to mitigate future climate change, we have to adapt to existing climate change. And the richer countries of the world have to lead on both fronts. The good news is that on mitigation, on preventing future climate change, the European Union, China and America now have legislative commitments that are pretty ambitious. Still some spoilers - Russia, Saudi Arabia not made commitments, but the three biggest emitters - EU, U.S. and China - have made commitments.

SHAPIRO: You're a former British foreign secretary. You've attended these summits before. How effective do you think these gatherings are for making real substantive change that impacts the lives of the people most affected by climate change?

MILIBAND: Well, they're not very effective, but they're all we've got. We're living in a fragmented political world where risks are increasingly global, but resilience is increasingly country-specific. That's why we're in a mess. And there are all sorts of problems with the U.N. process, but we've got to make it work. And I was encouraged to listen to Secretary Kerry - former Secretary Kerry, now climate envoy Kerry, who highlighted 20 countries in the world are responsible for 80% of the emissions. Those are countries that have to lead. And that's not yet happening, but that has to happen within the U.N. process. Obviously, there are 190 countries in the world. They all have a veto on the final declaration. But those 20 countries have no excuses. And they need to get on with it.

SHAPIRO: David Miliband is head of the International Rescue Committee. Thank you very much.

MILIBAND: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.