/ 2 January 2014

I’ll meet you at the end of the world

Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan shelter among the debris of destroyed houses in Tacloban in the Philippines.
Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan shelter among the debris of destroyed houses in Tacloban in the Philippines.

We constantly go on about how clever we are. How we can look into the future. How humans are above all other animals. But we are so bloody stupid and self-obsessed that we have created a global system that is leading to a collapse in the world's natural systems. We want shiny things that go beep, so have centred our whole civilisation on providing these – for those who can afford them, of course. We are growing our population to unsustainable levels and each new person needs to be fed off the planet – which is why by 2050 we will need the equivalent of three Earths to provide sustainably for all of us.   

And even in the face of this happening right here and right now, we are doing little meaningful about it. The collapse of our era on Earth is quite possible, or at the very least life as we know it. But you wouldn't know it. 

The world is getting warmer – let us not continue the false debate about this. A warmer world means more changes in the environment. This is not new. Things have oscillated between hot and cold since time immemorial. But it is the rate of change that is seriously problematic. Nature adapts to change, but only when it has time to do so. Now the change is too fast. We are on the very fringe of chain reactions, where once a few things change, the knock-on impact is impossible to calculate.  

Changing rainfall
In South Africa rainfall patterns have changed. Farmers now have to plant at different times, and subsistence farmers are frequently unable to plant because crops fail with the unpredictable seasons. The temperature is also increasing.

The best predictions are that average temperatures in the interior will go up by six degrees by the end of the century, and by two at the coast. This will utterly change the country.

We are already water scarce, and climate change will leave the government having to choose between humans and the economy. This is already happening in rural areas, where communities are not getting water from new dams because it is earmarked for mines and agriculture. As the shortage of resources becomes more acute, this process will become more profound and will affect enough people to make it a political dilemma. 

Yet we do not seem to be worried, which makes an environmental journalist's job a thankless one. The message you have to put out there is the same, all the time. Science is constantly evolving to fill the gaps, and the effects of climate change are becoming visible. But readers get weary – and in some ways climate change is facing the same reader fatigue as the HIV and Aids story. 

The high point for climate change and environmental journalism was 2009, when world leaders congregated at the global climate negotiations in Copenhagen with a promise of an accord to lower carbon emissions. It was newsworthy; people were interested. Then a weakened agreement came out – in terms of which South Africa pledged to lower its emissions by 42% by 2025, which will never happen. Now many have lost interest.

When staff cuts are mooted, environmental sections are the first targets – the New York Times recently got rid of its entire environmental staff complement. This means there are fewer people around to question what is happening and tell readers why things are happening. So how bad is it? I tend to think that we are building on the edge of a cliff. The edges are constantly crumbling away and the house is sliding into the sea. But inside a raucous party is going on. Things are not yet catastrophic enough for the rich that make decisions, but they are for the majority of the world's population, who are just hanging on as things get increasingly desperate.

Food shortages
Crop failures, such as those in Russia and the United States, mean basic food prices go up. Floods destroy subsistence crops. Large-scale catastrophes, which will increase in intensity, then come along and destroy what little people have.

The key for the future is resilience. When you are on the edge you do not have any, so you are devastated. 

The problem is that our entire civilisation is built on digging up carbon and burning it. This combusts and drives the world economy. It also makes us sick, thanks to air pollution. Up to two million people worldwide are killed by this phenomenon every year, with asthma and respiratory disease rates also skyrocketing. What a stupendously stupid way to go about things, but until renewable energy matured it was the only way to build an economy. 

And we cannot do anything about it, because the world is run by the 1% that makes a fortune out of industry and fossil fuels. The idiots that run the world economy – the stockbrokers – are so pumped up on the need to make short-term profits that they ignore any concept of the future.

We don't do anything about this because we are hooked on wanting the next gadget, or are in such debt that we cannot rock the system and default. We are the drones that keep the system going.  

All economic activity, and any civilisation, is built on an environment. It provides everything, for free. History is littered with examples of civilisations built on whatever the local natural capital was – a river, a good harbour or a teeming forest – that collapsed or moved when the climate changed and these advantages disappeared. In the past this was survivable because people could relocate, but now we are everywhere. There is no space. And courts are already turning down applications for people claiming "climate-change refugee" status. 

Power plays
The only people that could do something are seemingly owned by big business, thanks to the revolving door system whereby you walk out of government and into a corporate job. Our elected politicians do nothing to curb emissions – which is also your fault for doing nothing to make climate change a vote-winning issue. 

In South Africa we have one department that has jurisdiction over this scenario – environmental affairs. It has plans that will make the country more resilient to climate change and lower its carbon emissions. But it is one department.

The largest green project in the country, the independent power producers' programme, will put R100‑billion into renewable energy. But this is only because the energy department desperately needs to avoid another power crunch. More than double that is being spent on the world's biggest coal power stations.  

Decision-makers and industry heads think lowering emissions means economic growth has to be sacrificed. The opposite is true. Green technology is a booming industry that will reward those that get in soon, and most of the adaptation just means becoming more efficient. Efficiency saves money.

So there is gradual progress, but nowhere near enough. A global climate agreement will only come into effect by 2020. If things really go awry and we don't curb emissions, we will be looking at the wrong side of an average 4°C temperature rise across the world by 2100. That's beyond our lifetimes, but not those of our children and grandchildren. 

Right now, with a relatively benign global climate, we are struggling to feed seven billion people. Half of them do not have water or sanitation. Nearly a billion go to bed hungry. Imagine the situation with 10‑billion people, bigger natural catastrophes, changed rainfall patterns, desertification, flooding, droughts and famine.

Think biblical here. Or don't. After all, we don't really care about the future.

We all have the power to force green change

• You: If you can afford to buy this newspaper or an iPad to read it on, you have the ability to use your consuming power to make a difference. Everyone has power this way. Make the environmental credentials of a product a buying point and make the environmental choices of your government worth your vote. And through retirement schemes and other investments you also have the ability to force a change in the way companies do business. Ask the questions – somebody has to. Remind governments and companies that people want things to be done differently. Let's actually get involved in this democracy thing that so many people do not have access to.

• The media: The media have a role to play in informing voting citizens. We don't seem to be doing this. Climate change reporting is flawed because the basic premise of journalism is always to give two sides to a story to create balance. But there aren't two sides to this story. Talking about "if" humans are driving climate change and "if" it is even happening is like getting experts to discuss whether the world is flat. So stories are still carrying that false doubt and giving readers the impression that the science is still being contested. That the world is round is taken as a fact, so let's do that for climate change and inform the public about the next step.  

• Sceptics: Being in a vocal minority has its benefits. People contact you for comment, you agitate and you get to be important. But this is doing irreparable damage to dealing with climate change. Sceptics continue the debate about whether climate change is happening, which lets us all off the hook because we can keep consuming without seriously questioning what we are doing. 

• Industry: Burning fossil fuels is part of big industry, so it is in their interests that business continues as usual. Many groups such as the International Energy Agency have said the majority of carbon needs to be left in the ground if global temperature increases are to be reined in. But this will entail companies having to write off profits as well as assets.