Climate breakdown is destroying the lives of millions, but SA has merely adopted a morally bankrupt position, writes David Le Page
Parliament has been holding hearings on South Africa’s climate change green paper. We must hope truth will emerge, for the truth is a hard thing to come by when it concerns the global addiction to fossil fuels.
The danger posed by further carbon emissions is now so great, and the evidence for that danger now so overwhelming, that any proposal to expand fossil-fuel production – not least the natural gas exploitation plans of Shell, Sasol and others in the Karoo – should now be regarded as a crime against humanity.
When government licenses continued fossil-fuel production – in the absence of an absolute commitment to a low or zero-carbon economy – it, too, is committing a crime against humanity. And when the media fail to communicate this crisis, they are complicit in crimes against humanity.
South Africa hosts companies that claim to be concerned about climate change – yet their international colleagues fund climate change deniers in the US Congress. Such behaviour, by ArcelorMittal, BP, Bayer and others, is dangerous and disgraceful.
The past year has seen unprecedented wild fires in Russia and huge floods in Pakistan, China and Australia (also hit by a cyclone). China faces a drought that may send world food prices soaring even higher. The Amazon basin was so stressed that it was a net natural emitter of carbon dioxide.
This climate breakdown is now directly destroying the lives and livelihoods of millions and affecting all the rest of us.
Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman writes that “what really stands out is the extent to which severe weather events have disrupted agricultural production … the current food price surge may be just the beginning”.
In December, Durban hosts the next round of international climate negotiations, COP 17. The negotiations could be vitally important, but are so bankrupt that at last year’s round of talks in Cancun, delegates gave a standing ovation to an agreement that watered down earlier concords and leaves the world on track for a disastrous 3ºCor 4ºC of warming this century.
This means a possible average of 6ºC in Africa, and that, in the words of analyst Martin Khor, means we in Africa “are dead”. There is little chance of “adapting” to six degrees.
Many like to vilify climate change sceptics and deniers. But who is most deserving of vilification? Those who deny the reality of climate change or those governments and multinationals who acknowledge it, but fail to take serious action?
You would think every country in the world would by now have a target for becoming carbon neutral, but only a handful do.
You would think that global subsidies for fossil fuels would have ended. But such subsidies remain 10 times the subsidies for clean energy.
You would think that energy companies that continue to make a fortune out of fossil fuels would feel a moral duty to invest in renewable energy – but the likes of BP and Shell spend a pittance on renewables.
What absurdities, besides the dismal pledges, still underlie the UN climate negotiations? Well, they focus on carbon dioxide. But black carbon and methane emissions are also badly in need of attention.
Then there’s “common but differentiated responsibilities”: the notion that rich countries should be cutting emissions hard and fast, but developing countries can still do a whole lot more polluting while catching up economically.
But the rich are not cutting hard and fast enough, if at all, and the notion of a “right to pollute” is a surreal absurdity, equivalent to a right to commit suicide.
So long as we developing countries claim to have an equal right to pollute, we take a morally bankrupt position where the rich are all too happy to have us.
South Africa is the world’s 13th-biggest emitter. But we insist we will only cut emissions if paid to do so, joining the moral race to the gutter.
Then there’s the notion of “adaptation”. Rich countries love to promise that they will give aid to poor countries for “adapting” to climate change.
And, yes, adaptation is possible and necessary – so long as temperature increases are not too great. But when we face 4ºCto 6ºC of warming, “adaptation funding” (assuming it ever materialises, which is highly unlikely) is rather like rich passengers on an overcrowded ship telling the poor that they should happily jump into an icy sea because they’re now being offered fancier life-jackets.
The greatest delusion is that measures to deal with climate change must not affect economic growth. But GDP worship, indiscriminate growth, is killing us. Greater shared prosperity is still possible, indeed essential, and in many instances, action on climate change will greatly help true development – but many economies must be scaled down, not up, and made far more equal.
There is a wonderful way out of this crisis – creating truly just, equal and sustainable societies.
Credible scientists have outlined detailed plans for converting the world to renewable energy over the next 40 years.
Ethiopia is committed to being a zero-carbon economy in just 15. But the transformation we need demands that we are clear that climate breakdown is not a technical or economic problem. It is a profound moral issue – the most urgent challenge to our humanity. We have the technology; it is our hearts that fail us.
Only one government in the world tells the whole truth about climate change. Bolivia refused to endorse the deal at the negotiations in Cancun – so has been vilified, even in sections of a global environmental movement which, in many instances, has lost its way.
It is past time we called to account those willing to wreck the planet for short-term profit. Bolivia and swathes of global civil society have called for an international climate justice tribunal. South Africa should commit to ending its fossil-fuel addiction and support that call. Parliament must urgently convene justice hearings so that we can begin bringing our own climate criminals to account. Our collective survival depends on it.
Le Page is a freelance writer working part time at the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute