OUR BURNING PLANET REPORT
Threat Multiplier: The top five climate risks likely to hasten our descent into a hellscape
What are the most urgent climate crisis-related risks faced by South Africans in the first half of the 21st century? Commissioned by Daily Maverick, the world-acclaimed scientists at Wits University’s Global Change Institute, together with a panel of 12 experts from various disciplines, have generated a ‘top five’ list of factors that are almost certain to alter the fabric of our society.
In mid-September, around the time that Daily Maverick was signing off on the climate risk report we had commissioned from the Global Change Institute at the University of Witwatersrand, National Geographic ran yet another feature under yet another headline that referenced the end-times nature of the planet’s most urgent predicament.
“Oregon faces down a ‘once-in-a-generation’ crisis as wildfires rage on,” the headline screamed, before the intro noted that entire towns had been destroyed, with smoke clouds dropping the state’s air quality to near the worst on Earth.
In the feature’s second paragraph, it was pointed out just how relentlessly this once idyllic corner of the US had been battered in 2020.
“Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, after a summer of protests over police brutality and racism, Oregon faces a third crisis: wildfire sparked by climate change.”
It was a lot for the mind to assimilate, even for readers who had never visited Oregon, perhaps because the facts as stated had become universal. The intersection of crumbling political systems, societal breakdown, a global pandemic and climate collapse had descended to a new nadir by the second half of 2020, and somehow these onslaughts seemed interlinked.
It was appropriate, then, that the US writer Charles Eisenstein, celebrated for his ability to connect the large dilemmas facing humanity to the more intimate realms of personal agency and psycho-spiritual awareness, should weigh in on the subject. Also in mid-September, Eisenstein published an essay on his website under the title World on Fire, wherein he cogently argued that “the transition to a healed world requires something much deeper than better techniques”.
For Eisenstein, the objectification of nature, or the view of nature-as-thing, had created the conditions for the clear-cutting of swathes of the Amazon and the strip-mining of the ocean floor just as surely as the dehumanisation of certain races and ethnic groups had created the conditions for their exploitation and enslavement. As regards the Oregon wildfires themselves, he saw in them a metaphor for our collective rage and helplessness, our sense as a species that our world in 2020 had begun to properly and irreparably fragment.
“I can’t easily draw a causal connection here,” Eisenstein wrote, “but it seems significant that uncontainable wildfires are contemporaneous with inflammatory rhetoric, heated debates, flaring tempers, burning hatred, seething distrust, and smoldering resentment. Just as dried out, fuel-laden forests burned out of control with a mere spark, so also have our cities burned as the spark of police murders touched the ready fuel of generations of racism; decades of economic decay, and months of Covid confinement.”
Of course, the environmental scientists at the Global Change Institute (GCI) in Johannesburg recognised as among the most accomplished in their respective fields in the world, would have been acutely aware that they could not use such language and imagery in their own assessment of the crisis. But that didn’t change the fact that there were some remarkable similarities between what Eisenstein was getting at in his free-flowing essay and what these scientists were concluding within the tight strictures of their disciplines.
“Climate change does not happen in a vacuum,” the GCI report warns us in its introductory passages, stating that the crisis acts as a “threat multiplier” by widening a society’s pre-existing systemic and structural cracks.
In southern Africa particularly, we’re reminded, where endemic poverty and unemployment drives competition for access to basic resources, the rates of rural-urban migration are perennially on the up – according to the United Nations, 77% of South Africans are expected to live in cities by 2050, a 13% rise against the current statistics. But, as the GCI report observes, not only do these estimates discount the “plausibility” that climate change will accelerate the trend, they also ignore the fact that many migrants are unwitting victims of the crisis even now.
“Climate refugees are almost certainly already with us,” the report informs us, “even if that is not how the migrants think of their reasons for moving, which invariably involve many factors.”
And so the points of vulnerability to climate change in southern Africa, which run the gamut from corruption to weak economies to ineffective institutions, have led the GCI researchers to identify the “top risks” in their report as clusters of related issues.
In the interests of thoroughness, the list has been collectively scored by 12 experts from various disciplines – both in terms of the likelihood that the risks will materialise, and the consequences if they do. Soon after Daily Maverick commissioned the report from GCI, there was a first round of scoring that identified the 12 most urgent threats. These were then rescored by the experts and clustered into five groups of interrelated climate risks.
