This is the third of a three-part series on the climate policies in the manifestos of the parties contesting the 2019 elections. The first, on the climate policy of the ANC, can be accessed here, and the second, on the DA’s climate policy, here.
Engagement, not despair.
With these words, or at least a version of them, Bill McKibben closes off the foreword to his book Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, released internationally in late April 2019. McKibben, whose 1989 classic The End of Nature was the first text to introduce anthropogenic climate change to a general audience, is preparing his reader for the fact that his latest volume is going to be even bleaker.
“More time has passed and we are deeper in the hole,” he writes. “The stakes feel very high, and the odds very long, and the trends very ominous. So, I have no doubt that there are other books that would offer readers a merrier literary experience.”
Likewise, there are other articles that would offer readers of Daily Maverick a merrier experience. Parts one and two of this series weren’t bursting with reasons for hope, and this final piece in the trilogy won’t redeem them. The best we can do is follow McKibben and suggest that this isn’t about optimism or pessimism — it’s about realism.
The reality, then, is that aside from South Africa’s Green Party, whose founder and former leader brought the party into some disrepute on the land rights issue in 2018, there isn’t much to choose from. The contradictions inherent to the manifestos of the ANC and DA can be found in equal measure in the manifestos of most of the others on the ballot paper, with the EFF leading the pack on impossible paradoxes.
Brace yourself for this on page 138:
“The EFF government will establish a research and development centre focused on oil and gas refining and the development of clean coal and oil use by 2024, creating 2,000 jobs, 1,000 of which will be reserved for women and the youth.”
Clean oil use? While the manifesto neglects to tell us what that is, we do know that clean coal doesn’t exist. As Daily Maverick has reported, the phrase has been employed by energy minister Jeff Radebe, mining minister Gwede Mantashe and finance minister Tito Mboweni to divert attention from the fact that South Africa, thanks to Eskom and Sasol, is the 14th-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world — we are, in truth, more than 70 million metric tons a year ahead of the United Kingdom, which has just become the first country on Earth to declare a “climate emergency” in its House of Commons.
In other circumstances — say, a circumstance where South African voters, like Democratic Party voters in the US, had indicated that climate change was now their top electoral priority — our opposition parties would have seen a gap as wide as a barn door. Yet this existential threat to the future of voters everywhere is, for the South African electorate, still no more than a concept.
Why else have we seen almost zero opposition party campaigns around the floods that killed 71 people in KwaZulu-Natal in April, or around the ongoing drought that’s been exacerbating domestic violence in some of our poorest rural communities, or around the unprecedented tropical cyclones that have recently hammered our neighbour to the north-east?
Instead of calling out the ruling party for its failure to connect the dots on these extreme weather events, we get lines in the EFF manifesto like the following:
“The EFF government will work hand in glove with traditional leaders as well as Contralesa on diverse issues that include … climate change and the Green Revolution.”
The Green Revolution, as historians of commercial agriculture will remember, has nothing to do with climate. It refers to a period in the 1950s and 1960s when the global output of industrial farming saw a dramatic spike off the introduction of new chemical fertilisers, synthetic herbicides and pesticides. In other words, when it comes to protecting the environment for future generations, the Green Revolution is exactly what the EFF doesn’t want to mention alongside climate change.
But hey, as long as it sounds good, right?
This throw-it-all-in-and-see-what-sticks attitude is, mercifully, less obvious in the manifestos of some of the smaller parties. Here, the United Democratic Movement (UDM) stands out, with its refreshing acknowledgement that “South Africans do not concern themselves with the environment, because of the notion that ‘it’s someone else’s problem’.”
In the UDM’s manifesto, we get an unambiguous link drawn between social justice and climate justice — as contained in the statement that “it is imperative that the poor be uplifted to rescue our environment from permanent damage”.
We also get the promise that the “UDM government will implement a ‘Marshall Plan’ to save our natural heritage that shall identify, build and reward individuals, institutions and community-based organisations to rescue and conserve our environment”.
With this reference to the recovery programme that kick-started the rebuilding of Western Europe after World War 2, the UDM displays its grasp of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meant when it called, in October 2018, for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.
But as the 2019 environmental scorecard of Action 24 demonstrates, the UDM manifesto does not set hard targets for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, out of the 11 parties analysed by Action 24, the EFF is the only party that commits itself to a number, stating on page 128 of its manifesto that “the EFF government will reduce carbon emissions by 10% by 2024”.
At which point, if we don’t remember (as per McKibben) that engagement is better than despair, we’re likely to fall into the miserable hole that awaits the climate-conscious voter in the 2019 elections. Because not only is a 10% reduction by 2024 way off the 50% target that the IPCC is demanding by 2030, it’s also probably a sop. As the Action 24 scorecard shows, the EFF’s hard target is negated by the fact that it doesn’t call for a shift from fossil fuels to renewables — here, it’s only the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) and the Green Party that do.
In short, while some of the small parties may display an understanding of the crisis, nowhere does the South African voter get a full basket of mitigations to match the enormity of this challenge. The Green Party is way ahead on climate-friendly measures, and yet behind all but three parties (African Christian Democratic Party, Inkatha Freedom Party and FF+) on social justice and governance.
As for Cope and the Good party, they mostly mirror the Green Party’s imbalance, with the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party out of kilter the other way — that is, strong on the “just transition” to renewables for coal workers and weak on acknowledgment that South Africa is in the midst of a climate emergency now.
An emergency that is only going to escalate, whether the parties contesting the 2019 elections get it or not.
“Climate change is not a normal political negotiation between different interests, where compromise makes obvious sense,” McKibben tells us in Falter.
“Climate change is a negotiation between human beings and physics, and physics doesn’t compromise.”
In this sense, there’s no option but engagement. Maybe by the 2024 elections, the South African body politic will have caught on. DM