08/06/2010 10:05 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thirsty Cows, Poor Nations and Other Ironies of Climate Change

Today, every office in the small South American nation of Bolivia is closed as the country celebrates its 185th Independence Day. Every office, that is, but the tiny, sparsely equipped mayoral office of Pasorapa. A small municipality of 5,000 in the heart of Bolivia's Andean valleys, the town recently declared a state of natural emergency. Though never a lush region, a drought has slowly set in over the course of the last decade as annual levels of rainfall have declined and temperatures have risen. This year, their water reserves were emptied earlier than ever, leaving their taps dry, their crops withered and their cowherds -- by the hoofs of which beat the town's daily rhythm -- mooing in thirst. The recently elected mayor has pledged to keep the office open until a solution to the drought has been found; at this moment, she's hard at work, searching for some way to help her community and its desiccated lands find new life.

Pasorapa is not the only community in Bolivia suffering from water shortages. As a variety of mainstream media outlets have reported, the drinking supply of the capital city of La Paz is gravely threatened by the melting of regional glaciers in the surrounding mountains, putting the metropolitan population of 1.5 million at serious risk. Scientists have linked regional warming patterns directly to global climate change; their research shows that the families of Pasorapa, and their thirsty livestock, have the unlucky distinction of being among the first communities to experience the effects of global warming.

That Bolivia should be among the first nations to suffer the impacts of climate change is a tragic irony. Ironic because Bolivia's natural wealth, like the natural wealth of so many developing nations, was plundered by Western powers, beginning with Spain, over the course of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. It was these resources of Bolivia and other South American countries, extracted in the context of repression and slavery, that helped propel the European economy into the industrial age. And, of course, it was this industrialization itself that led directly to the current challenge of climate change. An historical cycle is being repeated; as in the past, the West is putting its economic growth ahead of the wellbeing of developing nations. We no longer live in the age of conquistadors, slaughtering with sword and musket; today's damage is being done by our factories and our farms, our highways and our houses. But it is the same countries that suffered historically from the West -- countries like Bolivia, located in fragile environments and lacking public infrastructure -- that will bear the brunt of climate change, communities like Pasorapa, lacking both the most basic public services and any responsibility for climate change itself, that will be the first to suffer. These consequences of our economic growth and carbon emissions are no less serious for being unintended, the suffering of Bolivia's people no less our responsibility.

It is a responsibility on which we must act, and on which we can act. Not only by limiting our carbon emissions and halting the process of climate change, but also by providing funds to deal with the damages already done. With a mere $22,000, the municipality of Pasorapa can buy plastic tubing to redistribute water across its central valley, letting families bathe and cows drink. With an additional $25,000, they can purchase a badly needed cistern truck to reach more remote communities.

Rather than providing aid, however, the US recently revoked all climate change adaptation funding for Bolivia. At a time when one of the poorest countries in South America needs and deserves our aid, we've decided to punish them further. We have a chance, now, to stop ourselves from repeating a tragic history of disregard and exploitation. While it will take awareness, resolve, and action, the first step is easy -- let's support Pasorapa as it works to save its cows, its people and its culture.