My fault?

By Published On: October 27, 2006Categories: Environment3 Comments on My fault?

Chacaltaya in 1946 when it hosted the world’s highest ski slope and ski-lift at 5300 metres above sea level and less than 30 kilometres from La Paz

Chacaltaya in 2002. It has lost 90% of its glacier since the 40s and is predicted to disappear completely in a few years

One of the highlights for me of living in La Paz and travelling on the altiplano is the amazing backdrop of the Cordillera Real that cuts through the relentless blue sky with its razor-white peaks. But it is a view that most experts say I won’t have in less than a few decades.

Almost every other day, I read stories about polar icecaps melting, islands being evacuated, and a planet that has no way of supporting our level of consumption.

But here in Bolivia, it is not just news about far-off places, it is happening in front of my eyes.

Scientists at the local University in La Paz have been tracking temperatures in the Andes and say the retreat of glaciers is happening at an alarming rate. Global temperatures increased by a little more than half a centigrade (0.55) in the twentieth century. Their research suggests that the Andes are heating up now at little less than a half centigrade every decade.

It frankly scares me. It reminds me of the 1980s when I remember worrying whether I would live out my adolescence before being killed by nuclear holocaust. The sense of foreboding was captured by Raymond Briggs’ cartoon book "When the wind blows" which, through recounting the naive innocence of its affable every-day retired couple preparing for a bomb, sent chills through me. Yet deep down I also felt reassured that no-one (not even Reagan) would be that stupid to start a nuclear engagement.

Unfortunately on climate change, we are already being that stupid and living lifestyles that suggest the process of global warming could be unstoppable.  It seems we are addicted to a way of life that like heroin will end up killing us.

This was reinforced to me by watching a news broadcast based on a World Wildlife Fund report saying we will need 3 planets if everyone consumed as much as Britain (or 7 in the case of the US). Yet the next news story was about a rise in Microsoft shares principally because they have sold more than 6 million xbox games. The underlying assumption in the report was that this sign of consumption was a good thing. It was if the previous news story hadn’t existed.

It’s a painful thought to think of Bolivia without its snow-edged peaks that grace the altiplano, but the real pain of course is that it will impact first and much harder on poor communities.

In a meeting I recently attended of rural community workers in Potosi, people were already referring to decreased access to water in their region to the reduction in glacier waters. As a result the land is producing less and people are increasingly migrating in order to live creating dislocated communities. In a hike last year, I went through a community who installed a hydro-electric scheme several years ago that hardly works now due to lack of water.

In Bolivia sadly despite rhetoric in the new Government about "living in harmony with Pachamama (mother earth)" which reflects an important indigenous vision, there is little evidence yet that the country is either preparing for the consequences of global warming or taking measures to cut its own impact.

There is huge debate, for example, about the MAS Government’s proposals for nationalisation – as to whether it really is nationalisation, if it is going to deliver resources, attract investment, or lead to industrialisation  – but you almost never hear the questions: What happens when our natural resources run out? or Should Bolivia be basing its economic development strategy on a dependence on fossil fuels that are destroying the country’s precious and unique environment and bio-diversity?

Understandably it is not a priority for a Government who gives much more to the world in terms of bio-capacity than it takes in terms of consumption, but the failure to ask the questions does indicate a worldwide blindness to the problem.

Clearly there are powerful interests – both in Governments and Companies – who are perhaps willing to talk about climate change but are certainly not prepared for any fundamental change in our habits.

I notice that could equally be true of me as I have had long-term knowledge of global warming but done relatively little in my life which would reflect those concerns. Ok, so I recycle, try as much as possible to buy local, don’t have a car and avoid things in plastic, but I have hardly been systematic in cutting my environmental impact. It seems that the argument that you just have to raise awareness to bring about change does not apply to personal behaviour.

Take flying for example. Ever since I was 18 I have revelled in travelling to most parts of the world and in fact chose to come and live in a country that I can only get to on a plane. Yet every return flight I take from London to La Paz produces 2.92 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide – that’s like throwing several huge sacks of black dust up into the high atmosphere. Worse I am encouraging friends to visit.

Aviation currently is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions and worse of all because it is released high into the atmosphere, its impact is 2.7 times worse than the effect of the carbon dioxide alone. According to calculations by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, aviation’s emissions alone will exceed the UK government’s target for the country’s entire output of greenhouse gases in 2050 by around 134%.

I can offset my flights as I currently do but this has its drawbacks in still allowing you to increase your overall consumption and relying on methods such as tree planting that are debateable in impact.

So I am left with a nagging sense of guilt. Yet I also realise this doesn’t serve any purpose unless I convert it into action.

So this month I have decided that I will stop being anxious and do something to try and save the last bits of snow on Chacaltaya. I have started to review my use of energy in the house (buying low-energy bulbs, turning lights off, cutting water usage for example in the toilet). And I hope to extend this to my workplace too. I even toy with the idea of seeing if I could persuade some people in La Paz city council to forge ways to cut back on energy use as a small town in Ireland recently agreed to do.

But I realise I am starting very late on this journey, so would really welcome ideas and thoughts from anyone reading my blog on what they have done, what works, good sources of advice etc. Why not post a comment?



  1. SG October 28, 2006 at 5:11 am - Reply

    Nice post. i enjoyed every bit of it while reading. environment is in big danger though i feel things will improve as countries are stsrting to move towards better alternative sources of energy with low emissions. u can read an energy research blog at which i found really good.

  2. Ru Hartwell October 28, 2006 at 10:15 am - Reply

    Good post,
    Check us out at if you ever fly again. We’ve tried really hard to address the drawbacks you mention in offset treeplanting.
    Trees can be a part of the answer if its done right.
    Keep up the good work – every gram of CO2 saved is valuable.

  3. Laura November 9, 2006 at 6:21 am - Reply

    You’ll be glad to hear that Nick and I tried to reduce our carbon footprint recently by going by train to spain (I remember once you suggested I should go by boat and I found it incomprehensible, but the trains were really very nice). Only problem is the tickets are v.expensive and much more expensive and difficult to book than ryanair!
    On being green – its industrial waste that makes up the majority of our waste, so getting big business to commit to recycling waste is v.important. Does anyone know of a current campaign on this in UK? I’d be keen to join.
    Doing your bit at home is good for the soul though, I guess.

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