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Time to rise up: Climate change must become a pressing environmental rights issue for all South Africans

8 May 2015 at 10:12 am

Climate change protest in December 2011 in Durban (Photo: Reuters)
Climate change protest in December 2011 in Durban (Photo: Reuters)
Climate change protest in December 2011 in Durban (Photo: Reuters)

Climate change protest in December 2011 in Durban (Photo: Reuters)

To achieve the necessary political response to the unpredecented threats posed by climate change to the realisation of environmental rights, there needs to be a dramatic increase in awareness and mobilisation amongst ordinary South Africans around climate change.

This was the broad consensus of experts and commentators who attended a small discussion seminar hosted by the Centre for Environmental Rights for Members of Parliament and Parliamentary staff in Cape Town on the topic of Climate Change and Environmental Rights on 6 May 2015.

Coincidentally, this was the same day on which the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that, in March 2015, global carbon dioxide concentrations surpassed 400 parts per million for the first month since measurements began. This “milestone” emphasises the steady and ongoing increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases as the world looks to a new round of international climate negotiations in Paris in December 2015. (See also The Guardian, 6 May 2015)

Global change analyst Dr Nick King described the current findings of climate change science, showing that the intended policy limit of a 2C degree increase in temperature was already “too high to be safe, and too low to be possible”. Instead, the current trajectory predicates a likely scenario of a 4C degree increase in temperature. King showed that many current socio-political conflicts have their origin in the natural disasters caused by climate change, for example linking the conflict and refugee crisis in Syria to the extreme drought and collapse of agricultural production in that country between 2006 and 2010. “The xenophobia we have seen in South Africa recently also results from the fact that people are migrating from natural resource crises and conflicts in their own countries arising from extreme weather events.”

Dr King argued for a complete shift to a more flexible, rapid, adaptable decision-making in South Africa, coupled with decentralised renewable energy generation, to accommodate the unpredictable extremes of climate change. “Knowing what we know about the science of climate change, we cannot afford to invest in large infrastructure projects like mega-dams, big coal-fired power stations and nuclear – these investments will commit us to a path where adaptation is almost impossible, and where major national investments are made into assets that are eventually stranded.”

Conservation South Africa Programme Manager Sinegugu Zukulu described significant impacts of climate change already evident in the rural Eastern Cape, for example through the dramatic loss of water resources. He highlighted how decisions made without taking into account ecosystem health result in wasted expenditure, such as the Mount Fletcher Dam in the Eastern Cape which silted up in less than 5 years because of the failure to rehabilitate the catchment before building the dam. Zukulu also spoke about the urgent need to contain the spread of alien and invasive species like wattle in the Eastern Cape landscape to protect water resources. “Climate change promotes the spread of woody vegetation and alien invasives, which leaves the landscape susceptible to erosion of valuable topsoil.”

CER's Tracey Davies presenting on climate change litigation (Photo: CER)

CER’s Tracey Davies presenting on climate change litigation (Photo: CER)

CER attorney and head of Corporate Accountability and Transparency programme Tracey Davies gave an overview of climate change litigation across the globe: from litigation by corporations to challenge the legitimacy of climate change laws to litigation over governments’ failures to take action on climate change, and most importantly litigation over the culpability of greenhouse gas emitters for the damage caused by climate change.

Davies addressed current challenges in climate change litigation, and described how the Carbon Majors Project that has attributed 65% of all industrial CO2 emissions since 1751 to only 90 fossil fuel and cement producers, has been able to reduce uncertainty around the attribution of carbon emissions to specific extractors, as well as the apportionment of damages between emitters should a claim against them be successful. Two South African companies feature on that Carbon Majors list, namely Sasol and Exxaro, and many of the 90 companies are also operating in South Africa.

Davies says that climate change litigation is still experimental, and that it faces significant evidential and judicial barriers. However, comparing climate change litigation to the litigation around the tobacco industry’s liability for damages caused by cigarettes, she predicts that it is likely that courts will eventually recognise some form of culpability by states and by emitters.

Responding to the question of what Parliament can do to address the challenge of climate change, WWF South Africa’s National Climate Change Officer Louise Naudé proposed that every strategic and spending decision must be scrutinised to assess whether it will take us down a dead end, or on the path to a low-carbon economy. “We cannot afford to perpetuate the problem through investments like Coal 3, when the same funds could be spent on unlocking our solar and wind resources for the benefit of our people. And let’s get the best energy security and access bang for our buck – a new nuclear fleet will cost far more and take much longer than getting renewable energy solutions up and running in batches.”

Prof Tumai Murombo from Wits University’s Mandela Institute commented that it is vital for politicians to understand that climate change presents a painful transition that we as a country have to go through, failing which that transition will simply be forced upon our society. Many seminar participants spoke about the urgent need for South Africans to know more about climate change and how it would affect us, so that actions to reduce emissions and adapt to a changed climate could become a national political issue, particularly with local government elections coming up in 2016.

Presenters Dr Nick King, CER's Tracey Davies and Sinegugu Zukulu from Conservation SA (Photo: CER)

Presenters Dr Nick King, CER’s Tracey Davies and Sinegugu Zukulu from Conservation SA (Photo: CER)

CER Executive Director Melissa Fourie said that CER attorneys had pleaded for climate impact studies to be included in environmental impact assessments as a requirement for all new developments, but that this plea had fallen on deaf ears. “Section 24 of the Constitution guarantees the right of everyone in South Africa to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations. And this is where we start to hear the alarm bells. Human beings are short-sighted by nature, and yet climate change demands of us as individuals, as activists, as politicians – to make decisions now for ourselves in our old age, for our descendants, for other people’s descendants.  This is also what our Constitution and our environmental laws require of us.”

The seminar was supported by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.