As we reflect on 2011, a year of extreme weather all over the world, my thoughts have turned back to a very strange summer I experienced not long ago.
That summer, I met a government employee who was working in his office and received a frantic call from his wife. "The flood water is coming," she said.
At first, he didn't take much notice. Occasional floods are normal in our part of the world, where heavy rains come every year and help irrigate the crops.
It was only later, when he returned to his town and saw his home disappearing underwater, that he understood the world he knew had suddenly and irrevocably changed.
This story took place in Pakistan in 2010. But around the world, wherever you are, chances are good that you have lived through your own weather disaster. And if not, you may soon.
A report last fall from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that because of global warming, we can expect to see more and more catastrophic weather such as heat waves and heavy rains. For many of us, this news is not a surprise. The reality of climate change is catching up to us, and severe weather has become an increasingly common part of our lives.
In Pakistan, the 2010 flooding was an unprecedented disaster. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the event a "slow-motion tsunami." One-fifth of the nation was covered in water, an area the size of England. Nearly 2,000 people died, 20 million were affected and 1.7 million homes were destroyed.
These events would have been traumatic enough; but last year, the floods returned." Unusually heavy monsoon rains brought flash floods that drove millions of people into poverty -- and international aid has been scarce.
I know many of you who are reading this live far from Pakistan. But in a fundamental way, our experience is the same whether we lived through the rains in my country or the famine in East Africa. Because of climate change, we have heightened our risk of disasters like the ongoing drought in the American South, or last spring's dramatic rainstorms that flooded the Mississippi River.
We are part of the same experience if we lived through events like last year's torrential rains over China that forced thousands of people from their homes, or the heat wave that crippled Russia two years ago. We have all reached a "new normal" -- but there is nothing normal about it.
During the Pakistan floods, I met people who saw their homes go underwater in an afternoon -- like the government employee who received a sudden call in his office. I met people who used to live comfortable lives who were standing in line to receive food. And I met others who would rather go hungry than accept the humiliation of charity.
I met local villagers who thought extreme weather was a sign they had done something wrong. They had never heard of carbon pollution or the greenhouse effect, so the only cause they could imagine was that God was punishing them for their sins.
That's the moment I learned that education must be the first step. For me, that means spending time traveling to remote villages to talk about extreme weather and climate change. I explain that bad weather has always been with us, but we expect global warming to make it far more frequent and more dangerous. Teaching people that their experience is part of a larger story is a way of showing them they are not alone.
The people I meet in Pakistan do not always accept climate change science right away. In that sense, they are no different than people elsewhere in the world. But it's clear to me that around the globe, there is a growing acceptance of the reality we face -- and an increasing readiness to find solutions.
Someday soon, Pakistan will recover from the floods -- just as I know the rest of the world will learn to confront the threat of extreme weather and climate change. This is an experience we all share, and it is a problem we can only solve together.
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