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Sleepwalking our way to extinction: The climate crisis must be made part of our national conversation

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Khanyisa Melwa is a postgraduate political communication student at UCT.

There is a sense among many young people that although we acknowledge that the climate crisis is a serious matter, it remains largely a white and middle-class concern.

When I was 16, all of 10 years ago, not only was my political consciousness embryonic, but the idea of climate change was not competing for space in my mind. The contenders at the time were the prospect of not making it into the 3rd team rugby squad for the weekend derby or the fear of bombing out at an audition.

These priorities – if I can even call them that – pale in comparison to what the likes of 16-year-old environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, deems important. And that is the fight to save the planet from ourselves, but more on that later.

I watched in awe as the Swedish teenager gave a sterling speech at the UN Climate Action Summit, addressing world leaders and asking them simply, “How dare you?”. How dare you carry on with business as usual, when the planet is burning and we face imminent extinction as a species?

Thunberg’s publicity has brought back into the spotlight a topic which lingers in our collective consciousness as South Africans, but just like my 16-year-old self, doesn’t occupy a prominent position. Nor has this issue enjoyed the level of urgency which it requires by way of policy and legislation in South Africa.

As a student and young professional, I have certainly been guilty of putting climate change on the back burner, especially when it comes to political discussions among peers. It is very easy to do so, as I think there is a sense among young people (I don’t speak on behalf of all young people) that although we heed that this is a serious matter, it remains largely a white and middle-class concern. This is said in a context within which white people never concern themselves about the socio-economic struggles of black people unless it adversely affects them financially or even socially. Even then, their sincerity is questionable. Anything they stand up for, naturally, is treated with little regard or suspicion by most black people.

This is compounded by the fact that there are other, more pressing, social ailments, to which we are devoting our energies. These include gender-based violence, femicide, poverty and unemployment, landlessness and an economy in tumult. Do you see? There, I did it again. I treated climate change like the unwanted stepchild, albeit probably the most dangerous of the ills mentioned.

Perhaps this is because we don’t feel we have complete control over what happens regarding the climate? Or maybe it’s because we feel that we play a smaller role in the burning of our planet, in comparison to the capitalist behemoths of China and America whose CO2 emissions from fossil fuel are no less than 9,839 million metric tons and 5,296 million metric tons respectively, according to the World Economic Forum.

Although these concerns are valid, it still requires us to play an active role in staving off the threat of this self-inflicted human extinction. This, therefore, begs the question: who is championing the climate conversation in South Africa?

Off the top of my head, I must credit the likes of Sipho Kings, environmental reporter at the Mail & Guardian who has written extensively on climate change and the environment. Further kudos to the Mail & Guardian, under Khadija Patel’s editorship, for having signed on to the global climate reporting network, joining 250 other newsrooms around the world in reporting about the climate crisis.

Kevin Bloom’s writing about Our Burning Planet for Daily Maverick has been instructive.

Mpho Ndaba’s academic research on the matter has also piqued my interest.

Although almost all of these names are members of the media and are influential in setting the national agenda, climate change as a subject has not yet made the national conversation in the way that other topics have, particularly in the policy arena. I think more needs to be done by our political leaders in this regard.

A scan through the 2019 election manifestos of the three major political parties in South Africa tells a story of an opposition that has clear policy proposals insofar as the environment and the climate crisis is concerned.

Both the DA and the EFF have concrete steps under the headlines “Environment and Climate Change” whereas the ruling ANC files the issue under “sustainable and radical land reform” and “investing in the economy for inclusive growth”. While both land reform and economic development are interrelated insofar as the environment is concerned, the climate crisis still requires its focus area in the country’s policy framework.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, from which Thunberg was quoting her statistics, states that humans have less than 10 years for us to have a 50% chance of staying below 1.5°C before irreparable damage is done to the Earth. Essentially, before humans start to become extinct.

If this is not an alarming enough statistic for every one of us to become an environmental activist and hold those who are in power accountable, then perhaps the threat of extinction may not be such a threat after all. Perhaps, for some, it is a desire. DM

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