The world’s tiny window to act on climate change is closing rapidly


When my mum took her only son home to meet her mother, she was asked when the next one was due. Being Irish, she was expected to produce an entire clan of freckled gingers. But she didn't. Even in the 1980s it was clear that there were too many humans – and the world's population has tripled since then. Her choice was based on the world she wanted to see her son grow into: one where finite resources meant humanity lived within its means. My mum's choice was a small one, but it made sense. Somehow our governments cannot seem to make similar decisions based on overwhelming information. 

This week's release of the 3 000-page Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is as terrifying a read as you can get. Written by level-headed scientists who are loath to get histrionic, it uses words such as “irreversible” and “overwhelming” to describe the impacts of climate change. If we rapidly scale back on carbon emissions, the world will “only” be 2°C warmer by the end of the century – survivable. Continue as we are doing, and we probably will, and that happens by 2050. By 2080, the world will be 6°C warmer ­– not survivable. Forget the century after that.  

It is a seismic change in language. In the past, the United Nation’s environment body gave evaluations of whether humans were driving climate change, and predicted what the impacts could be. It was soft; it nudged governments: it wrote documents to inform policy. This IPCC report is basically a scream for world governments to do so something right now to lower carbon emissions, before climate change wrecks our civilisation.  

But the problem is that the report is not prescriptive – it doesn’t tell governments what to do. The head of the panel, Rajendra Pachauri, said the panel’s hope is that it is scary enough to “jolt” governments into action. With the global climate negotiations dragging along but promising an international climate pact by 2015, this is perhaps that thing that galvanises real commitment. South Africa’s white paper implicitly accepts the findings of the IPCC process, so its science is our science and should determine policy.  

The report is filled with baffling, depressing numbers, but the important ones seem small – a few centimetres’ or degrees’ change here or there. But close your eyes and try to imagine this: in four decades Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth will be two degrees warmer. The sea level will also have risen – take your battered school ruler and place it above the high-water mark to see how far. Now think how much farther waves will travel, and how much higher those storm surges will reach. Buying property on the slopes of Signal Hill could become necessary.

If you happen to be squashed into Johannesburg or Bloemfontein, think of those sweltering January days when the sweat runs down your back and pools in your shoes. Now add six degrees to that temperature, and take away the cool evenings that make going home a lifesaver. And water restrictions that mean you will not be able to afford a swimming pool. Take away the joy of spring rainfall and picking flowers to impress that someone who makes you giggle.

These are just two changes in climate systems, but they are the fundamental drivers of millions of other changes. Our ecosystems are a web, connected and reliant on a myriad things working in an exact way. So what the report says is that the world we are looking at in our lifetimes will be comprehensively different from ours now.

But we are humans, and humans have survived ice ages, right? Our flora and fauna also survived. Life is far better now that it was for peasants in the Middle Ages. But it is the pace of change, as outlined in the IPCC report, that is scary. Over the past half-century, our local temperatures have gone up by an average of half a degree. This is mostly imperceptible, but for farmers it has meant changes in what they can plant and when. For villagers it means no rain and stretches of drought.

Now throw between two and six degrees' temperature increase into that timescale.

The report says most species will not survive this: they just cannot move and adapt quickly enough to keep up with desertification and changes in their habitats. Not that they haven’t started shifting: plants and animals are steadily migrating north across the globe.

In our past – when the ice ages came along or biblical floods apparently wiped out the sinners – we would migrate when our local climate changed. The world was big and we are pretty good at walking. The rich can still do this. The poor cannot, and the IPCC report has a heavy focus on the billions of people who are stuck in whatever surroundings they were born in. People in East Africa are already facing famine and water shortages, which leads to violent competition for resources.

For the first time, the IPCC has linked climate change to wars, adding extra stresses to already tense situations. We are enjoying a relatively happy time in world history, when there are fewer big conflicts. As humans we like to believe the present will continue, but it will not. What will you do when you go to the shop and your favourite organic cheese is out of stock?

South Africa's biggest problem with climate change comes in the form of water. We are already water-scarce; Gauteng relies on the colonisation of Lesotho’s water resources to keep going. Warming will lead to drying in most of the country, except for the northeast and the Drakensberg, which will get wetter. We are already facing droughts in the Northern Cape and North West, which have killed livestock.

For the vulnerable there is no coming back from this; insurance is for the haves. The poor then move to cities in the hope of finding jobs. There, access to food is determined by money, not arable land. When the price of food rises – which recently happened after crop failures in Russia and the United States – they either face the choice of starving or rioting for food. What would you do if your money could no longer buy food? Would you let your family starve?  

So the time is now. The report makes that very, very clear. Dr Robert Scholes, a systems ecologist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and a lead author of the IPCC report, said there is no time left and no reversing decisions we make now.

"There is no sudden point, it just gets worse and worse."

There are some thresholds that we will pass that will suddenly make things worse, such as when the Antarctic permafrost thaws. “The natural world has its own limits and there are a couple we have to be very careful about because they have massive feedback effects.”

This is a sober-minded scientist warning about climate change being "a rollercoaster" if we don’t rein in emissions. 

But nobody is listening. It is infuriating. We know the problem and we know what we need to do about it – it even makes sense in economic terms, because climate change will smash the world economy in its current form.

In South Africa we have become good at blaming others and sidestepping responsibility. Our business and government sectors shrug and play the semantic trick of saying that, as a country, we only emit 1% of global greenhouse gases. But if you check how much we emit per person, South Africa jumps to the 11th-worst country in the world.

It's not as though we haven’t pretended to care about climate change. As usual, South Africa has signed everything it can. In 2009 it committed itself to reducing carbon emissions by 42% by 2025.

The environment department would clearly like this to happen, and the passionate people there work tirelessly to try to get their peers to do the same.

But the rest of government is all about the tried-and-tested technology that worked before we knew about the spectre of climate change.

We are building the world's two biggest coal-fired power stations in areas where there is little water and where there will be even less in future, thanks to climate change. Sasol is still running its coal-to-liquids fuel plants, even though Secunda is the world's biggest single-point emission source of greenhouse gases.  

We will inevitably face blowback because of these decisions, when climate change leads to more rain where Eskom keeps its coal or the water runs out for its new plants. So maybe the rest of the government will read the IPPC's handy "summary for policymakers" and take notice. Otherwise, we will help the world to smash through the 20C increase by mid-century, heading all the way to a 60C increase.

The poor will be the worst affected, but climate change will have an impact on all of us. Our entire way of life will be affected. We need to use this small window, right now, to do something about emissions before it is too late and all we have left is regret – and complicated explanations for our children.

If my mum could make a simple choice based on the evidence, why can’t our elected officials?

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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