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Where have all the flowers gone? A final climate crisis warning

- Vishwas Satgar

South Africa’s climate science is not an allegory, but an echo of the final warning to all of us about a worsening climate-driven future.

In five years’ time, if the planetary temperature overshoots a rise of 1.5°C, southern Africa, heating by twice the global average, will be a dangerously hotter region and this will threaten everything.

The Biedouw Valley is one of many spectacular wildflower hotspots in South Africa at this time of year. Rolling valleys, veld and mountains of breathtaking colour await intrepid travellers visiting the West Coast and Cederberg. Flowers are central to how humans imagine and experience nature.

In Germany during Covid-19 restrictions, florists were allowed to stay open so that loved ones could share flowers and homes could have flowers to brighten otherwise dark times. For the artist Van Gogh the feral and mesmerising beauty of flowers, including sunflowers, was captured through his pathbreaking use of deep layers of colour. These iconic images evoke deep wells of emotion to this day.

As South Africans, we are aware that nature’s sublime beauty stretches from the heights of Table Mountain in the south, to the undulating landscapes of the Kruger Park in the north and the two oceans that hug our coastlines. We are a country endowed with a natural diversity that is unique on Earth. Our ecosystems are home to all forms of life: from snoek, sardines, the rare sighting of the blue whale, the “Big Five”, rivers, forests, blue cranes and a unique floral kingdom. We have built a country on these precious and fragile ecological foundations. Yet, we are failing to appreciate that all of this is enmeshed in a delicate web of life, connected directly to the maintenance of a stable climate.

In 2015, the planet we consider our home changed dramatically. Climate science recorded a 1°C increase in planetary temperature since the First Industrial Revolution. The extraction and continued use of coal, oil and gas pushed Earth’s thermometer to a place it has not been for the past 11,000 years. The climate our grandparents and parents grew up with and thrived in, is being lost.

Thirty years of climate science have warned us that a fossil-fuel addicted world will heat our planet and induce extreme weather shocks, and the time to address this crisis is limited. This was affirmed in 2018 when the world’s leading climate scientists loudly sounded the alarm bell in the UN-IPCC 1.5°C report shared with the world. This was our final warning about the urgency of the climate crisis.

The next UN climate summit, postponed to next year in Glasgow, will not tell us anything new, except that climate shocks are getting worse and how close we are to the edge of runaway climate chaos with its complex feedback loops.

Climate reality is catching up with everyday lived experience. Polls in the US show that a significant number of Americans are now deeply concerned about climate issues, which manifest in wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, heat waves and sea level rise. Joe Biden’s Green New Deal commitments are a direct challenge to Donald Trump’s climate science denialism and utterances about it being a Chinese hoax.

In the midst of Covid-19, the world has also come to appreciate the disproportionate impacts of a global catastrophe in relation to race, gender and class. An unequal world means more harm for those without economic means. Moreover, the unemployed and low-income earners do not have lifestyles of air travel, resource-intensive consumption and high levels of carbon emissions that cause damage to the Earth system. Earth is reacting to the life-destroying system that benefits a few with a power we cannot match.

An era of pandemics has also been announced by scientists, directly linked to further global heating and the destruction of ecosystems that keep zoonotic pathogens safely away from humans. This calls for a pause in the human journey and for our societies to think deeply about our choices. To continue with the assumption that dominating nature, even through “green growth”, and harnessing technology will save us is deeply flawed. Despite our power to re-engineer the genome, make hyper-intelligent machines and design nanotechnologies, this imagination of progress and productivism is deeply implicated in the prospect of our extinction.

In five years’ time, if the planetary temperature rise overshoots 1.5°C, southern Africa and South Africa, heating by twice the global average, will be a dangerously hotter region and this will threaten everything. According to the consensus climate science we have in South Africa, our carbon-emitting industrial farming system from farm to table will face livestock and crop systems collapse. We will also experience multi-year droughts and more extreme climate-related shocks. South Africa’s climate science is not an allegory, but is an echo of the final warning to all of us about a worsening climate-driven future.

