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JUST TRANSITION OP-ED

We need system change, not climate change — how do we get there?

We need system change, not climate change — how do we get there?
Young South Africans take part in the Global Climate Strike outside Parliament in Cape Town on 25 March, 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

Ultimately, the only adequate response to climate change is the government’s effective declaration of war against it. Nothing less is expected, given that climate change means the elimination of humankind.

The concluding paragraph of Chris Butters’ recently published article in Daily Maverick, “The energy transition – It’s not just about the technology”, provides this article’s starting point:

“The real challenge is to select and deliver socially acceptable solutions, in consultation with communities and in ways that are appropriate to their needs and ways of life. In short… getting solutions actually delivered and used is much more difficult than the technology itself. In addition to genuine democratic participation, a successful energy transition will need social scientists just as much as engineers.”

Many people calling for system change would agree with Butters. However, he never even mentions the term; his invoking of social scientists further suggests he is not thinking of something as radical sounding as system change. I am.

In my understanding, climate change necessitates nothing less than system change. Saying this doesn’t mean I disagree with everything Butters writes. Far from it. What it does nonetheless indicate is the need to give specificity to what is meant by system change. This isn’t to say there is only one possible meaning.

Given the importance of climate change, however, clarification of meanings is helpful. This is especially so with system change becoming an increasingly widespread call, as extreme weather events increasingly impact growing millions of people worldwide.

Understanding “system” and “change” are individually challenging, let alone in combination.

Climate change – with the eight other planetary boundaries being broken – is taking place in a world characterised concurrently by both too much and too little; a world of surpluses and shortages, of those having too much and those who have too little. A world of surplus people alongside those short only of infinite wealth. In a word, inequality – of the most egregious kind, everywhere. With South Africa now being listed as the world’s most unequal country, we know it well, as we live it daily.

The inequality that links all countries of the world – despite the multiplicity of forms it takes – is most likely to have a common source. That source is most likely to be a shared economic system, with the recognition that “in a system, all the parts are ordered and integrated in ways that are determined by the other components. For this reason, a system is always more than the sum of its parts”.

It’s the economy, stupid

What Bill Clinton’s slogan from his 1992 election campaign didn’t do was name the economy. Let me: Capitalism. The inequality produced by modern capitalism has been most exhaustively documented by Thomas Piketty, beginning with his monumental and best-selling Capital in the 20th Century. Piketty, it should be noted, is critical of Marxian analyses.

The direct connections between the system change required of capitalism and the slowing, if not the stopping, of climate change, are many. In summary, the principal ones are:

Exponential growth in a finite world: 51 years ago, the Club of Rome published its challenging Limits to Growth. Having detailed the uncomfortable implications of a finite Earth expected to provide unlimited resources forever, it also contained a message of hope. Humankind could achieve a harmonious balance with nature if only we imposed limits on ourselves and what we produce. Both these requirements are incompatible with capitalism, in my understanding.

Capitalism’s constraints: two need mentioning. First, capitalism requires constant growth to feed its fundamental imperative of maximising profit. Without a minimum level of acceptable profit, capital is not invested. Without the required investment, economies grow at a rate slower than what is required to attract investment. Economic crises of various forms are the outcome of the investment slump. The fortunate among us know them second-hand as depressions, recessions or austerity. The less fortunate experience them as unemployment, greater poverty or bankruptcies.

Second, imposing limits on what is produced requires societal planning. Capitalism, however, is based on free enterprise, which begins with each enterprise being free to decide all matters of production by itself, subject only to minimal regulation, especially those touching greenhouse gas emissions.

Capital’s freedom causes climate change. With the volume of production and consumption being the measure of economic health – GDP – climate change becomes the hapless victim of capitalism’s endless compulsion to maximise profit, which includes the manufacture of continuously new wants and consequential throwaways.

But it’s not capitalism, stupid

There are people who, while accepting the validity of some of the above, will nonetheless say it is the fossil fuel industry, not capitalism, that is responsible for climate change. As argued elsewhere, the abject failure of the United Nations to address climate change adequately – most recently at COP27 in November 2022 – couldn’t have been sustained for 51 years without the dominant involvement of the world’s leading and self-interested governments.

Primarily among the many self-interested reasons for this political defence of capitalism is that re-election depends on the health of each national economy, all of which are capitalist ones.