At the top of the pile, perhaps unsurprisingly, is what the GCI report has termed “food insecurity and the viability of the agricultural sector”. These have been identified as a pair of related risks, with the likelihood of food insecurity deemed as “expected” in the medium term and the consequences for South Africa and the broader region scored as “severe to catastrophic”. The likelihood of failures in the agricultural sector, by contrast, have been deemed “frequent to expected” and the consequences “severe”.
What separates these two factors is that while the first looks at “inadequate household and community nutrition due to local, regional or global failures in crop and livestock production”, the second is concerned with the “non-viability of regionally important agriculture-based activities, both subsistence and commercial”. What they have in common is that they are both subject to the increasing prevalence of “hot, empty skies” – or, more specifically, the fact that “everyday life for South Africans… has translated to more intense heat waves and more extremely hot days in the past decade than ever before”.
Consequently, if there is one overriding factor that’s inherent to this dual risk, it can be summarised in the following paragraph:
“At least 5.6 million southern Africans are undernourished, without even considering the impact of Covid-19… This number includes the effects of an inherently marginal and varying climate, the climate change experienced already, land degradation, governance failures and other socio-economic malfunctions. This number is set to almost double by 2030 if we don’t change our ways.”
With rainfall expected to “decline and become more variable”, according to the report, “and temperatures in southern Africa to increase at double the global rate”, the country’s “once-suitable regions for farming will shift or even disappear”. Less local food supply will translate into higher prices, which will then translate into South Africa needing to import way more food than it does at present – and while imports may appear the most obvious solution, this assumes that food is readily available from the country’s trade partners.
“In the case of global food shortages,” the report explains, “which seem likely, entities prioritise their own needs over trade.”
From the impact of extreme climate events such as flood and drought on food stability, to food accessibility (most of us are dependent on shops and markets), to the nutritional value of food, the “solutions towards zero hunger” are as obvious as they run counter to the current distribution models.
Small-scale farming ranks highly in the GCI’s list of solutions, as does investment in affordable and adaptive agriculture and the minimisation of waste. But without rainfall and sufficient irrigation, crop yields – even if the necessary movement is made from maize to more heat-resistant breeds – are almost certain to decline. Which brings up the second of the top five climate risks: “Shortages of clean water.”
In this cluster, the likelihood is ranked as “expected” and the consequences as “substantial to severe”. It is “somewhat unusual”, the report states, that climate change will render South Africa warmer and drier, “since most of the world will get wetter as it gets warmer”. The guaranteed result, unfortunately, will be persistent, multiyear droughts.
“This implies increasing water security risks to eastern South Africa,” the GCI scientists note, “and in particular to the Gauteng province. This province, the industrial heartland of South Africa, is dependent on the eastern ‘mega dams’, and interbasin transfers (including across national boundaries) for its water security. Under climate change, multiyear droughts may bring a ‘day zero’ type drought to the Gauteng province, with far-reaching socioeconomic implications.”
And yet, the report continues, it is not necessarily “about going thirsty” – our global water supplies, which can never technically run out, just become “less and less fit for use”. With the collapse of municipal and district water sources, sewage disposal, industrial production and (as above) irrigated agriculture all take a direct hit. Further, while water scarcity compromises power supply in the entire region – “for example, hydroelectric power from the Kariba and Cahora Bassa dams on the Zambezi are already affected” – the impact is felt most acutely in low-income urban populations, where there are no alternatives.
The adaptive solutions to water scarcity, the report concludes, are not all that different to the solutions to food shortages – they involve a reduction in demand, increased recycling and the elimination of waste. That said, while the South African Water Law of 1996 is “internationally admired”, the vested interests continue to take advantage.
For instance (and most egregiously), irrigated agriculture still consumes nearly two-thirds of the national water supply.
“A badly handled transition to low-carbon energy.”
This, the third in the list of top five clusters, is where the GCI scientists move squarely into the realm of the political economy. At the beginning of 2020, they note, more than 7 million people were unemployed in South Africa; a further 3 million people, mostly women, have lost their jobs because of Covid-19.
“It has thus never been more important to plan for the transition away from coal, in a way that minimises job losses and protects incomes and livelihoods in South Africa and the region. This is what is meant by a ‘just transition’: fair not only to those immediately negatively impacted, but also to the rest of the economy and workforce, now and in the future, and to the health of the planet.”
