Our Burning Planet: Climate Profile

From the Cape Flats to Tanzania, Alex Koopman is taking the environmental message across Africa

By Tessa Knight 19 September 2019

Alex Koopman. (Photo supplied).

Alex Koopman was drawn into climate activism when he was asked to go to a climate protest earlier this year. Now, he is on his way to Tanzania to spread the climate justice message.

From Vanguard Estate on the Cape Flats, 23-year-old Alex Koopman doesn’t often meet people who are invested in climate justice.

The most environmental activism that you will see on the Cape Flats is maybe a homeless person or a refugee coming around and scratching through your bin for the plastic. So, as far as community-based environmental activism, I would say the people who don’t have homes do more for the environment than the people who do.”

But Koopman is working towards making environmental justice more accessible to communities. Speaking with Daily Maverick, Koopman claimed it is possible to teach anyone about climate change, regardless of their race, socio-economic status or level of education.

All you have to do is understand and acknowledge where they come from, and work to explain it in a way that they understand and that reflects their experiences. And they will get it. Climate change has so many ripple effects that affect everyone, so they will get it.”

Making environmental activism accessible should be a primary goal for government and activists alike, he believes. If he could teach a 30-minute class, Koopman says he would focus on three things: teaching children what climate change is and how it was caused, explaining how it affects them personally and showing them how they can better protect the environment.

We need to make environmental activism fun, and we need to market it properly. If we don’t make it more exciting, then only the people who have a real passion will be involved. But we want everyone to be involved. We want everybody to want a piece of the environmental pie,” said Koopman.

Making everyone want a piece of the pie is the first step. The second step is getting them to fight for the pie, and for Koopman, that means taking the pie to the South African Parliament, and parliaments around the world.

We need to interrogate them. On the Cape Flats even, people have solar panels, so why not have solar panel stations instead of nuclear plants? Why not have windmill systems instead of nuclear plants? Why not renewable energy instead of coal?”

Although Koopman acknowledges that South Africa cannot afford for thousands upon thousands of people working in the extractive and non-renewable energy industries to suddenly lose their jobs, he does not think job losses are a feasible excuse for not becoming environmentally friendly.

South Africa can’t afford to have every mineworker lose their job, but we can afford to have a just transition from non-renewable energies such as mining oil and coal, into a renewable sector. We can retrain existing workers, the skill-sets are there already and people will be willing to learn.

The only thing we need is a plan of action, but the government doesn’t see into the future. They are thinking only as far as their pockets, and I think that’s a big problem.”

Government’s inaction in regard to the climate crisis, and in particular the burning of fossil fuels, has directly affected Koopman’s community. He describes the change in air quality over the last five to 10 years as “dramatic”.

The air feels heavier. You wake up in the morning and you might have a cough. My mother doesn’t understand why she doesn’t seem to be getting rid of bronchitis that she has, but it’s because of the humidity and the pollution in the air. And my two-year-old nephew has asthma, and my heart breaks whenever I see him get sick. We just need some trees in my area, and every area.”

Koopman, like other young climate activists, wants people to engage with each other and their communities about global heating. Even if it feels as if no one makes an immediate change, he knows speaking out and speaking loudly has an impact.

As an actor, he emphasised the need for communication by playing out a scenario that might take place somewhere on the Cape Flats:

I would go up to someone and say: ‘Hey bruh, kannie (can’t you) recycle man?’

They would look at me with a very confused, yet annoyed look on their face, and they would simply ask me: ‘Are you jus (crazy)?’

And that would be the end of the conversation from their part. Me, I would try and explain by saying:

Bruh, the world is dying. Look outside, do you not see winter come a lot quicker? Do you not feel the summer is a lot hotter? Do you not see your clothes are drying quicker than they used to?’

So I would highlight all the key changes that they can literally see. Or I would say:

My brother, look around the corner. There was never plastic there. Now why is there plastic there? You didn’t throw it, I didn’t throw it. Now are there mense (people) littering in our area? Why?’

They won’t have the answers to the questions I want to ask and I know that, but at least I’m trying to create a bit of awareness. We need to change mindsets.” DM



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