Here at home, U.S. government action on climate change has been paralyzed by politics, but American taxpayers are actually trying to make things better abroad, whether they know it or not. At the front lines in the climate change war, there's no argument about whether weather disasters come more frequently and ferociously. The only question is what to do about them.
As a trustee of Save the Children, Cokie recently traveled to the agency's programs in Vietnam, deemed by the World Bank as one of the five countries most at risk from climate change.
Rising sea levels and more frequent rainfalls are already affecting about 40 percent of the Mekong Delta, where children accounted for 90 percent of the deaths from recent floods.
During the Vietnam War, newscasts carried regular reports from the Mekong Delta battlefield. But after centuries of war and decades of poverty, Vietnam has struggled into the ranks of middle-class countries, only to see its future now threatened by weather that can drown farms and devastate fishing.
Government officials at both the federal and district levels rank climate change as a major obstacle to Vietnam's development, telling visitors: "We're seeing storms in places we've never seen them before." One of those places is Yen Bai province.
Driving northwest from Hanoi, dodging the thousands of motorbikes on a road lined with bustling shops celebrating capitalism in this communist country, one sees the landscape eventually shift to rice fields interrupted by banana groves and small vegetable plots. These crops provide the income for many of the area's almost 800,000 people.
Much of the population in the Tran Yen district of Yen Bai province is made up of ethnic minorities who don't speak Vietnamese. Save the Children has been implementing bilingual education programs for the children of the area, but for these kids to learn they must first be safe, so disaster drills are a regular part of the curriculum.
Hong Ca primary school sits at the end of a muddy mountain road. The large yellow building, with a huge mural above the door of Ho Chi Minh tying a red scarf around a schoolgirl's neck, backs up to a wall of mud. When teachers sound a drum and blare a megaphone-enhanced siren, children file out in an orderly fashion and move quickly from the landslide-threatened building to a safe area a few hundred yards away.
Girls wearing the traditional brightly embroidered skirts and coin-embossed tops of the Hmong tribe drop their Disney princess backpacks and stand watching as their classmates tend to some of the "injured" students. They know these drills could mean the difference between life and death, since many children have been lost in flooding streams and under landslides.
The kids now know how to protect themselves and warn their families against impending disaster. Save the Children has established evacuation sites with clean water available, put systems in place where teachers and parents cooperate to get children to school and back home safely in rising floodwaters, and in some areas handed out floating backpacks that can serve as life vests.
The U.S. Agency for International Development funds many of these "disaster risk reduction" projects as part of the official American response to climate change. There might not be much movement here at home, but the U.S. government is actively addressing altered weather patterns abroad. And U.S. AID has plans to invest in clean energy to help the countries it assists move to more low-emission development.
But greenhouse gases don't stop at national borders, and the absence of an international plan of action means that Vietnam and the other countries on the environmental edge are likely to suffer more disasters from ever higher waters and ever stronger winds.
At the recent United Nations climate conference in Doha, Qatar, even the highly unusual sight of the chief negotiator for the Philippines breaking into tears to plead for his typhoon-ravaged country failed to move many of the major countries, including the United States, to action. The best the meeting could come up with was an extension of the current climate protocols.
The little Hmong children in the mountains of Vietnam know that more is needed. They can tell visiting Americans what happens when too many trees are cut or when a manufacturer spews pollution, and they're educating their parents as well.
Too bad those kids can't come here. Maybe they could educate our politicians to take action on the home front about a situation threatening us all.
(Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)