The Human Face of Climate Change

I recently attended the Bay Area premiere of a powerful and sobering film entitled “Climate Refugees,” a 2010 Sundance Film Festival Selection. Filmmaker Michael Nash visited 47 countries over the space of nearly two years documenting the extraordinary human toll that climate related disasters are causing. The number and scope of these stories is sadly long: the narrow sandy atolls of Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean that are about to be engulfed by rising sea levels; the millions of Bangladeshis that are crowded into the slums of Dhaka after being displaced by cyclones; the Africans trudging for miles to find water and scratching out an existence as the once huge Lake Chad quickly dries up; the rural Chinese living in makeshift tents as both flooding and creeping desertification destroy their homes; the melting glaciers in Alaska that are imperiling time honored Native American traditions and livelihoods; and the wrenching social and economic changes wrought by Hurricane Katrina in our own backyard.

During the Q&A that followed the movie, it was interestingly pointed out that the U.N. assiduously avoids calling these people “refugees” because that confers a certain status upon them under the U.N.’s charter. “Refugees” are officially confined to persons displaced as a result of political conflict and the U.N. chooses to call the victims of climate disasters “environmentally induced migrants.” Semantics aside, the point is that neither the United Nations nor any of the national governments in these regions have really been able to cope with these disasters in the sense of restoring the majority of the affected individuals to any semblance of their former lifestyles. The human tragedy is immense and growing with each passing year.

While Nash explained that he tried to make the film politically neutral and there are interviews from people all across the political spectrum, the film is also an unmistakable call to action. There are many ripple effects from climate change, whether or not you conclude that the recent change is due to man’s activities (i.e. combustion of fossil fuels, etc.)The gloomy forecast in the movie was that if we do not all take action immediately, the next 20-30 years will see increasing conflicts over food, water and land. The longer-term predictions from scientists, government officials and others was even more frightening, an early and apocalyptic end to civilization as we know it. Having just watched a series of disasters unfold in the movie, this doomsday scenario did not seem like science fiction to me.

The filmmakers are still seeking wider distribution for Climate Refugees and an updated, shortened version is also in the works. Meanwhile, I highly recommend visiting the site, watching the trailer and taking a look at the “Call to Action” section of the site. For more information on this crisis, see the United Nations’ High Commission on Refugees website.

While governments are going to struggle with mitigation and adaptation to climate change on a broad scale (e.g. the $100 billion fund agreed to at COP15 has not been raised yet), personal action is essential. Applied Materials is also doing its utmost as a corporate “citizen” to address the issues from a number of angles. Our corporate initiatives have reduced our electricity consumption and carbon footprint by over 20% and 50,000 metric tons annually since we began in earnest back in 2007. Our design process aims to furnish environmentally efficient equipment to our customers, many of whom have footprints considerably larger than ours. In the workplace and in the communities where we operate, we are trying to educate our employees to tread lightly on the environment and we are partnering with nonprofit organizations on environmental programs that are making a real impact in the lives of many individuals. Visit our Corporate Responsibility website for more details. “Strong reasons make strong actions” (attributed to Wm. Shakespeare) and there are no reasons stronger than the looming climate crisis.

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