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The charred ruins were still smouldering when I arrived at the small village on the plains of Nepal. It was 43 degrees in the shade and a hot wind was blowing like an industrial dryer. After weeks of unseasonably hot and dry weather a spark from a cooking fire had ignited a grass roof. Ten minutes was all it took for flames to rip through the whole village and reduce it to ashes.
Fortunately, no-one was killed but people lost nearly everything. One group of men had just returned the night before from a year of working in India; the hard-saved money in their bags was consumed by the flames.
Two months later the same village was under two feet of water after the local river burst its banks following unusually heavy monsoon rain. The makeshift shelters that were hurriedly constructed after the fire were washed away and a beleaguered community had to cope with a second tragedy.
For five years I worked with the International Nepal Fellowship (INF), a Christian charity that helps some of the poorest people in Nepal. INF has seen a marked increase in these weather-induced disasters in recent years, a trend that has been confirmed by the UN which ranks Nepal as the fourth most vulnerable country to climate induced natural disasters.
Responding quickly to these kinds of disasters is a growing part of INF's work and we were able to mobilise relief quickly. But climate change is a global problem that needs a global solution. That’s why I’m excited to have joined Keep Scotland Beautiful and support work carried out through our management of the Scottish Government's Climate Challenge Fund that is empowering Scottish communities to reduce their carbon footprint.
It’s tragic that the people who suffer most from climate change have usually done nothing to cause the problem and often have no resources to help them avoid or recover from its devastating impact.
My experience in Nepal challenges my high carbon lifestyle in a profound and powerful way.
Perhaps part of the reason for our society’s blindness to the realty of climate change is that we’re currently so shielded from its impact. We don’t see these communities. We don’t know the names of these people. We haven’t drunk tea with them and heard them tell their desperate stories. They are out of our sight and out of our minds; voiceless, poor and powerless.
Which makes me wonder whether we need to be more intentional in giving them a voice here in Scotland?
What would happen if we could make a more direct link between our individual high carbon choices in Scotland and the suffering experienced by poor people around the world? How might our actions change if we connected our behaviour with the stories of individuals whose lives have been devastated by climate change? What if we made it personal?
Perhaps we could learn from the campaign against tobacco, which graphically shows the harm caused by smoking at the point of sale. What would happen if we took the names, photos and stories of those Nepali villagers, and thousands of others like them, and put them on our boarding passes and petrol pumps?
The scale and nature of climate change is so huge and global that it can be hard for ordinary individuals in Scotland to engage with. Perhaps we also need to remind ourselves that it’s a deeply personal problem for millions of people, which demands a personal response from people like you and me.
Alastair Seaman is Operations Manager for Keep Scotland Beautiful and leads our team who manage the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund to help community organisations reduce local carbon emissions.