Opinionista Bongani Mahlangu and Chumasande Lalendle 7 January 2021

South Africa must place climate crisis literacy at the centre of its education system

The climate crisis affects us all and will become an increasingly urgent topic in future. We need to make education on the crisis a central subject at schools and universities.

South Africa is a country struggling with soaring unemployment, world-topping inequality, gender-based violence, femicide, horrifying serious crime statistics with a murder rate worse than war-torn countries and increasing annually, runaway corruption, poverty, rapidly increasing national debt moving the country closer to a sovereign debt crisis, slow growth and multiple other socioeconomics ills.

Climate change is not perceived as a primary, bread-and-butter issue when discussing topics that directly impact the material conditions of South Africans, even though rivers are drying up and water security is becoming tenuous throughout the country.

Communities that neighbour industrial smelters and boilers, such as Secunda and Vanderbijlpark, are inhaling poor quality air, leading to multiple health impairments, but still, climate change is not at the centre of conversations.

South Africa is the leading emitter of greenhouse gases on the continent and the 14th globally, emitting 456 MtCO2, which is 1.3 % of total global emissions. Sasol is the world’s biggest single-site greenhouse emitter, but, like other big emitters in the country, contributes heavily towards employment – 31,429 jobs. Eskom, the country’s biggest emitter, contributing an estimated 42% of total domestic emissions, employs 46,665 people. That is a very significant number in a country with a volatile labour market, made worse by the pandemic-provoked lockdown that has significantly contributed to the loss of jobs for 2.2 million people.

As much as South Africa is not in the front rank of greenhouse gas emitters — like China and the US — the country does have a role to play in the discourse about climate literacy, mitigation and ensuring a just transition.

The Mid-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) states that South Africa borrows R2.1-billion daily, a debt-to-GDP ratio fast closing in on 100%, implying that a sovereign debt crisis is imminent. That means South Africa cannot afford to fund a just transition from fossil to green energy in the near future and, as a result, will need non-monetary transition strategies or external monetary assistance in order to reduce its carbon footprint without a further perpetuation of inequality, unemployment and poverty.

The country does have an active carbon tax bill, one that is at its initial phases of implementation, a bill to fulfil its Paris Accord signatory obligations; yet proceeds generated because of the carbon tax bill will be directed towards transfer payments, as the Treasury has stated on numerous official platforms. This means there is no deliberate budget from the Treasury towards mitigation of carbon emissions by means of investment in a just transition.

The country needs non-monetary just-transition strategies, foreign-resource assistance, or a combination of both; non-monetary just-transition strategies are critical on the basis that they help shift the conversation to the centre by structural methods.

All South African children in the basic education schooling system are required to do life orientation (“LO”); it is through this school subject that knowledge, values, attitudes and skills about the self, the environment, responsible citizenship, a healthy and productive life, social engagement, recreation and physical activity, and career choices are imparted systematically.

The element of environment in the LO curriculum can be expanded to include climate literacy as an outcome. Since LO is done by every learner in the system, we can ensure that climate change as a topic and just transition as a practice will find necessary traction among young people who can then evangelise to their elders at home and in their community. In the long run, this will help create a climate- and environment-conscious activist generation.

Most South African universities have a common compulsory module for which all students must register. This module can be restructured to encompass climate change and/or introduce a social justice module that encompasses climate change, gender relations and other pressing social issues — on the premise that students are community members before being students, that universities are not just universities in the community, but universities of the community.

Graduates are more likely to occupy strategic positions in various sectors, and, as such, a socially responsive graduate is a potential benefit to the country. They would add value to a just transition as we have witnessed with boardroom activism at institutions such as Standard Bank, where some shareholders are pushing the firm to play a leading role in carbon mitigation. Such shareholder activism is currently based on individual consciousness rather than group or class-consciousness; the module may assist in achieving the latter.

We also need to engage with international partners who have proven efficiency in climate-smart agriculture and precision farming to recruit young South Africans into programmes that will impart in them the knowledge and skills. Combining that with existing initiatives to produce young farmers goes a long way towards addressing climate literacy, skills development and youth unemployment, and food security.

Moving climate change to the centre will not be easy in South Africa unless the conversation is structured in a manner that takes into account the context of domestic struggles. Placing climate literacy at the centre of the conversation should include all demographics to understand climate change, its potential impact, approaches to adaptation and mitigation.

Increased awareness can help inspire changed attitudes and behaviour, which could foster a co-operative response to action, greater participation in policy formulation and holding emitters and the state accountable.

There is a misconception that climate change is a remote threat, an issue to be worried about and tackled by the affluent in society, as the approach has been, and still is, top-down instead of bottom-up. However, the impacts have more severe effects on the livelihoods of the poor and most socioeconomically vulnerable, and hence climate literacy is important to create climate-resilient communities. DM

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All Comments 7

  • How about: “Do not steal from your own brothers and sisters”…”Do not get rich quick with fraudulent tenders”….”Do punish severely to the thieves in government at any level”…literacy first??

  • We killing our planet, so this will go a long way to ensure our future understand what needs to be done. This should also include a clean environment of NO litter, no Plastic should be built into the theme

  • Thank you for an excellent article with insights in how to move the climate change debate and action into ‘centre stage’. Your transdisciplinary approach should galvanize many of us working on aspects of this challenge to support your on-going work and thought leadership. Please keep writing as part of raising the climate crisis as a governance and educational imperative.

  • Some good points here. At the same time, I think there are a few misleading elements. Many communities are having conversations about climate change and demanding climate justice. It’s important to recognise that, rather than saying that climate change is not part of the conversation. For many climate change is perceived as a bread-and-butter issue.

    Also the idea that we cannot afford to fund a just transition is highly contested. We spent nearly R500 billion building two coal power plants, Kusile and Medupi and tens of billions subsidising coal every year. If instead we had directed that funding to a just transition to renewables, we would have been a long way into affording and ensuring a just transition. Additionally, economic models and study after study shows that a transition to renewable energy is cheaper than staying on fossil fuels, so it would cost us more to stay locked into our polluting paradigm.

    Also South Africa is one of the worst polluters. We have the third highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the world. We are the biggest polluter on the continent.

  • A discussion worth having – I see you argue for more climate change education at both school (in LO) and university level. So, I require my 4th year engineering class to read and discuss some climate science. Interestingly, they all tell me that the last time they actually spent serious learning time (i.e. for marks) on climate change was in junior secondary school! Nothing in senior secondary, nor in their first 3 years of university! How can we as a nation seriously engage this big global problem if we leave our education to ‘sensitisation’ at junior secondary, followed up by social media ‘likes’?!

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