The other most likely response is that technology will save humanity from climate change, regardless of capitalism. The “green economy” with its renewable energy, for instance. However, there is a rich literature showing that the green economy is capitalism in camouflage; a cover that is most lucrative in its marketing of anything “green”.

Renewable energy, for its part, suffers from two incurable defects. First, being overwhelmingly privately driven, it is now curtailed by not being sufficiently profitable. The very cheapness of renewable energy is the cause of this malady, as the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) has long been demonstrating (read here).

Second, renewable energy depends heavily on finite materials and minerals (that are also becoming increasingly expensive and, thus, further reduces the profitability of profit-driven renewable energy.)

Clean coal, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and green energy are invariably offered as technological fixes for capitalism’s insatiable appetite for energy. Besides being prohibitively expensive, clean coal, like CCS, is largely a marketing myth. Green energy, besides needing huge amounts of energy to make, remains a future option. Climate change is not waiting for either the needed science or technology.

The energy transition, as Butters reminds us, is more than the technology, which is the easier part. The harder part is ensuring that the “transition… must be implemented in ways that ensure acceptance, fairness and ‘energy justice’.”

The challenges of system change

For the campaign calling for system change to have any chance of success, it must appeal to the largest possible number of people worldwide. Complicating this requirement is global inequality. There are people among the privileged, who, although few, want to do something about climate change. This makes them open to joining a system change campaign. Then there are the poor – the main victims of climate change globally – who, if mobilised, are in numbers more than sufficient to make a difference.

The sympathetic among the privileged need reassurance that theirs is not a stark choice between climate catastrophe or, as voiced by Malena Ernman, Greta Thunberg’s mother, a threat to “Their job. Their home. Their holiday. Their car. Their money”.

Bringing the wretched of the Earth on board the struggle for system change means addressing their experience of capitalism: of unemployment and the poverties of education, health, housing, transport, electricity, water. Additionally, they need to experience dignity.

In South Africa, this means a far greater realisation of the guarantees written into our Constitution since 1996.

Absence of this shared appeal of system change, of uniting sections of both the rich and poor – with the former knowing only the fears and the latter only the harsh realities of inequality – condemns the whole of humanity to capitalism-produced climate extinction.

Giving hope to the excluded majority gives hope to everyone.

How to prevent climate catastrophe while advancing capitalism’s demise

Uniting people joined only by unequal equality is no small ask. It means engaging with people united in their support of a particular reform or set of reforms, despite their class differences. Indeed, they might support particular campaigns without necessarily agreeing on system change. Initially, these campaign targets must begin by being directly related to climate change.

South Africa serves as a useful case study. Given our levels of unemployment and poverty, job creation is an obvious beginning. Climate change offers an abundance of such jobs. Not green jobs where profit maximisation makes the smallest number of jobs the measure of efficiency. Climate jobs are what is needed. They are the jobs created specifically by the injunctions of climate change.

This makes them largely – if not entirely – public sector jobs. And the public sector just happens to be in desperate need of manifestly climate-related restorations and refurbishments. The maximisation of labour, moreover, can be a design objective of these developments.

Limiting – if not eliminating – corruption necessitates the public sector doing its own work, rather than outsourcing to tenderpreneurs. It’s not all that long ago – even if it might be from another age – when municipalities themselves did much of the work that now goes, always lucratively, to the private sector. Saying this is no more unthinkable than the now corporatised and universally reviled Eskom having won the prestigious international award in 2001 for providing the world’s cheapest and most reliable electricity.

I’m about to offer 12 examples of the climate jobs climate change makes essential. Some – indeed all – might appear utopian. A reminder, therefore, of what happened globally in response to Covid-19. Governments did the seemingly unthinkable because, having recognised the urgency, they provided the political will.

After some 40 years of being recognised as a global threat, climate change has still to enjoy this political will. Yet, unless we are resigned to the suicide to which our governments have knowingly condemned us, we must force them to do what they repeatedly acknowledge must be done.

We can achieve this only if we unite around a set of demands, each of which is intended to mobilise the largest possible number of people from all walks of life. The injunctions of climate change are the measure of the reasonableness of each requirement.

(If not otherwise indicated, I draw heavily on AIDC materials – primarily the two very different editions of One Million Climate Jobs, from 2011 and 2016, for what follows.)

Renewable energy. But not in the outsourced form the government has created. Being part of the green economy, renewable energy is, by design, the antithesis of labour intensity. Research confirms the low number of people being employed in the construction of renewable energy sites.

