Editorial: A call to action: the heat is on
Political scandals. Investigations to uncover a wide variety of wrongdoing. Corporate malfeasance. These all demand our attention as a news publication. But they pale in comparison with an environmental catastrophe looming on a planetary scale. Which is why the Mail & Guardian chose to lead this edition with our eight-step plan to wage war on rising temperatures. We want to help our readers agitate for change before it is too late.
Whatever the deniers and self-deluders may claim, the warming of our planet is a fact – and the overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is that it is rooted in human agency.
The effects of climate change will be felt only gradually, but it threatens to disrupt ecosystems, undermine global food production and, as droughts, floods and other extreme weather events become more widespread and the oceans rise, displace human settlements on an unprecedented scale.
The United Nations climate agency warns that climate change in the 21st century will be “severe, pervasive and irreversible”.
There is one consolation. In contrast with other planetary climate events such as ice ages, humans are not entirely powerless. They have a degree of control over the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the rise in global temperatures. And they can take remedial action to mitigate their effects.
In a last-ditch effort to stop the world warming by more than 2°C, diplomats have gathered in Paris for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21). But short-termism and political pressures at home may stand in the way of decisive steps being taken.
Somehow, the gulf between the world’s wealthy and poorer nations, which have radically divergent agendas, must be bridged. Each nation has to pass and implement climate legislation: aspirational pledges are not enough.
In Africa the impact of warming is already starting to become apparent. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research points out that “annual temperatures have been rising at an alarming rate across the continent” since 1961, equivalent to a 3.2°C increase every 100 years.
Livestock and crops stop producing and breeding properly when average temperatures exceed 30°C. From next week, South Africa’s interior will see temperatures stay above that figure for a sustained period.
Our government’s commitments to dealing with climate change are ambitious – a 42% reduction in emissions by 2025, and an emissions peak followed by a plateau and decline. But, as with all South Africa’s good intentions, the goals are consistently undermined by a lack of implementation.
The development of renewables is bedevilled by the monopoly Eskom has over electricity transmission lines. The same utility has been given a reprieve in complying with air quality legislation that it knew was coming. A key emitter, Sasol, went to court and was granted a compliance holiday.
Behind the scenes, vested interests lobby for the weakening of climate legislation, and tend to prevail. In public, think-tanks and columnists muddy the water by trying to persuade people that global warming is not happening.
Yet South Africa – one of the few countries to constitutionally guarantee citizens a healthy environment – is alive with possibilities. Technological innovation and strong legislation have placed us in the vanguard of the world’s nations. In our short history as a democratic state, we have a proud track record of confronting and overcoming impossible odds. Ke nako.