Elections ignored climate change


A million species are on the brink of extinction thanks to humans destroying large parts of the natural world, and climate breakdown is making weather events more intense. This is an unprecedented moment in modern human history. But in these elections, politicians did little more than pay mandatory lip service to a series of problems making life more dangerous and costly for everyone.

Speaking after floods in KwaZulu-Natal killed more than 80 people and caused damage of about R1.1-billion, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “This is what climate change is about. It hits when we hardly expect it.”

Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, wrote this week that: “They [recent floods] are red flags we ignore at our peril, dots we can’t afford not to join.”

Those floods were not caused by climate breakdown. But they were made worse by a world that is already, on average, 1°C hotter than it was before humans began burning fossil fuels on a massive scale.

Climate predictions by the department of environemntal affairs are that eastern South Africa will get more rain falling in shorter, more violent spells. What was once something to worry about in the future is now here.

Politicians acknowledge that this is what they do on the campaign trail; work out what’s topical and make sure there is a sound byte covering it.

Butin their manifestos — where parties set out what they’re going to do about issues — climate featured little. Keeping ecosystems and bio-diversity healthy featured even less.

A month before the election, the Mail & Guardian sent questions to the largest parties, asking how they were going to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and to zero by 2050. This is the goal the United Nations’s climate body — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — said late last year had to be met in order to keep warming to survivable levels. Only one party, the DA, replied, saying: “We view combating climate change as a very significant priority for the future of our country.” Another added the M&G to its mailing list.

If the net zero target is not met, the world will be much, much hotter. South Africa’s National Climate Change Bill says by 2050, the interior will be up to 3°C hotter and 7°C hotter by the end of this century. “With such temperature increases, life as we know it will completely change.”

But climate change is not the whole story. This week, the most comprehensive report ever done on the state of the world’s ecosystems was released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Bio-diversity and Ecosystem Services. It warned: “Biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history.” A million species already face extinction, it said, and by not reducing carbon emissions, this number will only increase.

The report runs to 1500 pages. Last week, 132 countries signed off on its findings. The report said that until now, most of this collapse in the natural world had been because of the insatiable growth of one species. In the past 50 years, the human population has doubled, while the global economy has grown by 400%. All of this means more demand for energy and raw materials. The report said humans had “significantly altered” 75% of the world’s land surface area, while 66% of the ocean was experiencing effects because of people and 87% of wetland area was gone.

There are, for example, 50000 large dams (higher than 15m) in the world, along with 17-million reservoirs. Each one of these affects how rivers flow and how life exists in those rivers.

By far the biggest effect humans have is in cutting down forests and burning veld to farm. The report said that farming and livestock used 33% of the Earth’s land surface and 75% of all freshwater.

The report also said the abundance of indigenous animals, insects and plants had dropped by 20% since 1900.This collapse of biodiversity and ecosystems is already undoing the progress made under the banner of the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals, according to the report. As the climate changes, it becomes harder to farm and feed families, while extreme weather events can wipe out entire communities. Without money and insurance, these communities have to start over.

Starting again will only get harder as more and more species die out, according to the report:“The diversity of nature maintains humanity’s ability to choose alternatives in the face of an uncertain future.”

Four billion people use natural medicines for healthcare, while 70% of the drugs used to treat cancer exist because of natural ingredients. Losing biodiversity means these natural medicines are lost forever.

Change is, however, possible. The report looked at five “levers” that it said could be leaned on to bring back biodiversity, lower carbon emissions and save ecosystems. These range from creating incentives for people to look after biodiversity and enforcing environmental laws to governments making decisions that build the resilience of communities.

But for this to happen, politicians need to take climate and biodiversity seriously.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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