We need new thinking informed by the urgency of climate science and complex systems thinking to remake everything to survive multiple crises affecting our societies. Such thinking is embodied in the Climate Justice Charter launched on August 28 by the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign, the Cooperative and Policy Alternative and various allies in progressive civil society. This charter emerges from six years of campaigning during the worst drought experienced in South Africa and is a historic step, not only to affirm democratic, just and people-driven systemic alternatives to mitigate and adapt South Africa, but it also calls for a paradigm shift to emancipatory ecology that can ensure present and future generations have a chance of surviving.

An emancipatory ecology standpoint asks the deeper questions about the systemic lock-ins driving us towards an unlivable world and its implications for the most vulnerable, who are least responsible for climate change. These lock-ins include:

  1. Continued fossil fuel extraction, including complex hydrocarbons through fracking, tar sands and offshore extraction buttressed by financial investment, regulation, policy, corporate interests and in the global North, imperial power. South Africa’s extension of its minerals-energy complex to the oceans is a good example of this lock-in;
  2. Using carbon-based energy systems and technologies in the airline, shipping, automotive, industrial agriculture, manufacturing, cement and digital sector. Phasing out fossil fuels in these industries requires more than a carbon tax in the context of the climate emergency and an understanding of how carbonisation is entrenched in these sectors and how some of these technologies such as cement or mono-industrial farming do not have a place in a post-carbon world;
  3. Mass consumption based on carbon-based, resource-intensive ways of living and excessive waste. In unequal societies, the wealthy have the largest carbon- and resource-intensive footprints. South Africa is no exception and this has to be tackled directly. A wealth tax or an ecological debt tax are just some of the measures that need to be considered; and
  4. Global heating due to historical and continuing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-driven societies. As the 12th highest emitter of carbon emissions in the world and one of the frontrunners on the continent, South Africa has to break its addiction to coal-driven energy now. It cannot unite African governments, let alone demand reparations from the global North for historical climate debts with its continued coal dependence. Moreover, important system-change transformations are necessary to ensure our society can endure extreme climate shocks.

The Climate Justice Charter seeks to confront and displace these lock-ins that are driving a rupture in our stable Earth system, while engendering a social practice of transformative systems regeneration as part of a deep, just transition. This relates to food, water, work, energy, transport, housing, a public climate insurance fund, a people-led disaster management system and much more that is essential to producing a caring society. The democratic systemic reforms envisaged will meet our social needs, prevent socio-ecological collapse and end the damage to our Earth system. If human beings do not make the shift to an Earth-centred conception of being human, recognising we are just one small part of a larger life-giving system, we will not survive.

On 16 October, during a national day of action calling for an end to hunger, thirst, pollution (including climate harm), the Climate Justice Charter and a climate science future document, prepared by some of South Africa’s leading climate scientists, will be handed over to the speaker of Parliament and all leaders of political parties. As concerned citizens we will be claiming the right of section 234 of the Constitution, which provides for charters to be adopted to strengthen the Constitution, and thus will demand Parliament adopts the Climate Justice Charter.

The scientific warnings have been trumpeted loud and clear; we do not have a second chance to address the worsening climate crisis given the time wasted on “green tinkering”, false solutions and climate concern rhetoric. In addressing this dangerous challenge in a transformative manner, we can be certain of one simple truth: our collective failure to act systemically now means greater harm for all and future generations.

All living in South Africa need to embrace the climate problem and its systemic solutions as part of the new mass-based climate justice politics inaugurated by the Climate Justice Charter. In five years’ time, it will be too late and in 10 years’ time certainly catastrophic if we do not rise to this challenge. Now is the time for united action, at every level of society, to advance deep, just transitions where we live and work. If you listen with your conscience and heart, the screams of pain of future generations born in a world of intolerable heat can be heard.

But it does not have to be like this.

Vishwas Satgar is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Wits University, principal investigator for Emancipatory Futures Studies in the Anthropocene and co-founder of the Climate Justice Charter process. This article was first published in Daily Maverick.