Lone Star Green: ‘Wise Women’ Deliver Stories From Climate Change’s Front Lines

Constance Okollet
Constance Okollet describes the plight of her Ugandan village at SXSW ECO as Thilmeeza Hussain of the Maldives looks on.

With the release of yet another report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chronicling the dangers our planet is steaming toward, it’s easy to forget that global warming is already damaging lands and injuring people worldwide.

While the human impact from the recent uptick in billion-dollar disasters in the U.S. have been blunted by our nation’s enormous wealth, the same expert disaster assistance is not shared the world over. Earlier this month, a panel of women leaders from some of the most climate-vulnerable parts of the planet came to Texas to testify to the suffering of their communities and to plead for U.S. climate action.

Prior to 2007, life in Constance Okollet’s small Ugandan village was tranquil. It was, as she told an Austin gathering at SXSW ECO, an annual conference dedicated to clean-tech development and social responsibility, an “easy” life. “We had a lot of food. Our bodies were healthy,” she said.

But in 2007, torrential rains and flooding literally swept her village away.

People had never seen anything like it. “That was our first time to see floods. We didn’t know what floods were,” she said. “We didn’t take anything with us because the water was swallowing people.”

Drought followed. Then another hard storm. Food became scarce. Domestic violence became a new reality, children dropped out of school, and waves of illness further devastated the surviving families.

The African climate, she would come to understand, was changing – but not because God was angry, as Okollet and her neighbors initially feared – but because the planet’s atmosphere was being overloaded with industrially produced heat-trapping gases.
Africa has long been considered at particular risk from climate change, as are the idyllic island states ringing the earth.

Jacinta Helin spoke of how rising seas are fast making a string of islands on the Carterets Atoll in the Pacific — her birthplace — uninhabitable. Thilmeeza Hussain spoke of similar challenges in the low-lying Maldives, where all climate adaptation measures have stalled because of a recent military coup.

Earlier that same morning, Daniel Katz, co-founder of the Rainforest Alliance, chastised the nation’s big environmental organizations for failing to get climate-change legislation passed in the U.S. “We’re not talking to the right people,” Katz said. “The big groups did not build in the grassroots groups. That is where the people are.”

The same could be said of the failures of international climate accords, where the most powerful nations have lacked urgency while those being most impacted are cursed with the least representation. And what of Texas? Why do these women seek an audience here?

As an energy leader, Texas not only leads all 50 states in greenhouse emissions, but considered as its own country Texas’ roughly 650 million tons of annual greenhouse emissions — emissions with consequences — places us right between Canada and the United Kingdom as the sixth largest emitter on the planet.

But these are not stories of victimization. Today, these women all hold positions of leadership in their communities, with some encouragement from a Texas-based nonprofit called Climate Wise Women.

Constance Okollet has organized her community to plant trees and improve agricultural practices to better withstand increased flooding and drought. Residents of the Carterets Atoll are not only mobilizing their own relocation, but they have established a cacao plantation on the “big island” to help sustain them in the future.

And while former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed had once considered establishing a controversial fund to purchase lands in Australia to help Maldivians avoid ultimate disaster before redoubling efforts at strengthening the island’s natural protections, Thilmeeza Hussain insists the world has not passed the “point of no return.”

“There is still time. With enough global willpower we can take mitigation measures, with adaptation we can still continue to live in our own countries,” she said.

Given its outsized position as a contributor to global insecurity, and the wealth of opportunities climate-focused innovation could bring, Texas has an opportunity to make a significant impact. First, however, we have to get real about the human costs of our current inaction.

This column ran in the Marfa Sentinel.