Covid-19

Maverick Citizen: Newsletter Editorial

Hunger, thirst and the climate crisis have not been under lockdown

Hunger, thirst and the climate crisis have not been under lockdown
CLANWILLIAM, SOUTH AFRICA - SEPTEMBER 02: Namaqualand flowers are blooming on September 02, 2019 in near Clanwilliam, South Africa. The semi-dessert wilderness, boasts brightly coloured daisies spread like carpet as the Spring season begins. (Photo by Gallo Images/Netwerk24/Jaco Marais)

The launch of the ‘People’s Climate Justice Charter’ this week is important. It is the product of an exemplary campaign, five years of consultation and social mobilisation led by the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign. However, the real challenges to ensure it is taken seriously by society are just beginning.

In a week’s time it will be the start of spring, once more. After a cold winter and the windy, dusty August, there’s a lightness in the air as temperatures start to increase again. The jasmine is in blossom, its fragrance is smelled on many streets. Leaves are returning to the trees. Birds are busy.

Despite the dark shadow Covid-19 has cast across our world, there’s a feeling of normality. The seasons keep moving, this feels like life as we have always known it.

We want to feel optimistic.

Yet all is not as it should be with our climate. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has distracted the world from the climate crisis, the climate crisis has not returned the favour. If Covid-19 has given us a rude awakening about our vulnerabilities and mortality, the climate crisis has much bigger shocks in store.

For example, according to the UK Guardian, a new scientific study just published by the Bureau for Economic Research in the US has found that:

“The growing but largely unrecognised death toll from rising global temperatures will come close to eclipsing the current number of deaths from all the infectious diseases combined if planet-heating emissions are not constrained.”

I put certain parts of the quote above in bold to draw attention to the fact that unlike Covid-19 (where confirmed deaths today number 806,410), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) are not measuring the climate crisis’s toll of death, illness and destruction. I also want to draw attention to the fact that the reports’ authors project that in future, global heating will eclipse not just Covid-19 deaths, but deaths due to “all” infectious diseases (literally tens of millions of people).

It doesn’t need to be this way.

During the most acute stages of the lockdown, we saw beautiful pictures showing how drastically reduced human travel and carbon emissions had brought respite to nature and the natural kingdown. However, despite a tantalising glimpse of a less polluted world and the obvious joy of certain animals, global heating and its multiplier effects was not on pause.

It continued apace.

The polar ice caps kept on melting at a pace six times faster than in the 1990s.

The northern winter gave way to summer and now the fires in California burn on a scale and with a ferocity that is almost unprecedented. No one except climate denialists like Donald Trump deny the connection to the climate crisis, which is one reason why his removal from power in November 2020 is a global issue, not a US domestic one.

Climate disasters now follow one another with the predictability of night following day. And the world’s poorest countries are already reporting how Covid-19 has exacerbated their vulnerabilities to the climate crisis.

Yet we would be wrong to think that the climate crisis is some other country’s problem.

Southern Africa is considered to be a climate change “hotspot” by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The severe drought South Africa experienced in 2016/17 remains unbroken across parts of the country, particularly in the Eastern Cape. 

As we are reporting in Maverick Citizen, in the Eastern Cape changing weather patterns, reduced rainfall, together with poor management of water resources and corruption, combine to make access to water a luxury (not a right), and farming is impossible in many areas. The South African Food Sovereignty Campaign (SAFSC), for example, has recently documented 97 water stressed communities. Given that this is the finding of a civil society survey, with limited resources, there are probably many more.

The fact that the average Daily Maverick reader is not witnessing the disruption of livelihoods, doesn’t mean it’s not there. It just means that the media is not on hand to record it. It means it’s in someone else’s back yard.

Out of sight is out of mind, for the moment. 

People’s Climate Justice Charter

These are reasons why the launch of the People’s Climate Justice Charter this week is important. The launch at a webinar on Friday, 28 August 2020 at 2pm organised by a group of civil society organisations (register here) will be addressed by a panel of leading feminist climate justice activists, including Jacklyn Cock, Makoma Lekalakala, Dorah Marema, Ferrial Adam and Ela Gandhi.