The likelihood of the transition going awry is “expected”, the report states, with the consequences being “substantial to severe”. It’s a given in terms of the international movement away from coal-based energy, with global climate protests driving the exit decisions of financial institutions and the coal companies themselves, that tens of thousands of jobs will be lost in South Africa – the loss of coal export revenues alone, according to GCI’s sources, will run as high as R1.2-trillion by 2035.
Still, while new wind and solar power plants will create jobs, the result won’t be a “direct trade-off with the jobs lost in the fossil fuel sector”. The scientists offer a coherent explanation here: not only will most of the green energy jobs require higher-skilled workers, they will also “most likely be located” in the Northern Cape and North West provinces, where many of the renewable energy plants will be set up.
As for Mpumalanga, which will be hardest hit by the decimation of the coal industry, retrenched workers will either need to upskill and relocate – which “may not be feasible” given that most of them come from low-income households – or they will need to migrate to the cities in search of alternative work.
Touching again on the “threat multiplier” dilemma, the report points out that the incoming migrants will further overwhelm “housing, healthcare and other public services”, with many ending up in informal settlements.
The solution, as articulated in the plan delivered by the Congress of South African Trade Unions earlier this year, is for “Eskom, government, coal mining companies and social actors, including trade unions and environmental NGOs… to collaborate, rather than confront each other”.
But plans demand implementation, and nowhere will the reaction times of authorities be more critical than in the fourth cluster: “Heat stress is a killer.”
“All warm-bodied organisms have a core body temperature of around 37°C,” the GCI scientists note, “and there is apparently no way to change this reality. As the air temperature approaches this number, we find it harder and harder to stay cool – especially if the air is humid and windless, we are in the sun, and if we are short of clean water to replace our perspiration.”
Heat stress mainly affects two groups of people, they add, those who do physical work outdoors and the elderly. “In other words, the health of millions of people in southern Africa is at stake on days of extreme heat.”
Also, not only does heat stress lead directly to a loss of productivity – in South Africa, that loss is estimated at 5% – it exacerbates inequality between countries, and between population groups within countries.
The solutions, where they exist, involve structural transformation of rural economies, adaptation of clothing and equipment at the workplace level, adjustments in working hours, green spaces in cities and highly functional early warning systems. Perhaps because these interventions can only have a limited impact, the report scores heat stress as “expected” with the consequences “severe”.
The final cluster, though, is where we see the most profound confluence of the work of writers like Eisenstein and environmental scientists like those at GCI.
“Disrupted ecosystems and loss of biodiversity,” is what the fifth threat has been termed, with the likelihood ranked as “frequent” and (again) the consequences “severe”.
“It’s like trying to put a key into a lock that keeps on moving,” the report informs us about our attempts to protect the “climate niches” into which all species on Earth have evolved to fit. “As the species get out of step with one another, the ecosystem starts to fall apart. This opens gaps for ‘weedy’ species to move in. The stability of the ecosystem, and the stream of benefits it provides to humans, is compromised.”
In South Africa, one of only 10 “megadiverse” countries on Earth, the changing climate is expected to destroy “a very large fraction” of our biological diversity. This will have a knock-on effect that extends to the provision of food and clean water (as described in the first two clusters above), the regulation of pests and diseases, as well as the regulation of the climate itself.
The proposed solutions here are vague at best. “Unlike minerals,” we are told, “[our biological riches] never run out if properly managed. Part of that management is protecting them from climate change, and helping them to adapt to the changes that cannot be avoided.”
Of course, the GCI scientists can’t be blamed for such vagueness. A reconstituted attitude to nature that involves “enchantment” and “reverence”, which Eisenstein proposes can’t be measured in a lab. Then again, the report does mention “the cultural and psychological benefits we derive from a much-loved and familiar natural landscape”.
Put another way, if more of our ecosystems are obliterated to make way for more mines and Special Economic Zones, if we fail to see how our inflammatory rhetoric mirrors the various conflagrations in the natural world, if we don’t back up our legal and environmental holding actions with the type of inner transformation that only psycho-spiritual work can bring, we are destined for a hellscape of untold proportions.
On this point, the poets and scientists seem to agree. DM
In a live webinar on Thursday, 15 October at 12h00, Daily Maverick’s Kevin Bloom, along with GCI’s Prof Bob Scholes, a systems ecologist whose work is cited by environmental scientists across the globe, and Makoma Lekalakala, recipient of the world’s foremost award for grassroots environmental activism, will be drilling into the findings.
Register here: https://event.webinarjam.com/register/239/6v220uov