Every once in a while there is good news in this troubled world, and the choice of Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai as this year’s Nobel Peace Prizewinner is one such moment. The timing could not be more apt. The choice of Maathai was announced near the end of a US presidential campaign that has resolutely ignored the greatest danger facing humanity, global climate change. Her selection thus stands as an implicit rebuke to the environmental backwardness of America’s political and media classes. It also represents an explicit assertion that, as the Nobel committee put it, “Peace on Earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment.”
The Bush Administration remains in denial about climate change even though its closest overseas ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said in September that climate change is the single biggest long-term problem his nation faces. Blair’s top scientific adviser, David King, has gone further, declaring that climate change is the biggest threat civilization has ever faced–bigger even than the global terrorism that dominates headlines and obsesses George W. Bush. King warned in July that there is now enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to melt all the ice on earth, which would put most of the world’s biggest cities under water, starting with low-lying metropolises like New York, London and New Orleans. “I am sure that climate change is the biggest problem that civilization has had to face in 5,000 years,” King said. Even Shell Oil chairman Ron Oxburgh admitted in June that he is “really very worried for the planet.”
Climate change is to the twenty-first century what the nuclear arms race was to the twentieth: the overriding threat to humanity’s continued existence on this planet. And it is already killing people. In the summer of 2003, some 15,000 people died in France from an unprecedented heat wave. No single weather event can be definitively attributed to climate change, but such heat waves are exactly what scientists expect as warming intensifies. If climate change is not moderated, more will die in years to come–either directly, through more destructive storms and droughts, or indirectly, through declines in food production and the spread of infectious disease.
Yet except for two brief references to the Kyoto Protocol during the Bush-Kerry debates, climate change has been absent from the presidential campaign. Kerry criticized Bush for walking away from Kyoto without mentioning that he himself also opposes the protocol (though Kerry pledges that, as President, he would re-open negotiations and fix what he considers its flaws). Bush sounded almost proud of having rejected Kyoto, which he claimed, incorrectly, would hurt the US economy.
Although parts of the media have woken up to the danger–Business Week and National Geographic ran cover stories on it this past summer–most US journalists still don’t get it. At best, they see climate change as just one of many environmental issues. At worst, they are still fooled by industry propaganda casting doubt on the science behind claims of climate change. Television networks approach the issue with a particular conflict of interest. As Robert Kennedy Jr. has observed, cars are the leading source of US greenhouse gas emissions, but car ads are the leading revenue source for US television networks.
Thus climate change remains marginal to the political debate in the United States. Public awareness and policy-making lag years behind the rest of the world, as the impending implementation of the Kyoto accord, without US participation, illustrates. (Now that Russia supports Kyoto, the United States and Australia are the only major industrial countries outside the protocol.) Some state and local governments are reacting; California recently required that automakers increase fuel efficiency 30 percent by 2009. But progress is incremental when it needs to come at hyper-speed.
Which is where the example of Wangari Maathai offers hope. The 64-year-old biologist is Kenya’s assistant minister for environment and natural resources, but she has spent most of her life as a grassroots activist and critic of the former US-supported dictatorship of Daniel Arap Moi. Maathai’s great innovation was to create the Green Belt Movement. This radical but practical program pays poor women to plant tree seedlings in their communities; 30 million trees have reportedly been planted since the program began in the late 1970s.
The selection of Maathai for the peace prize generated controversy in Norway from critics who said that honoring an environmentalist diluted the meaning of peace work. But that criticism was contradicted by a United Nations report issued a week earlier, showing how deforestation and water scarcity–which are exacerbated by global warming–have repeatedly led to armed conflict in Africa.
Maathai’s Green Belt Movement is based on a holistic analysis of the intertwined problems of war, poverty, environmental degradation and lower status for women. (Kenya had one of the highest birth rates in the world when Green Belt was founded in 1977, in part because women thought their only option in life was to bear children.) Green Belt puts money in women’s pockets, boosting their independence and the educational prospects for their children. Meanwhile, the planting of trees replenishes the forests that are the foundation of Kenya’s agricultural productivity and the primary fuel source for its poor. And thanks to photosynthesis, the new trees also fight global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide.
Like the best political ideas, Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt program is specific yet universal, grounded in intellect but insistent upon action. Its underlying principles are the very ones needed to build a sustainable, and therefore peaceful, future: restoration of ravaged ecosystems, expansion of economic opportunity for the poor, a guarantee of equal justice for all and strengthening of democracy. The Nobel committee lauded Maathai for work that has transformed the lives of countless Kenyans. But her achievements also suggest how the rest of the world, including the vastly richer United States, can combat climate change, if only it wakes up and tries.