The government must wake up and smell the roses before the stench of sulphur becomes overwhelming.
We are justifiably angry when innocent people are abused or their lives are wrecked.
South Africa's democracy is built upon the struggle to stop abuse, not only of people of colour, but also of the poor and vulnerable. We expect those responsible to be brought to swift justice.
Yet this week's publication by the world’s top scientists of the impact of climate change raises the question of why the bosses of fossil fuel companies are honoured by the establishment rather than facing justice for their role in worsening climate change at great human cost.
The new International Panel on Climate Change report, published this week, is clear: the poorest and most vulnerable in the world are already hardest hit by climate change, and will continue to be in the future – climate change that is caused predominately by burning fossil fuels.
The panel says climate change harms the most vulnerable in the following ways:
- Extreme weather: "Climate-change-related risk from extreme events such as heat waves, extreme precipitation and coastal flooding is already moderate to high with 1°C additional warming. The risk is unevenly distributed and is generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development."
- Food: "Climate change has negatively affected wheat and maize yields for many regions and the global aggregate", and further climate change brings "the risk of food insecurity and the breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes, particularly for poorer populations in urban and rural settings".
- Water: Further climate change brings "risk of loss of rural livelihood and income due to insufficient access to drinking and irrigation water and reduced agricultural productivity, particularly for farmers and pastoralists with minimal capital in semiarid regions".
- Health: "Throughout the 21st century, climate change is expected to lead to an increase in ill-health in many regions, especially in developing countries with low income, as compared to a baseline without climate change."
- Fisheries: "[There is] risk of loss of marine and coastal ecosystems, biodiversity, and the goods, functions, and services they provide for coastal livelihoods, especially for fishing communities in the tropics and the Arctic."
So what can we do about this?
Frankly, it's time to get angry and respond to the elite political power and corporations that continue to ignore the facts and act in ways that place the poor in harm’s way.
We should get angry when, despite South Africa's dubious leading role in contributing to climate change, corporations such Anglo American and Vedanta and black economic empowerment companies such as KiPower (owned by Kuyasa Mining) continue to peddle the burning of coal in the name of alleviating poverty and providing access to energy.
This is a load of hogwash. It does not alleviate poverty, nor does it contribute to access to energy for the poor. What it does do is sell environmentally damaging energy cheaply to corporations and increase South Africa's greenhouse gas emissions.
We should get angry when we read about children with malnutrition in drought-ridden areas and people’s houses being flooded. These grave injustices are heaped on the poorest in the world by fossil fuel giants and the corporate elite.
Research published last year found that 90 companies were responsible for two-thirds of polluting greenhouse gases; all but seven of these in the oil and gas industry. In South Africa, 36 members of the energy-intensive users group consume 40% of South African electricity and, together with Eskom, are the country's leading polluters.
Instead of South Africa moving away from fossil fuels and using its abundant sun, political decision-makers continue to push for fracking in the Karoo, more coal-fired power stations, and exploration for gas and oil off its coastline.
The government must wake up and smell the roses before the stench of sulphur becomes overwhelming, as is the case in the many townships in which households burn coal and other fuel indoors because they do not have access to meaningful electricity provision.
If this makes you angry, there’s something you can do about it.
Tell the government you don't want fracking for shale gas in your area. Tell them to leave the coal in the hole, the oil in the soil, and the gas under the sea.
We need a just transition for workers from a fossil-fuel economy to an economy not based on extraction. For, if we do not stop this now, climate change is going to result in conflict over food and resources, as the ability to grow crops is destroyed by drought and flooding.
Africa is already prone to internal conflict depicted as ethnic violence and xenophobia.
We need to be aware that, if the government's unwillingness to act responsibly is not met with challenge in all spheres to ensure that the democratic voice is heard and followed, it will lead to heightened conflict, and the South Africa we hoped to achieve post-1994 will be a mirage in a drought-prone landscape in a greater world heavily affected by climate change.
It is about taking action – and not only by voting – to ensure that there is solidarity between all people in South Africa and an understanding that the elite’s quest for wealth accumulation is not taking place at the expense of the poor today only, but that it is the poor who will be hardest hit by climate change in the future if we continue on a fossil-fuel-burning energy trajectory.
Mike Childs is head of policy, research and science at Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Bobby Peek is the director of groundWork, Friends of the Earth South Africa