The Charter is a significant step forward in trying to change our mutually destructive behaviours. It is the product of an exemplary campaign, five years of consultation and social mobilisation led by SAFSC. According to Vishwas Satgar, the extensive process to develop it has included:

“Drought speak-outs in Emalahleni and Constitutional Hill; a bread march in 2016 and delivering a coffin of coal to the (former) Gupta compound in Saxonwold; developing a People’s Food Sovereignty Act in 2017; a People’s Conference with Parliament on the drought in early 2018; and an Open Letter to the President, endorsed by over 60 organisations, in October 2018 after publication of the UN-IPCC report on 1.5°C, calling on him to convene an emergency sitting of Parliament – which was ignored.”

The campaign has also included constituency consultations with drought affected communities, the SA National Editors Forum (SANEF), unions, faith-based and social justice/environmental justice/youth. During 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, debate and input had to move online yet still culminated in a People’s Assembly to finalise the draft.

According to Satgar, the campaign for a People’s Climate Justice Charter will be calling for a national day of action on the climate crisis on 16 October 2020, where the Charter will be formally handed over and a demand made that it be adopted by Parliament in terms of section 234 of the Constitution, which states that:

“In order to deepen the culture of democracy established by the Constitution, Parliament may adopt Charters of Rights consistent with the provisions of the Constitution.” 

Learn the lessons of Covid-19 – declare a climate disaster

In March 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a State of National Disaster after listening to scientific experts about the threat posed by Covid-19. Now, it is essential that the President listen meaningfully to civil society on the climate crisis, not least because it has been able to combine the knowledge of experts with the experience and testimonies of communities who live on the frontline of climate crisis.

Everyone must welcome the fact that in his weekly letter yesterday, Ramaphosa focussed on the climate crisis, noting that: “Unless we act swiftly to significantly reduce carbon emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change, we will be facing one state of disaster after another for many years to come.”

Ramaphosa reported that last week Cabinet has adopted the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy and that a Climate Change Bill is currently under consideration at NEDLAC. His letter described climate change adaptation as “an opportunity to quicken the pace towards a sustainable economy that is just and inclusive”, concluding: “We need to act now, guided by a common strategy, to combat climate change and build a new, resilient economy.”

Everyone could not agree more.

However, in our editorial last week, Maverick Citizen criticised the process now being followed through NEDLAC to develop a post-Covid-19 Economic Recovery Plan, as being exclusive and unrepresentative. Now NEDLAC’s lack of meaningful engagement with those who have been doing the hard yards on the climate crisis will deepen this problem; as far as we know, no civil society organisation working on climate crisis has been involved in the NEDLAC process.

A recovery plan and Climate Adaptation strategy that does not mobilise communities will not be worth the paper it’s written on.

Civil society should work with government. They are the people’s servants after all. But there is deep distrust because much of our government is corrupted and captured, and activists have learnt that when it comes to difficult decisions, government does not always act on evidence.

Diverting crucial discussions to places like NEDLAC suggests that Ramaphosa likes the form, but not the substance of democratic participation.

This is why Ramaphosa’s fine words are not yet enough. Effective climate mitigation (civil society calls it a “just transition”), is still going to depend on an unprecedented civil society mobilisation.

But if this is to happen, behaviour change must also start within civil society. Climate justice campaigns must be scaled up. They must talk to everyone, not just cliques within civil society. Taking the demands of the Climate Justice Chater forward will need imagination, bravery and risk-taking – even civil disobedience.

But in the meantime, the Climate Justice Charter should be debated by every organisation that campaigns for social justice because, as I wrote in 2019, before the Global Climate Strike, the climate crisis is everybody’s business: it is a crisis for health, a crisis for equal education, a crisis for gender equality and ultimately, it will be a crisis for democracy. DM/MC

 Mark Heywood is the Editor of Maverick Citizen. For other articles by Heywood reflecting on activism and the climate crisis see here, here, here.

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