There are further challenges to be overcome. Most employment comes not in construction but in the manufacture of renewable energy components. This requires a local manufacturing industry that needs government support to survive and grow.

Rather than support, the government has effectively killed the nascent local industry. It did this by allowing the then Eskom management to stop approved renewable energy projects and the current minister of energy to delay approving renewable energy projects. On top of this is a national energy grid unable to accommodate the renewable energy potential.

Finally, the government continues to ignore its various trade agreements that, unless renegotiated, will prevent the local manufacture of renewable energy components. Foreign corporations and their governments will claim them to be protected by “intellectual property” rights. Ultimately, only public utilities – Eskom – can provide electricity at the scale and pace climate change demands.

Retrofitting of all publicly owned housing and buildings to make them as energy efficient as possible, thereby not only being beneficial to the people but also reducing the demand for fossil fuel-based energy.

Restoration of the now collapsed rail systems for both haulage and passengers, including inter-city use. This includes making commuter trains affordable, safe and frequent. It further means extending the rail network in cities. It also means the return of statutory regulations prioritising rail over roads, as was the case until 1985.

Besides being transport-rational, the return to rail makes possible such a thing as reducing road-based transport to a minimum. This includes all vehicles regardless of engine type.

Apart from the recharging of EVs currently being reliant on coal-based electricity, EVs have only a mid-term prospect of being anything other than a tiny fraction of South Africa’s vehicles. The minimising of road transport means maximising the reduction of vehicle-produced greenhouse gas.

Transport accounted for 10.8% of the country’s total direct greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, with road transport being responsible for 91.2% of transport’s emissions.

In addition to these direct climate change-mitigating measures, there are a number of labour-intensive measures that may not immediately be recognised as climate change adaptations. Included here are:

  • Restoration of wetlands and rehabilitation of mine-contaminated ecosystems;
  • Agroecology, which is different from subsistence farming;
  • Water leaks – long recognised as accounting for some 40% of distributed water – yet left to continue leaking. This is in a climate change-exacerbated, water-scarce country with water being unaffordable to most of the people fortunate enough even to have piped water;
  • Rainwater harvesting for use in toilets and washing machines, together with the required plumbing. Most people don’t have gardens or swimming pools. Harvesting even limited amounts of rainwater, therefore, has little meaning for most of them. But many people do have toilets and washing machines. Such is the state of our housing stock that not all houses can accommodate water tanks. But many can. As can schools and other public buildings;
  • Increasing the amount of free basic water (FBW) is the most viable way of making water affordable to all. Asking people who, at best, have little water to be grateful for what they have is to aggravate the separation between those concerned about climate change and those who can’t afford such concerns. The current statutory FBW – 25 litres per person per day – has nothing to do with basic needs. Worse still is that – contrary to the Constitution’s injunction of progressively realising the right to water – only that small number of people having piped water and willing and able to be registered as “indigent” now receive any FBW.
  • The same applies to Free Basic Electricity; and
  • Transforming schools by designing them to be self-sufficient in basic water, electricity, vegetables, eggs and poultry, with the architecture designed to promote learning and make schools an important community resource. Only the absence of political will has thwarted this eminently viable proposition first advanced in 2013.

Ultimately, the only adequate response to climate change is the government’s effective declaration of war against it.

In the same way that governments didn’t plead poverty when it came to rescuing their own financial systems during the crash of 2008 and found vast amounts of money during the first two years of the Covid pandemic, or, for that matter, to finance the continuation of the Russia-Ukraine war (which is different from condoning Russia’s invasion), so the money will be found. Nothing less is expected, given that climate change means the elimination of humankind.

None of the above 12 prerequisites will happen without campaigning. Climate jobs – workers – are integral to the first five of the 12. This means that trade unions must also be involved. Trade union involvement in the remaining seven will similarly be critical. This is especially so for municipal unions.

Among other things, they would be eager to recruit the large number of climate job workers municipalities would be employing. Our ultimate objective is to exert such pressure not even a reluctant government could ignore. Trade unions add mightily to this pressure.

Space allows for only a few additional comments – other than updating the numbers – to the finance section of the 2016 edition of One Million Climate Jobs. Climate jobs – it must suffice saying here – have these interrelated financial benefits: by maximising employment they significantly reduce expenditure on social welfare, which simultaneously also increases tax revenues by having both additional taxpayers and taxes from an economy expanded by the purchases of the newly employed.

