OPINION | Climate change: We are wedded to our own suicide

Richard Calland covers a lot of ground in his article, “No walls high enough to stop climate change” (Mail & Guardian 6 May 2022). What stands out are the reasons he offers for the “bewilderment that an issue that is self-evidently as great a threat to people as unemployment and poverty continues to be so conspicuously absent from the political agenda and from public discourse”.

If only the cause of this conspicuous absence was the “recalcitrant, climate science-illiterate energy minister, ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe”.

If only the problem was “the great majority of South Africa’s political class are either too stupid, too lazy or too downright negligent to care enough to change things”.

If only the problem was the egregious ignorance of the Democratic Alliances’s spokesperson on the environment, who “had never heard of the Integrated Resource Plan”.

If only the problem was “a huge failure of political leadership”.

If only the problem was being made worse by being “further buried by new entrants to the electoral market who appear determined to distract with populist attacks on immigrants”.

If only the solution to the problem was “giving up the drug that is the underlying cause of climate change — carbon”.

The failure to “build walls high enough to stop climate change” is a global one. It goes way beyond the answers Calland offers for its failure in South Africa. 

The magnitude and duration of the global failure merit a brief retelling. But before doing so I readily affirm that, although questioning Calland’s answers, I have no answers of my own despite my many attempts over the years. 

When I first called climate change humanity’s long suicide, I did so to convey the urgency. That was in 2013 in the report, Green Economy: The Long Suicide, published by the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC). Since then, the only change has been to the urgency. Despite its compounded growth, the path we seem stuck to is suicide.

The first scientific warning, in the US, about climate change was in 1978. But that was internal research by Exxon which it kept secret until 2020. The first public warning was also made in 1978 by Jason, an independent group of elite scientific advisers to the US government, mainly on military matters. 

The US government dismissed the report, claiming it had not been done by specialist climate scientists. So, in 1979, Jason redid the report, this time using acknowledged climate scientists. It made no difference; the government didn’t like the message.

The first internationally recognised climate scientist to take the message to the US Congress was James Hansen, in 1988. The message remained unwelcome. But growing expressions of increasing scientific concern induced the fossil fuel industry to mount a major campaign to undermine science. Its strategy was simple enough: cast as much doubt on the science as possible

Hansen addressed this doubt 24 years later in a Washington Post article in August 2012. The article, headlined “Climate change is here and it is worse than we thought,” noted “a stunning increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers” that took even him by surprise. He added that it was no longer necessary to “repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change”. 

His research showed “there is virtually no explanation other than climate change” for the plague of extreme weathers then being experienced across the world. 

“The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small,” according to Hansen. “To count on those odds,” he warned, would be “like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills”. His conclusion turned out to be prescient: “The future is now. And it is hot.” 

Two months later Hurricane Sandy hit the US. The devastation, particularly in New York, forced then-president Barack Obama to declare: “I am a firm believer that climate change is real; that it is impacted by human behaviour and, as a consequence, we have an obligation to do something about it.”

Besides Hurricane Sandy being another testimony to empty words proclaimed by our political leaders, it underscores yet another development. There was a time both in South Africa and much of the world when the public’s failure to act against the climate inaction of their leaders was attributed to climate change not being sufficiently in your face. The thinking was that this absence made it possible for climate change to be ignored by both the political leadership and the public. 

Climate change remains essentially ignored, despite the now worldwide normality of what were once considered to be “extreme weather events”. In Hansen’s words from 2012, the future is now. The Durban floods are but the most recent South African example. 

There was also a time when politicians were able to proclaim their acceptance of the science of climate change while presenting their inaction as a consequence of the stark dilemma they faced. The choice they wanted us to accept was either development and employment or tackling climate change but never being able to do both simultaneously. 

This argument is seldom heard these days. 

The global recognition of the need to shift to renewable energy has come with the additional recognition of the large number of new industries and jobs that will be created. The AIDC’s call for One Million Climate Jobs was radical when first made in 2011. It is now mainstream. 

When the AIDC first made that call, little was said about the cause of climate change or what was sustaining and indeed aggravating the climate crisis. But within a few years a popular slogan worldwide was: system change, not climate change. Capitalism became increasingly seen as being at least a major part of the problem. 

Naomi Klein captured the new moment with her magnus opus, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. That was in 2014. Yet very little has changed. 

How do we face this sober reality? We’ve run out of excuses for why little of what we know must be done has been done. We remain firmly wedded to our own suicide, notwithstanding our growing awareness of not only the scientific evidence but also the almost daily reports of the various forms of the climate disaster from different parts of the world.

We know that some aspects of climate change are now unstoppable. But we also know that we can still avoid our ultimate disappearance as a species. Somehow, enough people from around the world need to find a way or means of exerting sufficient pressure on our leaders for them to do what they say they know needs to be done. 

There is this hope. If only …

Jeff Rudin is with the Alternative Information Development Centre in Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Jeff Rudin
Jeff Rudin is with the Alternative Information Development Centre in Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.

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