Environmental destruction is the human rights challenge of our time: Archbishop Tutu

Environmental destruction is the human rights challenge of our time and without action, “there will be no tomorrow”, says Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

He was speaking on video at the 10th annual Desmond Tutu international peace lecture held on his 89th birthday on Wednesday, under the theme of climate justice.

“Over the 25 years that climate change has been on the world’s agenda, global emissions have risen unchecked, while real-world impacts have taken hold in earnest.”

Time is running out, he said. “We are already experiencing loss of life and livelihoods because of intensified storms, the shortage of fresh water, the spread of disease and rising food prices. The most devastating effects are visited on the poor, those with no involvement in creating the problem — a deep injustice.”

As in the 1980s, just as some conducted business with apartheid South Africa, aiding and abetting an immoral system, today there were those who “profit from the rising temperatures, seas and human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels,” he said.


“We can no longer continue feeding our addiction to fossil fuels as if there is no tomorrow for there will be no tomorrow.”

The climate crisis, said the speaker, Ugandan climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate, is the greatest calamity facing humanity. Leaders must act with urgency and leave their comfort zones.

“There are two choices we present to you today: life and death. Choose life for the people. Choose life for the ecosystems. Choose life for the planet.”

South Africa is the continent’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and has a rare influence for an African country. It needs to use its position in the G20 and the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Brics) grouping countries to fight for affected people throughout Africa on the global stage, said Nakate. She argued that the devastating floods and droughts on the continent are the unfolding impacts of the climate emergency. Many people have lost their lives while many more have lost their homes, farms and businesses. For instance, Cyclone Idai in March last year was one of the worst cyclones to affect the continent, leaving a trail of destruction in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, with 1 300 dead and many more recorded as missing.

This year the water levels of Lake Victoria rose from heavy rainfall in East Africa, washing away farms, flooding homes and displacing thousands of people.

“The earth is on fire,” she said. Poverty, Nakate said, cannot be eradicated, because “most of the people in these communities most affected by climate change are already living in poor conditions. Climate change only makes their situation worse.”

Increasing conflicts were on the rise, fuelled by the scarcity of natural resources, while migrations from displacement increased exposure of women and girls to gender-based violence and child recruitment into army forces. “This will worsen with climate change,” she warned. 

Africa is the lowest emitter of CO2 of all the continents, but it is among the worst affected as climate change affects and threatens water resources, food security, infrastructure, ecosystems and people, Nakate said.

Climate activist Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, compared the crises affecting the planet in 2020 to a wave pummelling down on a beach.

“Picture a beach where adults are sitting with their back to their ocean, building sandcastles. Unbeknown to them, there is a wave that is coming towards the beach and that wave is entitled the health crisis. Behind that wave is a greater wave and that wave is entitled the economic crisis.

“Behind that one there is a larger wave entitled the biodiversity crisis. Then there is a wave that is 10 times higher and 10 times longer than all of the first waves and that is entitled the climate crisis.”

Inequality is an “unseen” undercurrent.

“So here we are in 2020 sitting on the sand with our backs to those crises because we have refused squarely to look into those crises for such a long time.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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