Around nine of the hottest years on record have hit humanity since we filed into cinema seats to pack our mouths with popcorn and watch Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 blockbuster documentary that thrust the climate crisis into popular conversation. Not that Gore’s landmark documentary signalled the start of climate breakdown. In 2019, we reached 42 consecutive years of delivering above-average global temperatures since Elvis died at Graceland in 1977 — at the age of 42.
Climate deniers may jest that the King of Rock has simply continued to do in death what he did in life — raising global fever. Yet, the science about planet-wide heating has long passed the point of scorn, ridicule or even inconvenience.
If truth is stranger than fiction, the public launch of Our Burning Planet highlighted an Earth that is beginning to play out Gore’s biggest fears. Climate calamities, now unleashing their fury at a rate of one per week, have already turned our world into a choose-your-own disaster flick — one in which our species appears to be both auteurs and extras hurtling towards the edge.
“The science tells us that there’s a huge difference between even 1.5°C and 2°C,” Mary Robinson, the first woman president of Ireland (1990 to 1997) and founding member of The Elders, warned the Our Burning Planet audience, gathered in the lead-up to global climate protests from 20 to 27 September.
Hot nights in ‘cool’ Greenland
“In that gap, very bad things happen,” noted Robinson. “The coral reefs pretty well totally disappear. The Arctic ice will probably disappear and the permafrost will melt, not only sending up carbon, but sending up methane, which will worsen the situation,” added the international climate campaigner and founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation on Climate Justice, which aims to put justice and equity at the heart of climate response.
She also cited the Hawaii-based Mauna Loa Observatory’s announcement in May that it had measured 415 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere — levels unseen for three million years.
“During a recent science expedition to so-called ‘cool’ Greenland, a pilot from the west coast told me, ‘We’re not sleeping so well anymore; it’s just too hot’,” said Robinson, who visited Greenland after attending a funeral in Iceland last month to mark the first glacier the North Atlantic island country had lost to the climate crisis.
“We were in Greenland during a heatwave and saw highs of 20°C. About 200 cubic centimetres of ice disappeared off the Greenland ice sheet in July alone.”
According to Nasa, the average global surface temperature has risen by 0.8°C since 1880, propelled largely by increased emissions into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other human-driven greenhouse gases.
This is a ticking timebomb we’ve known about at least since top Nasa scientist James Hansen told the US Senate in 1988 that he was “99% certain” that the greenhouse effect was driving dangerous global heating.
The unprecedented development this year of 18 countries passing binding motions to declare climate emergencies indicates how long we’ve tarried to respond to the most pressing existential risk of our time.
The last time we saw Paris
“During the 2015 UN Paris climate negotiations, the initial slogan was ‘1.5°C to stay alive’. Towards the end of the conference, I had to give a speech, during which the audience interrupted me to say, ‘1.5 and we might survive’ — so let’s make no mistake,” commented Naidoo.
“Many, many lives are already at risk and many, many lives are already being lost. I mean, growing up in southern Africa, I don’t remember cyclones,” he added, referring to talks that led to the Paris Agreement’s widely criticised voluntary 2030 agenda, set four years before two of the southern hemisphere’s deadliest cyclones in living memory displaced more than two million people, destroyed 270,000 homes and left 1.2 million Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi children in need of aid.
Robinson was the UN special envoy on the climate crisis during the “messy” Paris negotiations, as she described them to the Our Burning Planet audience, expressing the urgency of “no longer regarding the 2030 agenda as voluntary — it’s imperative, because of these scientific reports, to secure a liveable world for our children and grandchildren. It’s time to mobilise.”
The plea to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C to avoid the most apocalyptic impacts was not only the preserve of Paris.
According to the IPCC “Global Warming of 1.5°C” Special Report of 2018, the UN study of 6,000 peer-reviewed papers that has stepped up worldwide concern by an order of magnitude, in as little as a decade the atmosphere is likely to heat up by the feared 0.5°C — on top of the roughly 1°C against the pre-industrial era.
