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‘Our generation should force the change’

By the middle of this century our major cities will be under siege. Massive population growth, catastrophic weather events and collapsing food and water supply chains will mean the majority of the population will be struggling to survive. The rich might be able to buy insulation, but for the rest of us life will be incredibly tough. Increasingly panicked governments will probably turn to greater force to keep people in place. But revolutions are always started when people cannot afford bread – and the price is already increasing at a rate greater than inflation. 

This is not a remote scenario. This is what will happen when climate change drives the temperature in Johannesburg up by six degrees. The majority of South Africa will have increases of a similar magnitude, with a linked drop in rainfall and soil fertility. Maize yields will be down a third by 2050. The country is already flirting with importing more of its basic foodstuff than it exports. Our coastal cities will face rising sea levels, which will see storm surges pushing into their central business areas. Our vegetation and animal species are already shifting as their ecosystems shift, but the rate of this shift will quickly outpace their ability to adapt.  

The problem is that we know this will happen. The models have been crunched and the data is there. So surely we should be able to prevent this impending crisis? We are bright and driven and doing fantastic things. We want to settle Mars! Young people across the world are coming up with ideas and technological innovations that are fundamentally changing the human experience. Yet the 1% that effectively own and run the world are not interested, unless those ideas make a quick buck. These are the people who have blocked – and reversed – moves to tackle our carbon emissions and try to minimise the impact of climate change. They are the ones who meet at Davos in Switzerland every year to find better ways to exploit the world’s natural resources to make them endlessly wealthy.  

They are the people who have stymied international climate negotiations for the last two decades, in the face of growing scientific evidence. 

Last year the United Nation’s environment group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stepped away from its usual caution to release a particularly shrill warning about the future. Its mammoth report on the coming century said that with no political action average temperatures would increase by 4°C by as early as 2050. In this model it does not look into the next century – probably because the chain reactions from things being profoundly shaken out of kilter cannot be computed. The science speaks of how the ecosystems we rely on will be shifted, and the undertone is that a temperature increase like that would be hard to survive. 

The normally cautious World Bank said in “Turn down the heat” that “the projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur”. To do this, carbon – mainly in the form of the coal we burn for energy – would have to be kept in the ground while renewable and clever energy sources were developed and used in increasing numbers. The International Energy Agency said this year that the opposite was happening and two-thirds of fossil fuels need to be kept in the ground if we were to rein in increases at 2°C by mid-century. 

By 2050 my generation will be thinking of retiring. The lie of limitless growth that underpins the neoliberal capitalist system sells us on the idea of working hard and being rewarded with a comfortable few decades at the end to potter about. That will not happen. Climate change is already battering the insurance industry. Hurricane Sandy flooded an extra 17 000 homes in New York last year thanks to increases in sea levels. There has been a steady increase in claims from storm damage. This is one of the pillars of the world economy, and will be under great pressure along with other industries. Our retirement money will probably be lost – think of all the Americans who lost their life savings and annuities thanks to reckless bankers in 2008. 

Compromising values for cash

The future is extremely bleak, and there are extreme solutions. In my first year of university history our lecturer stuck two fingers against his temple and said: “The only way you force change is by putting a gun to their head.” He was pointing out that most of the social liberties we enjoy were gained by forcing concessions out of leaders. “Of course, I am not advocating violence,” he told the suddenly wide-awake class. “But history tells you that this is the only way that change happens.” His was a brave step. Education teaches us to jump into the rat race and compete with each other in the hope of becoming a member of the 1%. It is the incentive that keeps us from questioning the status quo and makes us accept that our values can be compromised for cash. 

Our politicians are used to compromise. It is their currency. In the 1990s global climate negotiations were about keeping temperature increases below 2°C, mainly by ensuring carbon levels in the atmosphere did not exceed 400 parts per million. Before the Industrial Revolution kicked off, these levels were under 300 parts per million. Last year they touched 400, and this year they exceeded that for three straight months. Now negotiations are filled with assurances that a 4°C can be survived. This is our future that is being rationalised and negotiated about, and we are kept on the periphery. It is nice to have young people adorning posters and showing their faces at these conferences. It makes the old men in charge look like they care. But it is mostly window-dressing.

President Zuma returned from the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference with a pledge to lower our carbon emissions by 42% by 2025. The latest carbon inventory shows that we are steadily increasing our emissions. The only lowering of emissions has been through efficiency measures driven by the increased price of electricity — not for altruistic reasons. There is absolutely no indication outside of the department of environmental affairs that anyone is interested in this pledge, or in climate change. He has not been held to account because we say “well politicians make pledges they don’t keep all the time”. That cannot stand. This is our future.  

At the barricades

The lessons of what lies in our near future are littered throughout history. A thriving society on Easter Island in the Pacific grew from a fantastic resource base – fish, good crops and forests. But they grew exponentially, exceeded the island’s carrying capacity and their society was extinguished. They can be excused for not knowing what was coming. We do. 

The island state of Vanuatu recently had to buy land in Fiji to relocate people as its own land disappears under the waves. In this case it was not their fault. Climate change is happening now and we are driving it. 

It is this that makes me worry about having children. I would be knowingly bringing people into a world that would be hostile to their survival. That seems like a terrible thing to do to your own flesh and blood. I know other people who are thinking the same thing. And what does that say about the way the world is being run? Biologically, passing your genetic code to the next generation is the only reason we exist, and that right is being taken away from us. How are we not at the barricades, threatening revolution?  

I cannot advocate that you pick up a gun and use it to force change. But we desperately need something to change. The rate of climate change is unprecedented in the history of the planet. Species do not survive rapid change. In our lifetimes that change will make living difficult – forget beyond that. 

We cannot keep sighing and hoping that politicians and business leaders do the right thing. The youth of South Africa, and the world, need to come to the fore with brilliant ideas and with the force of willpower that will ensure our future is taken into account. We cannot spend our twilight years paying the price for the excesses of today.

To view the full 200 Young South Africans’ profiles, click here.

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

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