A futuristic look: global warming heats up the planet

It’s 42°C in Johannesburg. It was 43°C yesterday. My neighbour – a pensioner and avid fan of Star Trek – was taken away in an ambulance because of the heat. He’s dead. The last month of extreme heat overwhelmed him.

I’m exhausted by trying to concentrate all day in the office. There is one good thing, though – tomorrow’s my turn to shower: we have rationing – and the thought of that cold water gives me goose bumps.

Maybe I’ll go all out and make it a big night – celebrate by eating some carrots! Better than the bowl of rice and the anything-goes-in stew I normally eat over several days.

News flash: there’s a riot at my local retailer. Apparently the truck bringing in the monthly haul of fresh meat never made it inside the perimeter. There’s little the army can do: they have other priorities. Oh well. Guess I’ll work late and hope the air conditioning isn’t turned off. If only my parents had taken the science seriously.

We had solutions back then.   

Alas for my neighbour, we never did get around to jumping to lightspeed and terraforming a new planet. We just destroyed our own.

We were warned
Back in April 2016, research coming out of Oxford University gave us a date by which humanity needed to move away from any new fossil-fuel burning power: 2017.

The 2°C Capital Stock for Electricity Generation: Committed Cumulative Emissions from the Power Sector and the Transition to a Green Economy research paper said no new plants should be built after that year. Any new plants would add extra carbon into the atmosphere. This would take global warming beyond an average of 2°C.

But even if the world stopped building any new plants, the Oxford team said there was only a 50/50 chance of avoiding a temperature increase that the United Nation’s climate agency said would be “catastrophic”.

A global average increase of 2°C did not seem like much. But that 2°C meant up to a 6°C increase over the interior of Africa during the 21st century.

What happens to our cities?
What follows is a scenario for what South Africa could very well end up looking like in 2050 if every person doesn’t start doing something to lower emissions and pressure politicians to think differently.

The data comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Health Organisation, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and myriad universities.

  • In 2050, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Ekurhuleni are barely managing to survive. Ambitious and unilateral plans in the early 2000s to make these cities more climate resilient are paying off. Roads survive the massive downpours while renewable energy on municipal buildings powers hospitals. But disasters elsewhere mean 30-million people live in Gauteng. Water rationing is in full effect. Supplies have only been secured because military forces have occupied Lesotho’s water infrastructure. Forty-degree summers make the cities barely habitable. Brutal crackdowns on constant protests have permanently severed the link between the state and its people. Political parties rise and fall. Little consistent governance exists. To create unity, foreigners are demonised, rounded up and deported on a daily basis.
  • All that is left of Bloemfontein and Kimberley are abandoned buildings. Their water resources were deemed more important for Gauteng. What farming that remains is dedicated to lamb. Little rainfall and heat baking the soil meant the maize and cattle industry collapsed, as droughts became nearly constant.
  • Durban and Port Elizabeth are bankrupt and receding into the ocean. New sea walls and the fixing of water-battered buildings takes much of their budgets. Their new ports also did not properly factor in climate change and their accompanying industries are gone. The automotive industry has also gone – South Africa’s bet on coal-fired power stations backfired as the water to cool them dried up. Load-shedding is constant. The insurance industry cannot handle the cost of constant claims, and has pulled out of South Africa. Fishing communities have also collapsed: the increasingly acidic oceans and pirate fishing vessels proved too much.
  • Nelspruit fell to the ravages of the coal industry. Fixated on old technology, South Africa allowed Mpumalanga to be dug up in the hope that this would feed an export industry. Technological advances made coal redundant. Mines quickly closed, skipping out before they had to rehabilitate the environment. The province’s rivers became highways for polluted and acidic water. Dozens of small towns were overwhelmed by protesters agitating against the shortage of clean water. Export licences for citrus were lost. Animals in the Kruger National Park died, leaving that wilderness area to scavengers. Tourism has also stopped. So much hot air rises that isotherms have made flying too dangerous in Africa. The Big Five now only exist in zoos in China. Mozambique – downriver – closed its borders in retaliation for having its water polluted, collapsing the Southern African Development Community. Troops are now stationed on South Africa’s borders.
  • Polokwane and Mahikeng have shrunk to small service towns, unable to sustain themselves because of rainfall shifting further east. Citrus and maize farms closed, and mining left. Food shocks worldwide meant Mexico, Russia and the United States put export quotas on staple food. People in rural South Africa could not keep up with the resulting inflation and most went to Gauteng in the hope of a better life.
  • Mthatha initially did well as the rest of the country got drier and hotter. Rainfall – shifting east – meant more subsistence crops could be grown. Carbon trading schemes saw development in rural areas. Wind farms brought in foreign currency and kept the province ticking along. But long- term bets on game farming and tourism meant an ever-decreasing production of food. Rainfall then started coming in much more violent and shorter spells, stripping away topsoil and destroying farms. Winter frost killed crops. Mthatha was overwhelmed by inadequate infrastructure, planning and an influx of people from across the Eastern Cape.
  • Cape Town is now an alternative tourist attraction, for those who can make it. The cold fronts that bring winter rain shifted further south and no longer make landfall. Entire biomes have vanished. Vineyards resemble the Karoo. Its port is abandoned: the weather in the Cape got so violent that shipping stopped coming south. Oil rigs are no longer towed in for repairs, because crude oil is not part of the global economy. Seafront accommodation is dirt cheap, because of the constant wind and storm damage. On bad days, the ocean threatens to overwhelm the peninsula’s storm defences.  

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

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