SA heating up twice as fast
Reporting on Daily Maverick since November, Our Burning Planet highlighted critical research showing that South Africa is heating at “twice the global average”. Last month, the unit reported on just what this rate of heating holds in store for South Africa. In addition to the one-in-628-year weather event, in which Cape Town nearly became the first world city to run out of water, these bioclimatic ructions presage more of the unforgiving climate catastrophes that have rocked southern Africa this year — such as the drought that continues to tighten its vice around South Africa’s hinterland and the devastation wrought by tropical cyclones in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries.
Hurricanes and heatwaves have also tumbled records. July was the hottest month in global memory. For Europe, it’s been “five 500-year summers in 15 years”. August was the worst ever month for deforestation in the Amazon, a critical carbon sink, while millions of irreplaceable forest hectares went up in smoke in the basin.
Even more exceptionally, boreal wildfires in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, Russia and even Greenland have churned out monstrous plumes at least the size of the European Union. Fire-igniting thunderstorms cracking over the Arctic, a sitting tinder box, have also been linked to the record mercury. Welcome to the Pyrocene.
In short, the Pale Blue Dot as we’ve come to take it for granted is reeling under the extra 40% of CO2 we’ve pumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution.
And it’s only 2019.
‘Let’s get our shit together’
The key, suggested Naidoo, is to appreciate that much current environmentalism is lost in misplaced hubris. Mother Earth needs human beings to exercise their notions of cultural dominion over her as little as she needs us to save her.
“If we continue on this path, we warm our planet such that it immediately erodes our social and economic rights — which is what Amnesty is seeing wherever we work. The result is no food, no water. We’ll be gone, but the planet will still be here. The good news? Once we’re extinct as a species, the forests will recover, the oceans will regenerate. So, don’t worry about the planet.”
Instead, we need to picture the lives of our children against the backdrop of the worst predictions for the 21st and 22nd centuries and consider pragmatic ways of adapting to stem not only our own ecological anxieties, but the collapse of a civilisation we’re handing to the babies born today.
“It’s pathetic that our children are protesting on the streets and doing what their parents should have done…We have to recognise the window is extremely small and it’s closing fast. We have to recognise that nature does not negotiate and we cannot change the science,” said Naidoo. “But as we race to meet the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, which is to secure a viable future for our children, we’re going to have fun, be optimistic and get creative.”
If we get better at connecting the dots, we can transform our lives through counterintuitive thinking, he said.
“When I was in Europe, I discovered that cities like Uppsala in Sweden and Bristol in the UK run their buses on human faeces, so I refuse to accept that African shit is inferior to European shit. We just have to get our shit together and turn the crisis of climate change into opportunity.”
Of course, not everything needs to run on biogas. Naidoo, formerly head of environmental group Greenpeace, told the audience he had no desire to “kill energy companies”, which were holding the world to ransom by “trying to find arguments that could extend the oil and gas industry right to the end of the next century”.
He simply wanted them to transform into some form of clean energy. “I’d like to hold onto that position. However, given the resistance, inertia and dishonesty, as well as the falsification of the science, if needs be, we’d be best served by the collapse of the entire fossil-fuel industry.”
For Robinson, the climate fight involves a three-step mantra “for all people of the world”: making the crisis personal by reducing individual consumption patterns; addressing anxiety by, for instance, supporting effective advocacy organisations; and being a “prisoner of hope”. This is a lesson, Robinson said, she took from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
“Imagine the world we are supposed to be hurrying towards by 2030. A much healthier world free of fossil fuel pollution; a more equal world, in which everyone has access to clean energy; and the world of solidarity, the world of deeper human relationships, that we need in order to get there.”
‘All journalism becomes climate journalism’
The brainchild of award-winning investigative journalist Kevin Bloom, Our Burning Planet in its first year published at least 100 climate articles, ranging from an analysis by leading commentators to far-reaching investigations by in-house and freelance writers.
