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Nkwame's Climate Conundrum

04/06/2017 22:33 BST | Updated 04/06/2017 22:33 BST
piyaset via Getty Images

The other day, as I was cruising around in my shiny new electric car and proudly proclaiming the merits of solar-powered transportation, I received an unexpected message from South Africa. An old friend by the name of Nkwame had seen my recent writings on clean technology and wondered about the availability of solar power to combat poverty and unemployment in South Africa. "When is it coming down to south?," he asked.

I responded with my customary optimism that solar and wind have the potential to create millions of middle class jobs and offset all 368 million tons of annual carbon pollution emitted by South Africa's coal-fired power plants and other fossil fuels - not to mention extending electricity to the 7.7 million poor South Africans who still are disconnected from the grid. I suggested Nkwame find a local solar company and begin installing the panels in poor communities, one roof at a time.

Then I came back down to earth. Recalling the time my wife and I spent living in her native land, and the trips I regularly took into South African townships while working for democratic reforms with Nkwame, I had to acknowledge a pair of fundamental flaws in my idea.

First, the homes (if they can be called homes at all) in which South Africa's poorest people currently live, lack not only electricity and plumbing - most lack solid roofs to support solar panels, never mind protect their inhabitants from extreme weather events fueled by climate change.

Second, South Africa, like much of the African continent, is still awaiting the kind of foreign direct investment and technology transfers that could make a clean energy transformation (on rooftops or otherwise) possible in the first place.

After patiently hearing my thoughts, Nkwame got real. What he really needed from me was not more promotion of solar power or my electric car but a little assistance making ends meet in the face of Southern Africa's three-year drought and widespread hunger fueled by climate change. Since paying work was hard to come by in the area of democratic reform, Nkwame was devoting himself to matters close to home: developing small-scale self-reliance projects to counter his country's sky-high unemployment and the raft of social challenges it brings.

What Nkwame needed from me, specifically, was help buying tools so he could start a carpentry business with some of the unemployed youth he mentors. Perhaps they could then begin constructing the kinds of homes (and roofs) that would someday generate power from the sun - a true course in democratic self-reliance.

What he needs from my government in Washington is something more than drills and saws. He needs the Paris Climate Accord with its long-overdue promise of cutting carbon emissions and helping poor countries adapt to a global warming crisis they did almost nothing to create.

Nkwame's conundrum, and that of more than one billion people in poor countries who are the biggest victims of our carbon binge, puts President Donald Trump's decision on Paris in a new light. Not only do economists and scientists uniformly agree that retreating from global progress on climate change is a profound mistake for the United States, the president's decision also betrays a lack of basic humanity. It violates a fundamental principle of international engagement known as "do no harm."

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, developed countries like our own have done considerable harm to Africa and the planet through our unfettered consumption of dirty fossil fuels. Although the days of government-sanctioned slave ships and colonial occupation are gone, the 16.4 metric tons of annual carbon pollution released by each American - far more than any other nation - disproportionately contribute to devastating droughts and desertification, crop failures and famine, and mass dislocation of "climate refugees" across the Global South. Small wonder that climate change as been called the greatest security threat of the 21st century by our military leaders. It is also the greatest test of our humanity.

The question is not whether Nkwame and his compatriots are paying an unfair price. The science is long-since settled.

The question is whether we care. Do we care about our people, our planet, and those beyond our shores whom we have harmed? Do we care about our children and grandchildren who stand to inherit an earth that is increasingly incapable of supporting human life? Do we care about our economic future as a nation and the next industrial revolution in clean energy technology that awaits? Do we care about our moral standing in the world?

President Trump has made his position clear. Now it's up to us to respond. Nkwame is counting us.