While it was difficult to find my breath at 15,000 feet up in the Andes, it was not hard to be completely moved by the challenges facing the people who live at the foot of the Ausangate Glacier.
I took the trek as part of my work with the humanitarian organization Oxfam last fall, to learn about and document the impacts of climate change on my mother's homeland, Peru. As leaders of the richest countries make their own trek to Canada for the G8 and G20 Summits, I too am compelled to do my part to amplify the voices and concerns of the people I met.
They are farmers and alpaca herders with rosy cheeks and colorful hats who live in close proximity of the Ausangate, as their ancestors have for thousands of years. And for thousands of years, the glacier has helped to sustain their livelihoods, with the run-off from the melting ice filling rivers, providing fresh water, and sustaining crops. But that is all changing now.
The glacier is melting and receding at an alarming rate, scientists are predicting Peru's typical glaciers to melt by 2015 -- just five years from now! A melting glacier means more water now, but much less in the future. Less water means less pasture for their alpaca and less nourishment for their crops. If the alpaca don't have enough to eat, their wool doesn't grow, providing less of it to be woven into the traditional Andean hats, sweaters, and scarves that bring a livelihood to so many. And failed crops means no food on the table.
Like millions of other poor people around the world, from Mali to the Maldives, the people of the Ausangate are living on the front lines of climate change. While they have contributed the least to the climate crisis, they are suffering the hardest from its impacts, from increasing floods to more frequent droughts, from desertification to rising sea levels.
And while leaders of wealthy countries haven't been courageous enough to tackle climate change, the people of the Ausangate are courageously fighting back however they can, using ancestral knowledge and techniques to collect water from the mountainous wet lands while favoring more resilient alpacas and crops.
We must help them.
In my hometown of Copenhagen last December, negotiators from wealthy countries seemed to play a dangerous game of chess, filled with hushed conversations, wild rumors, and constant bluffing, all to protect their own self interests. All the while, poor and vulnerable countries were fighting for their future and survival. Everyone almost walked away empty-handed, but a last minute commitment for a global fund to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change and adopt clean technologies was made. But it left me wondering -- was it part of the game or was it real?
The time for games is over. Climate change is not a dreamed-up concept; it's a living nightmare.
The people I met are changing the way they live to survive, but they know that their futures are not in their hands. When world leaders meet at the end of June in Canada, they ought to make good on their promise to help poor communities with funds to cope with climate change.
While they won't be able to deliver a much-needed global deal on climate change, they do have the opportunity to breathe new life in the negotiations by making progress on their promise of a $100 billion a year fund to help poor countries fight climate change.
Such funds can help vulnerable communities adopt innovative techniques that help them efficiently harvest water, warn against oncoming floods, protect against dangerous storms and grow more resilient crops.
This support must be in addition to the promises that have already been made for aid. How on earth can a community be expected to choose between building a hospital or building a flood defense? It would be like choosing whether my son were to go to school or see a doctor. It's an impossible decision that no one should ever be forced to make.
Yes, we are talking big numbers and it won't be an easy ride -- but the longer we take to act, the bigger the numbers will they become. Innovative proposals are already on the table to fund investments in the resilience of communities around the world. The ingredients are there. The only thing missing is the political will and the confidence to square up to what is the biggest crisis the world has ever faced. The cost of inaction? Well, that's an even rougher ride.