“In a very real way, as extreme weather events begin to break down infrastructure, cripple economies and cause mass migrations, all journalism becomes climate journalism,” said Bloom. “The aim at Our Burning Planet is to draw these links, to use the power of narrative and deep reporting to show how it’s impossible for any human being alive today to be unaffected by climate and ecosystem collapse.”
Our Burning Planet’s Leonie Joubert, who has authored books and articles on the crisis for the better part of two decades – including Scorched: South Africa’s Changing Climate – warned that we are “three decades behind on the urgent action needed to throttle back the carbon pollution destabilising our climate. This inertia has partly been driven by politicians and big corporations whose interests to stay elected or profiteer off their free access to atmospheric space have allowed business-as-usual exploitation of what should be a shared, common-good Earth system.”
Joubert said the unit “is a chance to expose the corruption, political patronage and vested interests in our energy sector, which remains the single-biggest hurdle to South Africa – the continent’s biggest carbon emitter and the 14th biggest globally – from making the urgent transition to a low-carbon economy that it’s entirely capable of”.
She noted that “climate change” was a “bland, sanitised term we once used to talk about the notion that carbon pollution could ‘tweak’ our climate a bit – it now looks as though the extent of this pollution could bring about an extinction-level event within our lifetime. It’s time to dial up the temperature on this conversation as never before. It’s time to get angry.”
Although news on the crisis hardly received priority in the press as little as 10 years ago, acute awareness of the phenomenon is increasingly affecting the public – to such an extent that the mental health industry now faces a whole new set of challenges: acute anxiety and depression brought on by fear, paralysis and frustration, not only among those who dread our lack of preparedness, but those who are already hounded by the real-time fallout of biosphere breakdown.
This, according to Bloom, is why Our Burning Planet’s commitment is to seek radical solutions that match the scale of the planetary crossroads at which humans stand.
“In each piece we publish, we aim to report on at least one course of action — not to provide false or meaningless hope, but to outline a practical path to mitigation or adaptation,” Bloom added.
“This series is also a chance to grapple with some of the ‘softer’ philosophical questions that keep us in a miasma of inaction: the values and world views that drive extractive capitalist consumption that now threatens the very life support system in which we evolved,” said Joubert.
“Our Burning Planet is also a chance to look at practical solutions to help build ‘airbags’ into our communities so that we can absorb the physical and political shocks that are going to come thick and fast: how we can restore natural systems to buffer against extreme weather; how we can use our veld and savannas to draw carbon out of the atmosphere; what indigenous knowledge resides in our collective memetic libraries to help us find ways to organise and respond as our political and economic systems begin to unravel and the climate becomes ever more unstable; and how we support coal workers to retain their livelihoods so that the handbrake-turn into a low carbon economy is just.”
Covering Climate Now
Starting this critical September, Our Burning Planet joins hands with new sister unit Maverick Citizen and the Covering Climate Now initiative to report on the global climate protests around the UN Climate Action Summit in New York.
Founded by The Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation, this inaugural watershed initiative aims to reach hundreds of millions of people through more than 170 major and smaller news outlets worldwide.
Covering Climate Now ranks as one of the most ambitious media collaborations yet to galvanise around a single cause, positioning Our Burning Planet to bring to its readers breaking climate news from all corners of the Earth. It also enables the unit to take world-class African stories to the climate stage — this, in addition to the compendium of original features, analysis and investigation the unit has published in the run-up to its public launch.
“Bold action”, in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, is the non-negotiable currency if humanity is to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement: cutting within 12 years 45% of lethal emissions to stay below the crucial 1.5°C threshold and keep on the road towards carbon neutrality by 2050.
Whether world leaders will heed Guterres’s call to show up at the summit with “concrete plans” for the voluntary agreement, rather than merely “beautiful speeches”, remains to be seen.
Either way, Our Burning Planet will be here to hold them to account — and, once the leaders return home from New York, the unit will continue to doggedly pursue the narratives of climate justice, follow the money trail of self-interest, tell the human story from Makhanda to Musina, and shine the light on disruptive solutions that can activate revolutionary global systems change. DM
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"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí