The river once teemed with fish and was lined by lush banana trees. Now it's a dry, scorched trail of barren sand. In Fombe village, Malawi, climate change is not a matter of political or scientific debate. It's a matter of survival.
I recently visited Fombe and several other villages throughout Malawi with a group of American Christian leaders brought together by the Evangelical Environmental Network and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. We wanted to see the impact of climate disruption firsthand.
We came as representatives of America's most climate skeptic community. According to a 2011 poll, only a slim majority (57%) of white evangelicals believe the globe is warming, and just 31% believe the change is driven by human activity.
When I asked Grace Kasowa, a devout Presbyterian farmer in Chagunda village, what message she would have for American evangelicals who deny climate change, she replied emphatically: "You tell those Doubting Thomases that climate change is real and has a negative impact on people. Less rain means I can't grow vegetables any more. Hungry elephants and other wild animals are coming into our village to rummage for our food and water."
I felt convicted by Grace's words. I used to be a Doubting Thomas. And even though in recent years I've been convinced by the overwhelming scientific and anecdotal evidence for anthropogenic climate change, I was still blissfully ignorant of the current human toll of climate change.
Before travelling to Malawi, I considered rising temperatures and sea levels to be problems for Canadian glaciers and Polynesian atolls. But no man is an island--or a glacier. People can adapt just fine, I thought. I've visited over 50 countries, but somehow never thought to explore the human side of climate change.
In Malawi the subject is unavoidable. Farmers in every village we visited had a story similar to Grace. Until just a few decades ago the rains came by mid October and fell steadily until March. Farmers could grow enough vegetables, rice, corn, and other crops to feed their families all year long. Those days are now gone.
These days the rains often don't come until December. Sometimes it rains too much, sometimes too little. Flooding and drought can occur in the same season. The climate has changed.
And just in case we didn't believe the stories of erratic rainfall, it started to rain on us as we conversed with the village elders in Fombe. It rarely used to rain in May.
While in Fombe, we met Ylita. This mother of seven doesn't know how old she is, but she's old enough to remember the plentiful harvests her family enjoyed when she was a little girl. Since then she has noticed slightly hotter weather and a "drastic change" in precipitation patterns. This year's short, intense rainy season allowed her to harvest only enough grain to last until August. "I constantly worry about having enough food," she told us.
Global changes in climate can have a direct bearing on local precipitation. According to NASA atmospheric scientist William Lau, "In response to carbon dioxide-induced warming, the global water cycle undergoes a gigantic competition for moisture resulting in a global pattern of increased heavy rain, decreased moderate rain, and prolonged droughts in certain regions."
A subtle shift in rainfall can be devastating in a country like Malawi where 80% of the population subsists on rain-fed agriculture.
Even as Malawian farmers abandon rice and corn and switch to drought-resistant crops like millet and sorghum, many still cannot grow enough food for their families. When Ylita runs out of food in August, she and her husband will have to seek casual labor to earn money to buy food.
But with food becoming scarcer, the price has gone up. Caught in a vicious cycle that exacerbates hunger and poverty, many subsistence farmers in Malawi and other nations adversely affected by climate change must now work harder to buy less and have less time to grow less food.
In an economy based on farming, agricultural disruptions affect every facet of society.
Vincent Moyo, Malawi country representative for Tearfund, went so far as say, "climate change is turning out to be more challenging than HIV/AIDS." Nearly 1 million Malawians are infected with HIV or AIDS, but the entire population of 15 million suffers from the symptoms of climate change.
Like many American evangelicals I was once a Doubting Thomas regarding the human role in and toll of climate change. But Grace and Ylita and other fellow evangelicals in Malawi finally opened my eyes, forever changing my view of climate change.
Grace's message brought to mind the lyrics to Amazing Grace: "I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see."