Climate change is among the biggest catastrophes facing humankind today. The planet’s temperature is on average 0.74°C warmer than it was one hundred years ago: a result of global warming caused by the global fossil fuel economy, and energy production and consumption patterns. While politicians are bickering about how to stabilise carbon emissions and prevent and average rise in temperature beyond 2°C, the world is already experiencing its devastating consequences in increased natural disasters and extreme weather conditions, leading to floods and drought, crop failure and a rise in sea levels.
In its 2007 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that climate change would have devastating and multiple impacts on the natural and human environment. Among other findings, the report noted that by the year 2020, between 75 and 250 million people in Africa would be affected by increased water stress due to climate change.
Despite these warnings, the global response to climate change is inadequate. Solutions to the ecological crisis facing our planet are largely trade-led and market-driven, with technological advancements at the forefront. But since the inception of the Kyoto Protocol, the commitment by developed countries to reduce emissions from levels in 1990 has not been achieved: in fact, emissions have increased in many developed countries.
South Africa, like many other countries, has yet to develop a comprehensive response to climate change. Rather, the current strategy is merely a collation of existing policy interventions from various departments, and has no targets due to the limited reach of the Department of Trade and Industry (DEAT) in energy, agriculture, transport and industrial policy. A National Climate Change Committee has been established, but lacks the institutional mechanism to coordinate or vet plans by various departments.
The recently-released Green Paper on National Strategic Planning may present some new opportunities for a more comprehensive and holistic response to climate change, for example, by acknowledging the dominance of carbon-intensive extractive industries in the South African economy.
However, in South Africa – as elsewhere – the question of social impact is also notably missing from the climate change debate. Although the Green Paper notes the need for collaboration between government and social partners, questions of the consequences of climate change for vulnerable groups, on social cohesion, and in the process of a just transition to a low carbon society remain unanswered.
The climate crisis presents two key scenarios for society: in the first scenario, it could potentially bring about cooperation, unite people to utilise scare resources more sustainably, and promote alternative development pathways based on equity, justice, human rights and human security. In the second scenario, it could create a more hostile environment in which poor communities compete for scare resources, increasing violence and divisions between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ with potentially destabilising effects.
In the current global economy, which condones ‘business as usual’ with some superficial tinkering to promote a green economy, the second scenario is increasingly more likely.
Internationally, strategies to address climate change have focused largely on the twin goals of mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is centred on low-carbon technological solutions, such as biofuels, safe and secure nuclear systems, carbon capture and storage and mechanisms for emissions trading.
However, these mitigation approaches – and carbon trading in particular – may ultimately cause new and severe problems, and even increase global warming. Studies show that many of the carbon credits sold to industrialised countries come from polluting projects like schemes to burn methane from coalmines and waste dumps, and do little to reduce fossil fuel dependence.
In some cases, carbon trading schemes have also generated massive windfall profits, to the benefit of large polluters. For example, in the first year of the European Union Emission Trading System (EU ETS), UK power generators gained around £800 million (R9.9 billion) by passing the costs of carbon allowances on to consumers, although these allowances were in fact allocated for free. 
Similarly, some emerging economies also evade domestic emission reduction – even though they are not obliged to do so in terms of the Kyoto Protocol – by hosting Cleaner Development Mechanism (CDM) projects in return for certified emission reduction (CERs) credits. CER credits can then be used towards emission reduction targets set out by the Protocol. However, the majority of these projects are seen as ‘add-ons’ and continue to support, rather than shift away from fossil fuel dependency in the South. The focus of the regime has become skewed towards minimising the burden of implementation on the polluter industries and countries.
Other projects, such as tree plantations, claim to absorb CO2, but may have social and environmental consequences such as displacing people from their land and compromising biodiversity, rather than forging progress towards alternative energy systems and low carbon societies.
Adaptation focuses on countries that are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change, such those located in coastal and river flood plains, with economies largely dependent on natural resources, or in areas prone to extreme weather events. The IPCC proposes a wide range of adaptive responses including: technological changes; behavioural changes, such as altered food and recreational choices; managerial changes, including new farming practices; and policy changes, like instituting planning regulations for energy efficiency.
Adaptation funds have been established in many countries, and different strategies and technologies initiated. The challenge is to assess how effective the various options are at fully reducing the risks and levels of warming, as well as to assess their impact on vulnerable communities and countries. However, even if these communities embark on adaptation initiatives, decades of carbon emissions mean they are already in real danger of being literally swept away by extreme weather, even though their contribution to climate change is miniscule.
Poor and vulnerable communities around the world have to deal with a crisis not of their making. These communities will be the worst affected, as they have few resources to cope with the impact.
As a whole, African has contributed least to climate change, yet will be hardest hit. Recent reports indicate that Africa is already 0.5˚C hotter than it was one hundred years ago, and temperatures have risen much more in some areas: temperatures in parts of Kenya have risen by 3.5˚C in the past 20 years. Regions are becoming drier, particularly in the arid and semi-arid areas of southern Africa, while equatorial zones are getting wetter.
Unpredictable weather and more frequent natural disasters will have a huge impact on the economies of many countries, as well as the lives and livelihoods of people already living in extreme poverty. Women, rural communities, and those living with HIV/AIDS will be particularly affected. Food security is increasingly under threat as dry regions become more water-stressed, while warmer weather and wetter weather elsewhere will provide fertile conditions for the spread of disease, for example, through more prolific breeding of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Together, these changes will likely have a destabilising effect on many African countries, leading to conflict over scarce resources and an increase in environmental (climate change) refugees.
To avoid this scenario, solutions to address climate change must go beyond mitigation and adaptation, and not only deal with environmental challenges.
A major challenge will be to galvanise policy approaches both internationally and locally to tackle climate change and foster a just transition to emission-stabilisation and low carbon economies.
Current forms and patterns of production in both developed and developing countries, which require ever-increasing resource consumption, are fundamentally unsustainable, and are creating massive and growing environmental pressures. They pose epochal threats to entire planetary ecological system, and ultimately, human survival.
Apocalyptic climate change essentially calls for a paradigm shift and an overhaul of the global economic system. This will include reduced consumption and production among the middle-class and wealthy elite, changes in industrial agricultural production to support more localised sustainable agricultural systems, reforms in industrial processes, reduced trade in goods, and more energy-efficient infrastructure development, amongst others.
More broadly, society needs to understand the intrinsic value of nature, and that the survival of the human race is in jeopardy. Unless we develop within the limits of the earth’s ecological resources, through uncompetitive and collective means – humanity is heading for disaster.
 See Cundy, C., 2007.’ Trading our way into trouble’. An Environment Finance Publication Supplement, May 2007. http://www.environmental-finance.com/2007/0705may/carbontrading.htm
© Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, 2009.