2019 International Person of the Year
Our Burning Planet/Greta Thunberg
Climate-wise, 2019 was the year that humanity saw its future. In dozens of countries, heatwaves brought the highest temperatures since measurements began while Arctic freezes brought the lowest. Tropical storms, unprecedented in frequency and strength, displaced a record number of people. Ecosystems collapsed at a terrifying rate. And carbon emissions, the root cause of the devastation, continued to peak. Through it all, a teenage girl spoke the planet’s truth — but were the leaders of South Africa and the world paying attention?
I. The view from space
Of all the things that humanity remembered about itself in 2019, there was one that for millions of us felt like an entirely new truth: the living planet had a threshold beyond which it would refuse to support further extraction, combustion and abuse.
The first big wake-up call sounded a few months before the dawn of the year, in October 2018, when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced that 91 scientists from 40 countries had reached consensus on a numerical value for the threshold: it was 1.5°C of planetary warming above pre-industrial levels, they said, and avoiding it would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” by 2030.
The phrase and the cut-off date, which were headlined by the world’s major media houses and instantly elevated climate journalism to a mainstream beat, had the added effect of reminding humanity about a truth that did not feel new at all. Power elites would always defend the status quo, we recalled, as evidenced by events at COP24 in Poland in December 2018, when the US, Russia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia ensured that the international climate conference failed to adopt the IPCC’s report.
And so, since it had never shown much respect for our kamikaze geopolitics, the living planet opened 2019 with an extreme weather event that set the tone for the year. In early January, sudden stratospheric warming was observed above the Arctic, causing the polar vortex — which was supposed to be held in place over the North Pole by the jet stream — to weaken and split. The disruption was exacerbated, according to scientists, by the release of warm air from the ocean, which helped to push the Arctic freeze over Canada and the Midwestern US, where 680 temperature records were broken and the state of Illinois logged its coldest day since measurements began.
A few weeks later, the UK celebrated its warmest February day on record, the first time the island had experienced a winter temperature above 20°C, but freak wildfires soon killed the mood. And then, in March and April, the planet let us know it wasn’t playing.
A pair of cyclones, named Idai and Kenneth, barrelled into Africa’s Indian Ocean coast, leaving close to 2.2 million people in urgent need of assistance in Mozambique alone. In Zimbabwe and Malawi, a further 400,000 were affected, with roofs torn from houses and crops and livestock decimated by the winds and the floods. The death toll wasn’t confined to the 1,000 people who were taken by the immediate ravages of the storms, but included those who would later succumb to the cholera, malaria and dysentery that waited in the fetid waters.
According to the UN, never before in recorded history had two tropical cyclones hit Mozambique in the same season, a situation that actualised what observers had long been dreading — as the planet warmed and weather systems became more volatile and unhinged, the world’s poor would bear the brunt of the carbon emissions of the rich.
In May, cognisant of the realities of climate apartheid and yet mostly removed from its sharp edge, a group of schoolchildren in 130 countries staged one of the largest environmental protests the living planet had yet seen. The campaign, made up of 1.4 million teenagers wielding placards that read “Please don’t burn my future!” and “System change not climate change!”, was inspired and led by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who on a Friday in August 2018 had staged a solitary strike outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, a protest she would repeat every Friday thereafter until first the prime minister of Australia and then the plutocrats at Davos and finally Donald Trump himself had no choice but to react.
The Instagram photo of Greta’s original strike — like Pelé and Ronaldo, she would achieve a level of fame that obviated the need for a surname — would, according to auteur filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, become “a kind of historical shorthand for the age”, akin to the captured moment of Kennedy’s assassination or the freed Mandela’s raised fist.
Greta, who credited her ability to withstand the media attention to the side-effects of her autism, watched and took notes as floods destroyed crops in North America’s breadbasket, a historic drought in India became visible from space and glaciers that were meant to melt in geologic time began to crumble in human time.
She afflicted the comfortable in a way that no adult activist could, delivering her rebukes in sound-bytes that held the resonance of deep and inarguable truth — and so her messages packed the weight of urgent and necessary change.
