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The climate crisis presents an opportunity for a more inclusive economy


Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few bestselling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and adviser to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.

While we note that the effects of the climate crisis are negative, they also present a new opportunity for how we live and how we organise work, especially around communities.

Long considered only as a threat to society and our wellbeing, it is possible to think of the climate crisis as representing an opportunity to live and work better – engaging communities to collaborate towards a new economy. Perhaps this attitude of fear towards climate change has been driven by the notion that it is something that is coming at us – a fear of the unknown. The KwaZulu-Natal floods have told us that climate change is in fact here. However, with the right responses, we can foster new ways, especially towards work and the future of employment.

Speaking during the rescue and recovery efforts following the KZN floods, the minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, explained the disaster as a sign that “climate change is with us”.

As Dlamini Zuma noted, “The scientists have been telling us that the eastern side of the country is going to be wetter and will have frequent floods; the western parts of the country will be drier and have frequent droughts. We thought it was something in the distant future, but if we look at what has happened in the last five years… clearly, climate change is with us and we are beginning to feel the effects of that.”

However, other commentators have blamed poor infrastructure for the scale of the flooding. Whether it was mainly climate or poor infrastructure, scientists believe these types of intense weather systems will occur more frequently in the future.

In this regard, an article in the online publication The Conversation called for “early warnings for floods in South Africa”. In it, Justin Pringle, a senior lecturer in environmental fluid mechanics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, argued for collaborative efforts in creating and improving predicting or forecast systems. These systems would include closer and “improved data sharing between government departments, universities and communities”. Thus, communities would be collaborators in the monitoring and communication of information about the dangers they face.

Pringle argues that: “This is important because if we can predict the occurrence of an event, we can arm disaster management teams with life-saving information. However, Pringle also notes that African cities of the future need significant “on-the-ground” support in the form of disaster management teams such as police, rescue workers, paramedics and places of shelter.

Thus, while a focus on the reconstruction of infrastructure and human settlements is an important immediate response, more longer-term interventions that speak to managing the effects of climate change on people and communities will be important. These should include evaluating and determining what role communities can play in being drivers, collaborators and participants in systems designed to manage the impacts of climate change, as well as climate adaptation interventions.

This should bring to the fore the opportunities in terms of new work and training opportunities for people to play a role in managing the changes happening in their lives, as well as leading and participating in any efforts that support their communities through these.

Most of the destruction from the recent floods was in the Durban area. This is SA’s third most populous city. If such floods are expected to be more frequent and more intense, work has to be done to manage the enumerated effects of climate change to avoid a humanitarian crisis of scale.

The International Labour Organization’s Synthesis Report of the National Dialogues on the Future of Work noted a number of effects climate change is having on various societies. Included are negative impacts on economic sectors such as agriculture, tourism and fisheries, which affect work and people’s incomes. 

Second, changes in seasons will also make income unpredictable, which is exacerbating rural/urban migration, especially among young people. There are also major risks to health flowing from waterborne diseases, as well as other life-threatening impacts.

We should also anticipate impacts on how and where people live, and therefore issues of land, as well as how we construct human settlements, including building materials, will come to the fore.

From the above, while we note that the effects of the climate crisis are negative, they also present a new opportunity for how we live and how we organise work, especially around communities.

In high-population areas, we will need communities and young people to be trained in disaster management, rescue and recovery work, and quite generally, as climate support workers. This will not just be periodic work if we understand climate change as “frequent floods” for example, or erratic weather patterns. This moves the discussion on climate change to immediate engagement and adaptation, rather than mostly future planning and transition. It also displaces the notion that the just transition is simply about energy systems.

The climate adaptation discussion has focused on the transition from fossils to renewable energy. Very little is being done to equip communities to play a meaningful role in these changes – defining how they will participate in managing risks, determining solutions, and engaging with how they will benefit from new and emerging solutions – including new forms of energy.

John A Mathews, a professor of strategy at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Sydney, notes that as the rest of the world claims the right to share in the benefits of new energy generation, they confront severe barriers as they seek to industrialise using fossil fuels. China, however, shows an alternative way forward. India is following fast – and the way is open to other industrialising countries to emulate them. Mathews explains that China and India are approaching renewables as part of the industrialisation process itself because they can be manufactured locally, opening up new industries.

However, South Africa has faced many challenges in terms of growing manufacturing capacity. As a result, many of the inputs that form part of renewable energy interventions are imported. Critically, renewable energy requires land.

The Net-Zero America study, done by Princeton University with the aim of informing and grounding political, business, and societal conversations regarding what the US requires to achieve an economy-wide target of net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050, says that wind farms, solar installations and other forms of clean power tend to take up more space on a per-watt basis than their fossil fuel-burning brethren. For example, “expanding wind and solar by 10% annually until 2030 would require a chunk of land equal to the state of South Dakota”.

Consider that South Dakota is the 17th-largest state in the US and just more than 80% the size of the UK. That is no small feat, given the land challenges the world faces, particularly in South Africa. The land conflicts could be dramatic. There have been reports about Ghana and Kenya where communities have been forcibly displaced to make way for green initiatives, or have not been included in the ownership of such initiatives.

A report from the Brookings Institute by Samantha Gross, Renewables, land use, and local opposition in the United States, notes that: “Wind and solar generation require at least 10 times as much land per unit of power produced than coal- or natural gas-fired power plants, including land disturbed to produce and transport the fossil fuels.” 

So land is a major issue which requires that communities be thoroughly engaged, especially for us in South Africa, given the tensions and conflicts we face on issues of land. However, the report also advises that: “Building on previously disturbed land and combining renewable power with other land uses, like agriculture or building solar on rooftops, can minimize land use conflicts. Community involvement in project planning and regulations for land use and zoning can help to alleviate concerns.” 

Again, this highlights the importance of community engagement and involvement in a way that allows people to design and decide how they can benefit meaningfully, especially in terms of work and employment opportunities.

The way we work, including the way we build and weatherproof our homes, how we produce our food, and how we manage and survive the effects of the climate crisis, should be seen and made to be an opportunity for a more inclusive world where the future of work is not a threat, but signals new hope. DM



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