Speakers spread the word about climate change and poor communities

By Anna Kramer

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Joyce Tembenu's quiet, precise voice filled the theater at the Minneapolis Public Library, where about 100 people had gathered to hear her speak about the human impact of the climate crisis.

"In my country, Malawi, we live on agriculture. We depend on the rains. But these days, we're failing to produce; the rains are different due to the effects of climate change."

Tembenu, a farmer and community leader, was one of two featured speakers on a US tour organized by Oxfam America and our allies in the Climate Equity Campaign, a coalition of groups seeking immediate attention to the global warming crisis and its impacts on people around the world. The tour, which ran from March 6 through 13, 2008, included events in both Washington, DC, and Minnesota. Its purpose: to call attention to the effects of climate change on poor communities, and to highlight the need for Americans to take urgent action, especially in the context of this year's presidential elections.

"The rainy season used to be from October to April, and now it's December to March," Tembenu said of her home in southern Malawi. "And the rains are less predictable—they might bring floods, or they might bring droughts." Because of this change in rainfall, people can grow fewer crops, and they face increased risks from waterborne diseases like cholera and malaria.

Rural women are particularly affected by the changing climate. Though the men can migrate to urban areas to seek a better living, women and girls must stay behind to care for their families. Their struggle to put food on the table leaves them increasingly vulnerable to forced marriages and HIV/AIDS.

A reality check in Washington, DC

Joining Tembenu on the tour was Meena Raman, chair of Friends of the Earth International, a network of environmental nonprofit groups. Raman is also an attorney who defends indigenous people and community rights in her native Malaysia.

In Washington, DC, Raman and Tembenu met with NGOs and faith-based groups, as well as a number of US senators and representatives. They even led a briefing session on climate change for Capitol Hill staff—who came prepared with many questions about current climate legislation.

In general, US legislators were receptive to the speakers' message. But Raman says she had a "reality check" when one lawmaker voiced disbelief that greenhouse gas emissions cause global warming.

"When I heard that, I nearly fell off my chair," she said. "I'm shocked that this view is still alive. The more these climate skeptics act like ostriches, burying their heads in the sand, the more difficult it is for the rest of the world to act on climate change."

Common ground in Minnesota

A farmer in Minnesota and a farmer in Malawi may harvest their crops in very different climates. But Tembenu and Minnesota farmer David Levgold discovered that they share some common challenges. As they walked through Levgold's snow-covered fields, the two talked about climate change-induced shifts in weather have altered the planting cycle on both of their farms.

Levgold's farm was just one stop for the speakers" tour in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. There, Tembenu and Raman spoke at various venues, including a meeting of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a student gathering at St. Olaf's College, church events in the Lutheran community, and an interview on Minnesota public radio.

Oxfam America grassroots organizer Katie Danko accompanied the speakers on the tour. "Both speakers' messages were powerful—their words really resonated with people," Danko said. "There were always lots of good questions from the audience, and lots of response."

Danko recalls one college-aged woman who took part in the question and answer session after the speakers met with a Lutheran church group.

"I realize now that we, as Americans, are a privileged people," the young woman said. "So the question is, how are we contributing to climate change, and what can we do to help?"

"It's in your hands."

Throughout the tour, the speakers emphasized that climate change is not a future problem, but today's reality—especially for the world's poorest people. They called on US leaders to make a concrete commitment to reducing emissions, while also providing funds to help vulnerable communities, like those in rural Malawi, adapt to a changing climate.

Raman and Tembenu also helped raise awareness of climate change as a key issue for US voters during the 2008 elections. During the tour, hundreds of people signed Oxfam's petition calling on the presidential candidates to provide strong leadership on the climate crisis.

During the event at the Minneapolis Public Library, Raman called on Americans, particularly young people, to stand up and take action on climate change.

"That's why we've come here: we want to build solidarity for an international movement," she said. "It's in your hands now. This presidential race will make a real difference in the future of our planet—and the future of our people."