“This ongoing inaction of people in power, and the companies responsible, will in the future no doubt be remembered as a crime against humanity,” she said in late May 2019, at the World Summit in Vienna, during a speech live-streamed by Time.
“Those who know of the consequences of business as usual for all living species must be held accountable if they’re still not doing anything.”
By which she meant the fossil fuel executives and their enablers in plush government offices across the globe. Although these intertwined cousins would continue to not do a thing – and in fact would simply double-down, pushing greenhouse gas concentrations to levels unseen in three million years — the global finance sector would be the first of the old-guard to respond. After mid-April 2019, when UK reserve bank governor Mark Carney and his French counterpart François Villeroy de Galhau sent a climate collapse bulletin to central bankers and the investment community at large, it was open season on financiers.
How much did this have to do with Greta? The question was best answered with another: if she had not channelled the archetypal forces that were already destroying societies in the developing world, would the grownups from Extinction Rebellion have superglued themselves to the entrance of the London Stock Exchange and blockaded traffic outside Goldman Sachs?
What these protestors knew, what Greta had articulated months before them, was that climate collapse was a zero-sum game – business as usual would soon enough result in no business at all. On 21 June 2019, taking all of the above into account, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund (with $1-trillion of Norway’s assets under management), was given the parliamentary go-ahead to dump more than $13-billion of its holdings — a comparatively tiny number, and yet the most significant fossil fuel divestment anywhere, ever.
It was a smart move, particularly because extreme weather would displace a record seven million people in the first half of 2019, a figure that included the 3.4 million Indians and Bangladeshis who fled their homes before Cyclone Fani made landfall in early May.
II. The view from the Union Buildings
Meanwhile, in South Africa, the government was coming at climate collapse as if it was a PR problem.
In late June 2019, when France, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Turkey were all recording their hottest historic temperatures for the month (a second heatwave in July would break a number of all-time records), the South African delegation at the UN climate talks in Bonn were toting a “secret” document.
According to this document, a copy of which was obtained by Daily Maverick, our government was still “considering” whether the IPCC’s 1.5°C threshold, as determined by those 91 international climate scientists who’d assessed 6,000 peer-reviewed papers over a three-year period, was a strong enough basis for action. Our appointed climate negotiators, the confidential memo made clear, had been ordered to wait and see what the science would say in the reports yet to come. And anyway, even if the 1.5°C target did prove watertight, they were under strict instructions to leave it to developed (richer) nations to do the honourable thing.
This from a country whose subsidies to the coal industry had just been confirmed as the fourth-largest in the G20, a country whose annual carbon emissions were 70 million tons higher than the UK’s (which, on 12 June 2019, had committed to the IPCC’s net-zero target by 2050), a country whose president was about to become the African Union’s head honcho in charge of climate change.
Meaning, the only plausible reason for the secrecy was that there was a faction within the 33-member South African delegation at Bonn who knew that the contents of the document were disastrous for the country’s image. Which was spot-on, given the added fact that the delegations from the oil-producing nations of Saudi Arabia, the US, Australia and Iran flat-out rejected (in much harsher language than some of them had done in Poland the previous December) the IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5°C.
In early July, as confirmation that the world was splitting into climate rogues and climate neutrals — with only a handful of nations, like Costa Rica and New Zealand, truly in the category of climate protectors — the all-powerful Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) declared a fatwah on the activist infidels.
“Civil society is being misled to believe oil is the cause of climate change,” said Mohamed Barkindo, Opec’s secretary-general, after announcing that the “unscientific” claims of climate campaigners and the school strike movement were “the greatest threat” to his industry.
Once again, Greta’s response channelled the ancient laws of the living planet, a planet that now seemed amused by humanity’s idiocy. “Thank you!” she tweeted. “Our biggest compliment yet!”
As if that wasn’t enough, on the same day that Barkindo handed his ass to the 16-year-old, Vladimir Putin rubber-stamped a deal with Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman to extend oil production cuts. The deal effectively meant that Saudi Arabia was suddenly deferring to Russia when it came to defending the price of oil — or, more to the point, that Putin (an active celebrant of climate collapse and the personal riches it would bring) was the new boss of Opec.
