Most South African’s don’t appreciate that we are living in a new world, shaped — and increasingly determined — by a heating planet.
In 2015, when the World Meteorological Organisation declared a 1˚C increase in planetary temperature since the industrial revolution, it acknowledge that the planetary conditions that sustain life had been fundamentally changed.
For geologists meeting in South Africa on August 29 last year, and responsible for documenting the Earth’s history, a sober scientific conclusion was reached. We are now living in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. This means humans as a geological force are shaping the Earth’s systems and planetary conditions that determine life.
The Anthropocene is a geological, historical and climatic marker that confirms we have broken with a relatively stable climatic condition known as the Holocene, which lasted about 11 700 years. How we produce, consume and organise social life affects the Earth’s systems. Carbon emissions from burning oil, coal and gas are contributing to global warming.
A planet that heats by three, four or five degrees will make human life almost impossible. If we do not act now, we are likely to breach two degrees in this century. As our planet heats complex feedback loops such as methane release from melting in the polar zones, carbon saturation in oceans and even destruction of rain forests will feed into global warming.
There is no time to spare if we want to create the conditions, institutions and practices that will sustain South Africa into the future. We also cannot hide behind false dichotomies of jobs and development versus the environment.
The longer we postpone the urgency of climate change the more costly and catastrophic it becomes. There are currently 20 vulnerable countries, mainly island states, with 700-million people who do not have the capabilities to deal with the climate shocks induced by a 1˚Cincrease, including the rise in the sea level. Many of these countries will have to be abandoned and climate refugees will increase.
Some estimates say Hurricane Harvey, which crashed into the United States mainland last year, cost the country $180-billion. Together with hurricanes Irma and Sandy, these are now in the top five most costly hurricanes in US history. The US also experienced severe wild fires also linked to drier climatic conditions.
The Syrian conflict is also considered a “climate war” — one of the worst droughts in Syria’s history (which fell between 2006 and 2011) caused the failure of most of Syria’s agriculture and the migration of 1.5-million Syrians to urban areas. Although the conflict is complex, climate change as a contributing factor cannot be ignored.
The cost of South Africa’s drought has not been calculated and we are not coming to terms with what we are dealing with. Most politicians and policy-makers use the language of a “natural disaster”, which suggests this is a freak event of nature — a transient problem and the concomitant response is “disaster relief”. This mode of thinking betrays a serious crisis of leadership and the makings of climate crisis in South Africa.
The drought that has ravaged rural South Africa since 2014, and which is now threatening big metropolitan conglomerations such as Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Bay and Durban, has to be a defining moment. The Cape Town water crisis portends the problems we face if we want to construct a climate emergency state that can support a citizen-led transition that affirms climate justice.
The poor and working-class citizens of Cape Town have endured three levels of climate injustice and, if this repeats itself, climate conflict will tear South Africa apart.
First, inequality and geographies are racialised in Cape Town.
A Day Zero approach, with its emphasis on disciplinary demand management and fear, squeezed households and neighbourhoods already dealing with water insecurity. Water management devices and punitive tariffs shifted the burden and cost to poor communities, whereas agriculture and business were let off the hook.
More generally, farming in South Africa controls 62% of our water resources. Because of irrigation-fed agriculture, including in the Western Cape, we are exporting our water as we export food. This approach to water and food systems contributes to climate injustice and is not viable in a climate-driven world.
Second, the state at all three levels has failed, thus passing the burden on to the most vulnerable.
The City of Cape Town and the Western Cape did not have a sustainable water management strategy in place, despite numerous warnings and the science of climate change already forewarning drier conditions in the Cape.
The national government has been incompetent and in disarray, confirmed by the revelations of mismanagement coming to the fore regarding the failed leadership of the former water and sanitation minister, Nomvula Mokonyane. Moreover, Parliament has been slow to respond, declaring a “national disaster” only recently.
At the same time, activists and civic organisations have developed compelling critiques of the state’s responses and have also developed systemic solutions. Many of the water crisis organisations in Cape Town justifiably reject desalination as an expensive techno fix, with serious negative environmental effects.
Instead, they are calling for water leaks to be plugged, water to be harvested from water channels leading to the ocean, the protection of agro-ecological farming communities such as the Philippi horticultural area, the integration of ground water into the water system in a sustainable manner, incorporation of farmer-controlled dams into the water system and reuse of water, among other just solutions.
A discourse on water and food sovereignty is emerging from below but is not finding policy traction in the state.
The third injustice experienced relates to an ANC government committed to a fossil fuel energy path (as entrenched in the Integrated Resource Plan). This can be seen in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ambition to see mining as a “sunrise industry” — which includes more coal, fracking and off-shore extraction — and a National Development Plan that affirms the importance of resource nationalism.
The carbon criminality of the ANC government is not exceptional and includes President Donald Trump’s United States, Russia, China, India and other petro-states.
Essentially, ruling elites have chosen more carbon emissions and hence a climate-driven world with devastating consequences for the poor, working class and marginal. This exists alongside imperial designs to police zones of climate chaos and to keep the world enthralled by symbolic gestures such as the Paris Climate Agreement, which provides too little, too late. Cape Town registers the disproportionate effects and climate injustices of carbon criminality.
We are in a “no-analogue” situation and as uncharted territory for the human race we have to develop a new paradigm to sustain life in response to the climate crisis. This has to reflect in how we think about decarbonising our society and building new ecocentric systems (water, energy, food, living, governance) to manage climate shocks.
South Africa is one of the most un-equal countries in the world. Climate change and shocks will deepen racial, gender and class inequalities, yet at the same time it affords us the opportunity to address these challenges and build for the future.
The climate crisis does not have to be about catastrophism or end-of-times millenarianism. The ecocidal destruction of the conditions that sustain life can be confronted with radical nonracialism and a new direction for the nation-building project that unites us all.
South Africa can be a beacon to the world again. As a climate-justice state it can embrace a deep and just transition, an idea championed by trade unions and consider democratic systemic reforms already emerging such as food, seed and water sovereignty, climate jobs, zero waste, the rights of nature, socially owned renewable energy, solidarity economies, a substantive basic income grant and democratic planning, among others.
As in the struggle against HIV, the world could not stop us from producing the generic drugs we required to sustain lives. Trump’s US cannot stand in the way of us confronting the existential threats of climate change.
In this context, climate crisis international relations require us to build support for a climate-justice agenda in our continent, the inter-state system and isolating those countries that are carbon criminals. This might even include climate justice sanctions against some states.
Global leadership has failed over the past 20 years to tackle the climate crisis. South Africa, post-Zuma, can show a different way for humanity and other life forms we share this beautiful planet with.
It is not too late to advance a deep and just transition for South Africa, as the central thrust of a new eco-centric National Development Plan.
Dr Vishwas Satgar is a University of the Witwatersrand academic. He is on the committee of the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and is helping to develop a people’s water charter for South Africa. He edited The Climate Crisis: South African and Global Democratic Eco-socialist Alternatives (Wits Press, 2018)