But this isn’t to make light of the enormous cost of combating climate change. The government’s guaranteed pleading of poverty, however, will be taken seriously only when they put their money where their mouth is.

They can do this by turning our world-beating inequality into a positive. Inequality means wealth alongside poverty. Equity requires the government to set a good example, for once. By slashing their pay and perks in half, they could achieve this, while still leaving themselves highly privileged. They can require the same of all MPs.

Rather than the cuts they impose on most public workers, they could additionally cut the salaries of the higher echelons of the public service who have hitherto been exempt from the “austerity’s” supposedly unavoidable sacrifices. Included here are judges, generals, Chapter 9 heads and commissioners, directors-general and their deputies etc, along with the CEOs of state-owned enterprises, their deputies and boards.

Rather than hiding behind austerity, let some of those just named give the lead by volunteering their salary adjustments. They could do this with pride, on behalf of climate change justice.

An undiplomatic cry from the UN’s chief diplomat

United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, evokes stirring rally cries to my call to action. Speaking while releasing the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report on 28 February 2022 – and having described the report most undiplomatically as “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership” – he concluded:

“In short, our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, all at once.”

The report was issued in time for COP27 in November 2022. His appeals, along with the dire findings of nearly 800 of the world’s leading scientists, were all but ignored at COP27. COP28 is in November 2023. With Dubai – one of the centres of the Middle East’s oil empire – as the venue, there is no need to wait until the end of this year for its failure to be confirmed.

If not for ourselves, let’s act now. Let’s act for those still too young to read. DM/OBP

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Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Annemarie Hendrikz says:

    Such a sensible and inspiring article. Thank you. Let’s hope some relevant people are persuaded and find the courage to act – in time.

  • Craig Terblanche says:

    As I said on LinkedIn…
    ‘Our economic problems are way more important to solve than our information overload/misinformation tsunami. We need discernment with or without AI but first, we need universal equity and fair wealth and value opportunity for all.’

  • Sam van Coller says:

    A very important and refreshingly different article. To blame it all on Capitalism is however simplistic. The world economy has become a massive, complex and interlinked machine of consumption and production. Inequality is driven by many factors – unequal distribution and exploitation of natural resources, billions of unique individuals all born with free wills competing to meet their needs and aspirations, new technology which is indiscriminate in terms of being socially ‘good’ or ‘bad’, simple majority and authoritarian political and exclusive economic institutions that promote intense inter-group competition for power, leaders and front-runners driven by the imperative of achieving short term power, the accumulation of economic surplus in the form of tax and retained profits and the investment of this surplus in a manner that fosters inequality. This massive market place is driven by contestation for power at personal, local, national and international levels. As a result, decision-making is short-term and essentially selfish – see the USA. Unless we can achieve institutional change that generates a paradigm shift from short-term, power driven decision-making to consensual and rational medium to long term decision-making, the giant world machine of consumption and production will destroy the planet for humanity.

  • Lawrence Sisitka says:

    Yes, a very useful and quite comprehensive set of proposals as to how we can start to address both the inequalities engendered and constantly exacerbated by capitalism, and the concomitant impacts of climate change. But… and it is really a very big BUT; although the author touches on the ongoing folly of the growth paradigm, he does not, anywhere, make it clear that those who have everything in excess – not only the appalling super-wealthy, but also the middle-classes on which the whole consumerist nonsense is built – need to dramatically reduce their lifestyle expectations, and live far simpler lives devoid of the insane trappings that they seem to believe are essential to get through from day to day. They, of course, we, need to give up most of the clutter with which we surround ourselves and pare life down to basic essentials, including safe shelter, nutritious food, and decent cladding. Of course, this would kill capitalism, and necessitate a complete reordering of society including current political and economic systems; but it could save the world, and perhaps even humanity in a form that might have some chance of surviving on a planet that itself might have a reasonable chance of recovery. This means giving up on the comforting but self-deluding fantasy of ‘sustainable development’ as just carrying on as we do now, but with different technology. Also, and perhaps even more importantly, we will have to learn to share, with other humans, and with all other life.

  • ROY CLARKE says:

    As soon as I hear an argument around capitalism vs socialism, I stop reading. They both have fatal flaws each resulting in human failure through self destruction. They are political systems of a bygone era. Please someone think of a better system

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