When a Swedish teenager decided to skip school and protest the lack of action against climate change on the steps of the Swedish parliament, she set in motion a global movement that continues to gain momentum. She also demonstrated the power of individual citizens to influence change.
A year down the line, Greta Thunberg, the teenager in question, has inspired countless school children around the world to follow her example, and has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. But more importantly, she has helped raise the prominence of the fight against climate change across the globe, succeeding perhaps where scientists, governments and even the media have failed. The Global Climate Strike, which takes place on 20 September, just ahead of the UN emergency climate summit, and again on 27 September, is predicted to be the biggest global climate mobilisation on record.
While the threat of climate change is now widely accepted by scientists and governments alike, concrete action towards averting the crisis is not being taken. One hundred and seventy-five countries around the world (including South Africa) have ratified the 2016 Paris Agreement, which was an agreement that committed them to working to keep global temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius, but by and large, progress towards meeting this objective has been slow. In some cases, such as the Trump-led US administration, it is even going backwards.
Meantime, the sense of urgency is rising. This year’s wildfires in Alaska, the Amazon, central Africa and most recently, Australia, are evidence of the alarming impacts of climate change. Earlier this year, UK based newspaper The Guardian took the decision to change its style guide in terms of reporting on climate change, in a bid to highlight the severity of the climate problem. The editorial team said the paper would, going forward, refer to the issue as a “climate crisis” or a “climate emergency”; the term “climate change” being just not severe enough to describe the catastrophe the world finds itself in. In July, The Global Footprint Network, said we are overspending our natural capital and compromising resources in the future, and last year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warned that we have just 12 years to limit devastating climate change.
In South Africa, the effects of this devastation are likely to be severe. Several studies have shown that poorer countries are being hit hardest by climate change. According to the UN framework convention on climate change, Africa is already feeling its effects, with extreme weather, such as crippling droughts, recorded in recent years. Africa’s high vulnerability to the impacts of climate change is due to its dependency on agriculture, a sector acutely affected by climate fluctuations. Ensuing risks include violent conflict, which in itself is an additional push factor for migration and forced displacement, researchers at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) recently said.
It is surprising therefore that this issue is not given more prominence in our national discourse. While the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), the Government’s long-term energy plan, is moving in the right direction (it envisages an overall reduction in coal-generated energy by 2030) - this has yet to come into force.
In South Africa, we are understandably focused on issues such as unemployment (currently at its worst rate since 2008) and low economic growth, but if we don’t address the climate crisis alongside this, all of our efforts to fix these issues will likely be in vain. And in fact, shifting policy towards climate change mitigation is likely to help boost the economy and create jobs. To help make this point to our leaders, we need more citizens to step forward, like Thunberg, and make their voices heard.
Individuals have a central role to play in holding governments to account and enforcing policy shifts that are necessary to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis and build a thriving green economy. We’re seeing this playing out already. In the Netherlands, citizens have taken the Dutch government to court as part of a class action climate change lawsuit. To date there have been more than 1300 climate-related lawsuits globally against governments.
In South Africa, it is in part because of citizen legal action that the nuclear programme was scrapped and the Government is taking a greener course. In 2017, the High Court in Cape Town put the brakes on SA’s nuclear ambitions, ruling that the procurement process was unlawful, following a legal challenge by environmental activists.
Citizens can also take the lead in pressuring big companies to be more cognisant of their impact on the environment. For example, by changing our consumption patterns and educating our children on the damage that can be caused by the climate crisis, we can influence current and future products and services to become more sustainable. According to the WWF, extensive cattle ranching is the number one culprit of deforestation in the Amazon. Reducing beef consumption is one way the individual can take action against this degradation. It is due partly to sustained citizen action, for instance, that several South African banks have recently announced their intention to divest from coal-fired power plants due to environmental and social concerns.
Of course, not all of us can be or want to be activists on the streets or in the courtroom, but we can all play a role in preserving our planet. In this regard, the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Good Green Deeds campaign deserves to be celebrated and supported. The programme aims to change people’s attitudes and behaviours towards the environment — including the responsible management of waste and keeping their neighbourhoods, clean, green and safe. There are countless other initiatives, driven by civil society, government, schools and individuals, that we can join and support.
The bottom line is that action starts with each one of us. If we want to ensure that our children have a decent chance to succeed in life, we have no option but to act, even if just very locally. And we need to also be empowering and educating our children to be active citizens in this regard. Young people make up more than half of the global population and are therefore a huge force for change. They are, as the youth-led climate strike coordinators said recently “the voiceless future of humanity” because they are not yet able to participate in formal decision-making processes. It is this exclusion that has led them to “rise up” and make their voices heard. We need to get behind them!
Catherine Constantinides is National Director at Miss Earth SA and an alumnus of the Systems Change & Social Impact Executive Education course at the UCT Graduate School of Business which is run through the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship.