COMMENTARY: A cycle ride through a changing climate

Posted: 28 November 2011

Author and environmental journalist, John Madeley, draws on years of travel in Africa for his latest novel, a personal drama set against the reality of climate change that is already destroying African lives. Here he speaks out against the failure of the rich world, which has largely created the problem, to act while there is still time...

Over the last two decades, I have travelled as a journalist to a number of countries in West Africa, and seen for myself the effects of climate change on local people. I think of a visit to Senegal, when an agriculturalist took me deep into the Sahel. He wanted to show me two villages, although the first one was a village no longer.

“There used to be a village here”, he said, as I surveyed a barren scene. “Over a thousand people lived here. Now there is nothing, not a stick left, nothing but a disused well and neem trees. People could no longer survive here. Those neem trees - the village was originally built around those trees. They’re great trees; virtually every part of them is useful. The villagers left some years ago because the climate has become so inhospitable they could no longer survive. The rains had failed, the crops had withered, and their animals had died. They took everything with them, or came back later for them - their houses, everything. Nothing was wasted. Their poverty meant that every scrap of metal, of wood, whatever, had to go with them.”

Rain-fed farming, Senegal
Rain-fed farming, Senegal. Agricultural productivity, already among the world’s lowest, could fall by 50 percent in 10 years in several African countries because of higher and more variable temperatures, which in turn could lead to faster desertification, rising sea levels, and more frequent droughts, floods and typhoons. Photo credit: World Bank

We travelled on to another village. Here there was life. I was told that until recently about 400 people lived here, but now only a hundred remain. The problem, the village headman told me, is water. “Gradually lower rainfall, over the last ten years, has left us with not enough rain for the crops or our livestock. There is not enough food, not enough water for people to drink”, he said.

Two villages in one country - part of a vast problem. It seems likely that several thousand people a day are being forced from their homes because of climate change they did nothing to cause. The climate has become so inhospitable that they can no longer survive there. And it’s the poorest who are suffering the most. They have little or nothing in reserve.

Hungry goats in Sudan feed on a single acacia tree. Photo: FAO
Hungry goats in Sudan feed on a single acacia tree in the desert. © FAO

Is the Sahel region now subject to long-term drying? This will only be resolved over future decades. In the past, dry years have ben followed by wet years. But dry years seem to occurring more frequently, and dry zones extending.

“Most climate models predict that the Sahel region will become even drier during this century”, says an UN International Fund for Agricultural Development report. In Burkina Faso, for example, weather station observations show that the dry zone has been extending southwards over the last century.

Some agencies, SOS Sahel for example, are helping villagers in dryland areas to tackle the problems. Methods such as stone lines, windbreaks and water harvesting can help, but the availability water can still determine a village’s future.

Are we seeing mass environmental exodus of the Sahel, a tragedy, largely unreported, silent and deadly? Figures on the numbers of internally displaced people vary widely, depending on how they are defined. People who leave their homes may return if the rains come back.

But, worldwide, an Environmental Justice Foundation 2009 report said around 26 million people have already had to move because of climate change. It predicts this could grow to 150 million by 2050. This suggests an additional 124 million in 44 years i.e. 2.8 million a year, around 7,700 a day. That would be a huge personal tragedy.

A new approach

Climate change has become a defining issue of our time. I have been writing about it for some 20 years, but wanted to find a novel way of communicating the issues.

My new book Let Live: A bike ride, climate change and the CIA is just that - a novel. As far as I know it is first major novel about the human side of climate change. It looks at the effects of climate change on people, especially on the poorest.

Madeley book jacket

The book tells the story of an environmental journalist and keen cyclist who rides through three countries in West Africa - Senegal, Mali and Cote d’Ivoire - and three in the east - Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. It’s about the people he meets whose lives have been wrecked by the changing climate. It’s fictional because I wanted to tell the issue as a story, to make it an interesting read and reach people who may not read an academic book on climate change. And it draws on my own experience of meeting people in the six countries.

So the story combines a bike ride with human interest stories. During a six-month bike ride, the cyclist is moved by the plight of people he meets to write critical articles about the West’s failure to curb carbon emissions, and is especially damning of United States policy. The US, he points out, is invading the sovereignty of other countries.

All this takes him into a world of the CIA, a planted seducer, a corrupt cop, a festering police cell, kidnapping and seedy hotels. My aim was to combine drama and pathos with humour and relevance to make this a novel for our time

The novel looks too at powerful interests that don’t want people to know who is causing the changes. But the book is more than an account of one person’s journey. Rather it has profound parallels with events in the world, with the cyclist’s experiences illustrating a wider truth.

While the book is about the human side of climate change, it includes a “Letter from climate” that goes into a little of the science. The “letter” points out that in last major glacial age the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was around 180 to 200 parts-per-million (ppm) CO2 equivalent. That was some 22,000 years ago. It has risen slowly, very slowly, and in the year 1800 was 280 ppm. In terms of the rise over 22,000 years - 180/200 to 280 - the annual increase was tiny.

But something huge has since happened. By 2000, only 200 years later, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 375 ppm. That is a rise of nearly one part per million each year. (It is currently 390 ppm) This is an unparalleled increase. The safe limit for humankind is 350 ppm.

Set in 2007, in the dying stages of the George W Bush presidency, the book is a challenge to Western government policies on climate change. Even if Western countries and China act now to reduce their carbon emissions, it is too late to stop some climate change. But if the big emitting countries now switch to a serious way to low-carbon economies, it could help to head off a catastrophe. 


SOS Sahel

Environmental Justice Foundation


Let Live: A bike ride, climate change and the CIA is published by Longstone Books. (ISBN: 078-0-9568344-1-6) at £8.99 (paperback). Also available on Amazon Kindle. To request a signed copy contact John Madeley .