Putin, of course, was South Africa’s buddy in BRICS, an old friend who was still intent on shilling his exorbitantly expensive and climate-hostile nuclear technology to us, despite (or because of) the fact that environmental activists had scuppered his deal with former president Jacob Zuma in April 2017.
In August 2019, another of our BRICS buddies would offer a window into this approaching “climate world order”, a likely near-term future in which extreme weather would engender a set of political responses as venal as any humanity had ever seen.
His name was Jair Bolsonaro, and within a matter of days he had moved from downplaying the severity of the Amazon wildfires and blaming them on leftist NGOs to deploying his military to deal with the problem. The reason for the about-face, as David Wallace-Wells (one of the world’s pre-eminent climate journalists) wrote in New York Magazine, was French president Emmanuel Macron’s promise to squash a major EU trade deal with Brazil if Bolsonaro didn’t react with an urgency that befitted the tipping-point threat to the rainforest.
“In other words,” noted Wallace-Wells, Macron’s intervention applied “the same tools of leverage and sanction and shame to crimes of climate as have been applied, in the past, to violations of human rights and territorial sovereignty.”
What this unprecedented action brought to the fore – and the reality of it was arguably the most important climate-geopolitical event of 2019 – was the looming prospect of climate wars. As per the logic of Macron’s threat, if a climate crime transcended a national boundary, which it very much did when it came to the Amazon rainforest and its importance as a carbon sink for all of humanity, then national sovereignty was an easy sacrifice. But clearly Bolsonaro wasn’t intimidated, because when the world’s media moved onto the next extreme weather event of 2019, September’s Hurricane Dorian (the strongest storm to ever hit the Bahamas), the Brazilian strongman reverted to his policy of opening the rainforest to loggers, cattle ranchers and soya-bean farmers, who were the real culprits behind August’s wildfires.
Back in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, no doubt, there was an eagerness to not be cast among this rogues’ gallery.
Our two remaining BRICS friends, Narendra Modi of India and Xi Jinping of China, had been displaying their own brand of trans-border aggression by respectively maintaining the world’s first climate fence (around Bangladesh) and pouring billions into the funding of coal plants in Africa (while claiming to be climate-friendly at home).
On 24 September 2019, four days after Greta had outdone herself by leading the largest co-ordinated mass action event of the century, President Cyril Ramaphosa sent a statement to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York.
“The world depends on us,” he declared. “We have seen the disastrous effects of climate change across the globe in the increased incidence and severity of extreme weather events such as flooding and droughts.”
As Daily Maverick reported, the statement was also the first official confirmation that Ramaphosa was backing an $11-billion climate finance deal to turn the Mpumalanga coalfields into the largest renewables energy hub on Earth. But, at the time of this writing, although the deal was still a distant possibility, it had become despairingly obvious that the minerals-energy-complex had won out against the president’s best intentions.
III. The view from the soil
On 28 November 2019, the “Bantustan Act” became a reality in South Africa. Published in the Government Gazette, the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Bill was now law — which meant 18 million rural South Africans, whose security of land tenure was enshrined in section 25(6) of the Constitution, could be deprived of their water and soil without their prior and informed consent.
The act was arguably the greatest betrayal of Ramaphosa’s career, because while at face value it gave statutory recognition to the Cape-Khoi, Griqua, Nama, Koranna and San – something that no government since Van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape had ever done – its more nefarious purpose was to slip in section 24, which allowed mining companies and other developers a back-door pass to the resources in the former Bantustans.
By most accounts, since nine out of 10 new mining rights applications were in these areas, the Act was a response to the precedent-setting Maledu and Xolobeni judgments, in which the Constitutional Court and the North Gauteng High Court ruled in late 2018 that mining companies had to bow to customary law. By these terms, land rights were held by the community and no single person, particularly a chief, could sign them away.
