Climate change must place poor first

Just a few years ago the idea of climate change and the negative effects of industry were fallible to some and farcical to many. However, with 2015 being the hottest year ever recorded, natural disasters and climate extremities increasing all over the world — from floods in India and the UK; droughts here and in other parts of Africa; to pollution red alerts in Beijing — denialists are as scarce as arable land, and doubt about climate change is dwindling as quickly as our fresh water resources. Global warming, paralleled with global dimming, is not just a matter of environmental degradation, but a matter of socioeconomic disaster, threatening to thrust all of us not only into deeper inequality and poverty, but also greater instability. As always, poor people, particularly women are the hardest hit.

Now that the Paris COP21 meeting is over, what are we left with?  The crux was reaching agreement on which rich countries should shoulder a greater share of the mitigating burden, since poorer countries are least responsible for global warming but are most affected; and how much would be made available.

Attending the Paris meeting, ActionAid’s expert Harjeet Singh said “What we needed out of Paris was a deal which put the world’s poorest people first – those who are living with the constant threat of the next disaster. Yet what we have been presented with doesn’t go far enough to improve the fragile existence of millions around the world. “The hype around the idea of a 1.5 °C warming limit didn’t result in any real and concrete commitments. A limit of 1.5 °C cannot be achieved with the emission cuts rich countries put on the table — these ‘cuts’ will in fact lead to temperature rises of 3 °C.  In terms of finance to adapt, much like the rest of the agreement, the finance section lets the world’s biggest historical polluters off the hook and fails to deliver for the poorest and most vulnerable”.

According to ActionAid’s recent report Mind the Adaptation Gap, the cost of helping poor people adapt to climate change amounts to around 0.1% of a rich nation’s GDP.  The 0.1% cost of adaptation is relatively small compared with the 7% of GDP major economies spent on bailing out the banks after the 2008 financial crisis, or the 2%  of GDP that NATO members commit to spending annually on defence. 

Currently however, rich nations’ current contributions to helping poor countries adapt to the climate crisis fall far below the amount of money needed.  The total amount of grant based finance needs to increase from the $3.5-billion in 2013, to at least $50-billion a year by 2020, and at least $150-billion a year by 2025.

How does this affect us in South Africa? As much as we need a long term global commitment to mitigate and reverse climate change, with the effects already manifesting in disastrous ways, what’s more urgent is local action that brings both immediate and sustainable results. We need to invest in our people and land to ensure an enabling environment for a climate-clever, resilient society and economy.

Climate change won’t wait for governments to enforce legislation on ethical industry and people-centred climate strategies; on our continent people in climate-affected countries will become migrants to other nations unless we have an Africa-wide strategy which supports adaptation in the poorer states.

Business, civil society, academia and the public need to work together to ensure our country and economy can adapt; that we are ‘empowering’ communities with clean energy; and local and diverse food production strategies are underway to guarantee our land and resources are used sustainably. 

Smallholder farmers and local communities vital for food security

We must safeguard South Africa’s food sovereignty and security especially given rising youth unemployment and the burden of care for families facing disaster which falls on women.  The risk of shortages and associated protests are a reality we need to consider in planning how agriculture is funded.  The lack of credit for smallholder farmers is one critical aspect of policy which is overlooked at present.  

Massive investment in alternative power sources should be balanced with the need to develop food for the local market — which can be done with relatively little budget if smallholder farmers are supported with appropriate commitments at provincial and national levels. In October, at the annual Kwame Nkrumah Business in Africa lecture at the University of Ghana,  AngloGold Ashanti Chairman, Sipho Pityana, spoke about the potential for industry to foster an enabling environment that accommodates both the needs of people and business, emphasising the interdependence of competitiveness and community wellbeing. 

“It falls on leaders, be they elected political officials, company management, or labour and community leaders, to understand the constant trade-offs and accommodation required to fashion profitable outcomes that can in turn lead to equitable development outcomes … these are the essential ingredients that will allow industry to chart a course that will allow it to reach its potential, and to allow all stakeholders to benefit,” Pityana said.

ActionAid South Africa is leading the way in helping people protect their lives and livelihoods. We have been working closely with communities across our country for almost a decade to foster skills and support efforts on the ground.  Our experience in building resilience focuses on capacity building, empowerment and investment in small holder farmers, particularly women’s subsistence farming, with the aim of directly combating poverty, insecurity and inequality — all of which are exacerbated by climate change.

Supporting our communities through the promotion of sustainable agriculture and climate resilient livelihoods is a key objective. It is not an act of charity but one of justice that serves not only the poor, but the continued development of our economy and country as a whole, both for our present and future generations.

Singh concludes on next steps:  “Despite the disappointment, the Paris agreement provides an important hook on which people can hang their demands. As climate change continues to worsen and affect millions more, people are beginning to demand alternatives from both governments and industry.  We already have the practical solutions to climate change, we now just need them to be scaled up with adequate support. Paris is only the beginning of the journey.” 

For more information on ActionAid South Africa’s Food Security Programme and how to get involved in supporting smallholder farmers contact: Emily Craven, head of programmes: [email protected]

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