Responding to the climate crisis

South Africans on average know less about climate change than their counterparts in other African countries; it’s time this changed. (Photo: Jakub Wlodek/Agencja Gazeta via REUTERS)

South Africans on average know less about climate change than their counterparts in other African countries; it’s time this changed. (Photo: Jakub Wlodek/Agencja Gazeta via REUTERS)

“I want you to panic.” This statement, delivered by 16-year-old student and climate activist Greta Thunberg at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting has cut through so much of the noise buzzing around the unfolding climate crisis. There is a lot of noise, but there has been little in the way of action.

Scientists have known for over a century that burning fossil fuels and releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere traps heat that then heats the planet. For at least half a century, scientists have known that this drives global warming, and that this warming will unravel the natural processes upon which life relies.

For the last three decades, international climate negotiations have tried to find some middle ground, where countries commit to tackling their carbon emissions. In those same three decades humanity has emitted half of all the carbon emissions that it has ever emitted. Last year set the record for the highest-ever level of carbon emissions for a single year.

South Africa is not exempt, emitting half of the carbon for the African continent and the roughly one billion people living outside of its borders.

We are now living in the hottest period in recorded history. South Africa is warming at around double the world average. Records are tumbling. July was the hottest month in recorded history, globally. The climate is already changing.  South Africa is one of the most vulnerable countries when it comes to this change, thanks to its historical inequality, which means most people are already struggling to eke out a living.

Because of this, they have little capacity to survive shocks; and climate change is all about shocks. In South Africa, those shocks will be — and already are — about water; when it falls, how much falls and particularly, when it doesn’t fall.

This is already a water-scarce country. It has always been a water-scarce country. That’s why indigenous trees tend to grow in fractions of a leaf-stretch, and stick to knee-height. The scarcity is regularly exacerbated by multi-year droughts. Homes, farms and industries can only exist in much of the country thanks to some incredible engineering: a network of dams that collect rain and distribute it about the country. On the Highveld, these dams stretch from Lesotho and allow for up to half a decade of storage.

But rainfall patterns are changing and water use is growing. Climate predictions are that the western half of the country will get drier, while the eastern half gets wetter. That rain will also come in shorter and more violent spells, making it harder to collect.

Day Zero in Cape Town has already demonstrated what happens when the infrastructure doesn’t keep up with development, with the city coming incredibly close to shutting its main water supply off. A similar scenario is probable on the Highveld in the next decade.

But Day Zero also showed how people can completely change their water-hungry relationship with this most precious of resources.

Drought and floods are just two of the impacts of a changing climate. Local scientists have run exhaustive models to work out how all these impacts will play out. This means South Africa has a tremendous advantage over many other countries, in knowing what the future could look like, so it can be planned for. The Council for Scientific Research’s (CSIR) “Green Book” looks at climate impacts down to the municipal level, allowing local government to build with the future in mind.

Some of us know about the problem, but many of us don’t. Research by Afrobarometer, a pan-African series of national public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, and society, found earlier this year that 59% of people in South Africa do not know what climate change is. The average on the African continent is 42%.

There has been a failure to properly talk about how the climate is changing, and what it means for every person in this country.

With these problems in mind, the Mail & Guardian is launching this supplement. It will examine what companies, communities and individuals are doing to reduce their impact on the planet, and will help others prepare for the collapse of ecosystems and weather systems.

Our reporting often focuses on the massive problems that we face; on a state stripped to the point where it struggles to do anything about the climate crisis, and on the companies that continue to destroy communities and pollute the environment around them.

But this country is still functioning because of the people working to make it better. This is a space to analyse this work, to question inaction, and to praise success. 

Sipho Kings