The threat this posed to the Republic of South Africa’s founding industry was severe – and so government, by granting chiefs the authority to do deals without the consent of their communities, had come up with a ruse (as in, section 24) to hit back.
What did this have to do with the climate?
In a word, everything. On 7 May 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES, released what Guardian columnist George Monbiot called “the biggest and worst news humanity has ever received”. The natural world, we learnt in the summary of the report for policymakers, was in the middle of an unprecedented crisis, with extinction rates tens to hundreds of times higher than they had been in the past 10 million years. Prepared by 145 leading experts from 50 countries, the report was a devastating blow to the humans of late-stage capitalism.
The threads that held nature together were unravelling, IPBES declared, and it was the activities we took most for granted that were causing it: How we fed, watered and housed ourselves; how we travelled from one place to another; the stuff we were spewing into the air from our power plants and factories; the stuff we were flushing into the rivers and seas; how (as in, how fast) we were having babies; how (as in, how fast) we were extracting resources from the ground; how (as in, how fast) most of this was heating up the planet.
The phrase “indigenous” was mentioned 32 times in the 40-page summary, with the following on page six providing a précis of what the report’s authors — ecologists, zoologists, botanists, biologists and climatologists, among others — meant by their use of the term:
“Regional and global scenarios lack an explicit consideration of the views, perspectives and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, their knowledge and understanding of large regions and ecosystems and their desired future development pathways.”
Put another way, the local communities that lived closest to the land, drawing water from its undammed rivers and harvesting crops from its untreated soil, were in the best position to teach the rest of us how to mitigate and adapt to the breakdown of climate and ecosystems.
The IPCC reiterated the point in its special report on climate change and land released in August 2019, with the authors (107 leading scientists from 52 countries, citing 7,000 peer-reviewed papers) presenting a stark and pressing choice – either humanity could perpetuate the same vicious cycle, in which case apocalypse was pretty much assured, or we could pivot to a virtuous cycle, which implied a sharp scaling down of industrial farming practices, actions that allowed soils and forests to regenerate, the cutting of meat consumption and food waste and the planting of drought-resistant crops.
Mining, needless to say, was a big no-no as far as these and other UN-backed reports were concerned — and yet in South Africa, mere weeks after IPBES dropped its global assessment, Ramaphosa let the fox into the henhouse.
With Gwede Mantashe’s appointment on 29 May 2019 as the cabinet minister in charge of mineral resources and energy, the instruction from the top was to dig and to burn. A champion of coal and its imaginary friend “clean coal”, Mantashe had shown in Xolobeni that he was also a man dedicated to extracting resources at all costs, a man to whom the opposition of rural communities in eight out of nine South African provinces meant nothing.
The fix, in other words, was in – and Greta’s words applied to no-one so much as to him.
“Right now, we are ignoring natural climate solutions,” the teenage icon said in September 2019, in a short film she co-produced with George Monbiot. “We spend 1,000 times more on global fossil fuel subsidies than on nature-based solutions.”
As far as the living planet was concerned, those subsidies, which were ipso facto coming from the world’s governments (South Africa’s foremost among them), were one of the chief reasons global carbon emissions were certain to hit an all-time high in 2019. They were one of the structural causes behind the fact that the decade, according to the World Meteorological Organisation, was about to close out as the warmest on record. And they were inextricably linked to the reality, as laid out by the UN Environment Programme, that global emissions would need to fall by 7.6% per year between 2020 and 2030 if the 1.5°C threshold wasn’t going to be breached.
There was almost zero chance that the world’s governments would get us there, which was why the best thing to happen in 2019 was Greta.
In South Africa, perhaps the best thing to happen was the Climate Justice Charter, where non-government actors — drought-affected communities, faith-based organisations, labour, media, civil society and the youth — collaborated to map a grassroots path to an inhabitable future.
Because our living planet had now become our burning planet, 2019 had brought us to the brink of a range of no-return tipping points and ushered in the “age of fire”, and the fate of humanity belonged more than ever to the kids. DM
Previous Global Persons of the Year
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved