Our lethal penchant to fiddle

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Warmer water? Even the lobsters feel it: A juvenile lobster is returned to the water by scientist Diane Cowan during a survey of the lobster population on the shore of Friendship Long Island, Maine. Scientists say the Gulf of Maine is warming faster due to global warming than more than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. The temperature rise is prompting fears about the future of one of the Atlantic’s most unusual ecosystems and the industries it supports.  AP/Robert F. Bukaty

IN South Africa, a tornado hit the Pietermaritzberg area in KZN last week, injuring scores of people, destroying houses and washing away trees. Durban has been hit by a string of weather-related emergencies in recent years. In April, heavy localised flooding throughout the city resulted in 70 deaths, with more than 1,000 people displaced. The country’s weather bureau was quick to caution that extreme weather was not uncommon in that area, but when anxiety about a climate crisis is everywhere, the connection is quickly assumed. 

The threat to human life from climate change renders the disputes about religion, power and territory we traditionally fight over, archaic. A strange ‘benefit’ of the climate crisis is now nobody can deny humanity is one: either we work together to solve it, or die together.

What’s the point of arguing over where the precise border of a country or piece of land lies, if that land will be covered in water either from tides or from deluges from the sky? The flooding of the city of Venice is a current example of how water has no respect for what is precious to man, including  his historic buildings and artworks.

What does this climate emergency mean for local community life, particularly in a country like South Africa, where the majority of its population are poor and live in vulnerable rural areas? People have no air-conditioners there, and even if they did, it would not stop the other, broader effects of climate change.

Communities cannot continue caring only for their own needs, as if the world will take care of itself. Clearly it won’t, as the warming of the earth’s climate by 1.5 degrees shows. Even if all countries switched to renewable energy, the earth’s temperature would still rise by 1.5 degrees. And a developing country like South Africa is still so dependent on coal-burning power stations like Eskom that it will take years for it to change to renewable energy. Eskom generates approximately 95% of electricity used in South Africa, and 45% used in Africa.

There are more questions than answers. Must climate awareness be made a public pillar of a community, any community? How would one do this in a poor, rural community in South Africa where peoples’ main concern is simply to put food on the table. The threat is pervasive and requires communities to act in cooperation, including individuals, business people and others. Schools could be brought in, enabling people to understand that all activities, big or small, are part of their carbon footprint, but what if the schools are virtually dysfunctional as in many parts of South Africa?

In some cases, these requirements would affect communities’ rights to follow their traditions and customs. For example, inward-looking communities whose population growth is often exponential, such as some in third world countries, Mormons for whom any birth control is forbidden, and Haredi Jews for whom every increase in their population is regarded as a blessing. The planet cannot support so many people.

People worldwide did not always understand themselves as part of a global community which needed to act together. Attitudes changed partly with NASA’s spaceflights and Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing, as people saw not just their own house, but the entire planet. A sense of belonging to a worldwide community increased. Events in one place resonated elsewhere: Kennedy’s assassination, the rise of Maggie Thatcher, Watergate.

Awareness of global warming took off in the 1970s. The ‘hole in the ozone layer’ was the buzz. It rose in South Africa too, but at the height of apartheid there were other issues and it took a back seat. Today, ethnic nationalism threatens the global approach to a solution with its emphasis on ‘separateness’ exemplified by American President Donald Trump. But the climate crisis might be the thing to defuse it. Even the nationalists might see that the recent migration crisis from the Middle East will be nothing compared to mass migrations caused by rising sea levels plunging large tracts of land under water.

The human being is a creative species, and dire as the climate change situation is, there are imaginative attempts to address it, epitomised by Swedish teenaged activist Greta Thunberg who became the world’s climate leader with a potent address to UN Secretary General Guterres and UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) Executive Secretary Espinosa at the 2018 UN climate negotiations. She condemned the world’s political leaders for being in the grip of a ‘political-economy’ of exponential growth economics, and banking and multinational corporate interests who are destroying the earth’s capacity to support human life for money’s sake. She is a brilliant example of the youth who might lead the way against so-called ‘leaders’ who, because of their greed, are sacrificing their children and life on earth.

Thunberg says 100-million barrels of oil are burnt everyday. Oil has long been fundamental to industry in developed countries. In the mid-1970s, this became starkly clear in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) members such as Saudi Arabia reduced supplies to Europe and America for collaboration with Israel. Oil prices quadrupled, British industry was reduced to a three-day work week, and American gas stations ran dry. But the prospect of stopping oil use was considered unthinkable.

With today’s understanding, however,  a reexamination of lifestyle and priorities is unavoidable. As novelist Jonathan Safran Foer says, “If nothing matters, there is nothing to save.”