Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Ideas, and Coffee, Robust Enough for the Climate Crisis

As a climate journalist, I get asked a perennial question by my fellow Americans: What do I do in the face of a crisis so big and complicated?

The answer I witnessed on a recent reporting trip to East and Southern Africa: everything.

In Malawi, subsistence farmers are resurrecting old crops, planting trees to nourish their soils, sharing manure with their neighbors, experimenting with different sowing techniques, all in an effort to cope with the droughts, floods and cyclones hitting them left and right.

In Uganda, coffee farmers are beginning to switch away from robusta, the coffee species they’ve grown and shipped abroad for decades but that is falling prey to droughts and diseases aggravated by climate change. Instead, they’re growing a totally different and tougher coffee called excelsa, a variety of the native species Liberica.

In both countries, I was struck by how aggressively people were adapting. They were creative, they were pragmatic. They put one foot in front of the other and kept going. They were trying to be less poor, because being less poor is the best way to be more resilient to climate shocks.

I turned to Esther Lupafya for a better understanding. Lupafya used to work as a nurse at a local clinic. She cared for malnourished children and their mothers. She switched her focus. She helped start an organization called Soils, Food and Healthy Communities, devoted to helping farmers grow better food and have better incomes.

Lupafya’s group, known in the area as Soils, encourages farmers to test out a variety of techniques. They see what’s working, what’s not. They innovate. They check out each other’s fields. Knowledge spreads. Seeds are shared.

“Farmers work very hard in taking technologies that will improve their soils,” Lupafya said. “They can see this is what somebody did. I can do it this way. Their cassava was swept away. Mine, if I can make a box ridge, my cassava won’t be swept away.”

A box ridge, a rectangular ridge around a plant designed to channel water, can prevent soil erosion. The leaves of Faidherbia albida, sometimes called the apple-ring acacia tree, can fertilize the soil. Vetiver grass helps keep floodwaters at bay. Cover crops like peanuts are good for holding moisture in the ground, and for producing something to sell at the market. Forgotten crops like yams and finger millet can stand up to drought.

“You do what you can,” Lupafya said as we walked from farm to farm one morning in mid-March in the north of Malawi. “You continue training the farmers to train their fellow farmers.”

The vast majority of Malawians are subsistence farmers. Most have no access to electricity or cars. More than a third of children in the country show signs of chronic malnutrition.

As we walked past a school, where children were playing in the yard, I asked Lupafya if lunch was served free at school. She shook her head. Not up here in the poorest villages, she said, where free lunch would be most valuable. “Those who wear shoes will continue to wear shoes. Those who don’t wear shoes will continue to not wear shoes,” she said. “You get me?”

I did.

It was also an apt metaphor for the inequity of global warming. Those who have the smallest climate footprints are the hardest hit by climate hazards.

One of Lupafya’s collaborators is Rachel Bezner Kerr, a professor at Cornell who studies sustainable food systems. She’s been working in Malawi for more than 20 years. (The first time she came was as a graduate student and she took back a sample of Malawian manure to test in a lab in the United States.)

Compared with Americans, Bezner Kerr said, farmers in Malawi are trying much more aggressively to adapt.

I asked her why.

Maybe, she surmised, because climate shocks aren’t the only shocks they’ve had to deal with. The country was colonized by Britain. Its first prime minister, and later president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, was an authoritarian who ruled for 30 years. The AIDS epidemic took a terrible toll.

“Perhaps that helps them put climate change into perspective?” she asked out loud.

Whatever the reasons, they held out lessons for the rest of us. “People here can be really innovative and inspiring,” she said, “not only at the individual level but in their cooperation with each other, too.”

Two days later, I was sitting on a bench in the courtyard of a coffee farmer’s home near the town of Zirobwe, in the center of Uganda. It was close to 6 p.m. The sun was turning golden orange, making long shadows on the ground. And Margaret Nasamba was brewing her regular, evening cup of coffee. Liberica excelsa in this case, picked from her family’s coffee orchard, dried in the sun, ground in a hand-turned mill.

She offered me a steaming cup. It had a nutty aroma. It landed softly on my tongue. A gift from generous strangers trying to save coffee in the age of climate chaos.

In case you missed them, our full articles from Uganda and Malawi:

What climate change could mean for the coffee you drink.

Meet the climate hackers of Malawi.

California diesel ban: State regulators have approved a ban, starting in 2036, on the sale of new buses and trucks that run on diesel.

Climate disinformation: Google promised to cut off revenue to videos that lie about global warming. But a new report found YouTube continued to profit from climate denialism.

A storm-resistant hospital: A decade after Hurricane Sandy flooded a Coney Island hospital, New York City built a new one that can withstand rising waters and flying debris.

Too hot, too early in Spain: The country is facing summerlike temperatures weeks earlier than expected. That’s on top of a drought that has depleted reservoirs and dried up fields.

A royal gift, updated: An English town has presented newly crowned monarchs with lamprey pie for 800 years. But, with numbers of the fish dwindling, this time a pork pie will have to do.

Marxist and organic: The Landless Workers Movement has organized Brazil’s poor to take unused land from the rich for 40 years. It’s a political force and a major food producer, too.

  • Yale Environment 360 interviewed Tero Mustonen, an activist who is leading an effort to restore 130,000 acres of peatland in Finland. It’s working.

  • Guyana has placed nearly all of its forestland in a $750 million carbon credit deal with the oil company Hess, Mongabay reported. Some experts question the project’s benefits.

  • From Climate Home News: Exxon is scrambling to recover its investments in a fracking project in Colombia as the country prepares to ban that method of oil extraction.

  • European countries are buying more Russian oil refined in India and other countries, The Hindu reported. It may be helping Russia to dodge economic sanctions.

  • The U.N. is looking for a nature-friendly indicator of economic success to replace gross domestic product. The Climate Question podcast explored what that may look like.

There’s a hydropower renaissance going on, but it doesn’t require huge dams. It involves systems with two reservoirs: one on top of a hill and another at the bottom. When electricity demand is low, water is pumped up to the higher reservoir. Later, that water can be released from the top reservoir to generate power as needed. It’s a simple idea that can make up for weather-related dips in wind and solar energy.

Correction: The newsletter of Friday, April 28, described incorrectly the reasoning behind Joseff Kolman’s early career decisions. He said he did not pursue a career in public policy because government jobs in energy and environmental policy became scarce after the 2016 election, not because the pay was too low.

Thanks for being a subscriber. We’ll be back on Friday.

Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill, Chris Plourde and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.

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