While U.S. Politicians Play Dumb About Climate Change, One Country Is Being Pushed Past the Tipping Point
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"According to a report released this week," theOnion reported on November 10, 2010, "... climate change, the popular mid-2000s issue that raised awareness of the fact that the earth's continuous rise in temperature will have catastrophic ecological effects, has apparently not been resolved, and may still be a problem."
America's Finest News Source, indeed. Yet many Americans hardly feel the impact of the climate crisis on a daily basis. While rising average global temperatures might cross one's mind during a triple-digit summer day, the climate crisis is hardly a present, daily crisis for most. You can flip on the A/C when it's hot, crank up the heat when it's cold, and buy any type of produce at the grocery store year-round. No wonder it takes record high heat waves or catastrophic storms to put climate into the headlines.
To truly see the impact of the climate crisis, head south to Bolivia. With nearly as many known mammal species and more known bird species than India in a country with one-third the land, Bolivia is among the world's most biodiverse countries. Tourists traveling in Bolivia might find themselves in temperatures ranging from tropical to below freezing all on the same day. And, for Bolivians, the climate crisis is a very present crisis. (It was the first country I've visited, out of 20 countries on five continents I've been to, where I was confronted about the climate crisis because I was American.) Bolivia is not so much the proverbial "canary in the coal mine" -- the canaries of climate crisis were dead over a decade ago -- but it is giving us a preview of how the climate crisis can impact humans.
This October, the talk of Bolivia was the rain. Or rather, the lack of it. The country is divided into the Andean highlands in the west and lowlands in the east, and the rains were late all over. In the west, you'll find the Altiplano, a high plain that stretches between two ranges of Andes. At an altitude of more than 12,000 feet, the areas around Lake Titicaca are relatively hospitable to life, with warmth and humidity provided by the lake. Here, Bolivians raise sheep and dairy cattle and grow potatoes, oca (an Andean tuber), fava beans, quinoa, oats, and barley. An Aymara indigenous community on the north side of Lake Titicaca reports that last January they had a flood that devastated their crops. Then winter came late, with fewer frost days than usual. By mid-October, the rainy season usually begins, but this year it hadn't. As a result, the community had not been able to plant their crops at the usual time of year.
In the eastern Amazonian region, the weather has behaved strangely as well. Usually it rains from October until March or April, but this year the rain in Rurrenabaque did not stop until June. Then the rain stopped completely until October. These changes in the usual seasons had some bitter consequences, as many who live in the Amazon practice shifting cultivation (also known as slash-and-burn agriculture). Despite its destructive-sounding name, slash-and-burn agriculture, practiced properly, can be an ecologically sound farming practice. A farmer slashes and burns a patch of the jungle, plants crops like rice or cassava, harvests them, and walks away. The forest quickly takes over, and the farmer moves on, traditionally leaving this area fallow for 10 or even 20 or 25 years. This process forces ecological succession, where the first pioneer species into a newly burned area make the environment right for the next species, and so on. Thus, traditional shifting cultivation can be a boon for biodiversity.