Melanie Verwoerd: South Africa's biggest problem isn't what you think it is

Eskom's Medupi coal power station. Photo: Supplied
Eskom's Medupi coal power station. Photo: Supplied

The earth is rapidly warming up. As extreme weather events continue, we will see an increase in refugees and migrants – especially into places like South Africa, which would increase xenophobic sentiments, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

I think we can all agree that it was tough to be a South African over the last two weeks. We had to face the violent undercurrent that runs through our nation. Men in particular continue to turn on the weak and vulnerable – children, women and foreigners. As the extent of this became more and more evident over the last few weeks it was really hard to stay positive.

Then, to add to my general sense of despair, I was invited to a talk by Mary Robinson (former UN Human Rights Commissioner and President of Ireland) and Kumi Naidoo (former head of Greenpeace and now global head of Amnesty International) on climate change.

I regard myself as generally well informed on environmental issues, but just hearing the facts scared the living daylights out of me. The bottom line is that if we don’t act immediately and decisively, we are facing a catastrophe that could totally eradicate the human species – which might be great for the planet, but not so much for our children and grandchildren.

You might think I’m exaggerating, but this is what we know for sure:

The earth is rapidly warming up. Its average temperature has increased by about 1°C since the Industrial Revolution and it keeps on rising. This is bringing us very close to the 1.5°C global average increase that scientists say is the real danger point.

Why the danger? Because it would mean that nature and climate cycles will change irreversibly. For one thing the polar ice caps, already melting at an alarming rate, will melt completely. Ok, so that means your bucket list of going to Antarctica will be something of the past? Not the worst, but it will also mean that the ocean will rise by between 6 and 8 meters (3-4 storeys high). This will result in large scale flooding of coastal towns (including Cape Town) leaving large sections of it under the ocean.

More importantly, we will see more and more extreme weather events – which means hurricanes (as we have seen in Mozambique recently) and lengthy droughts in South Africa and neighbouring states. 

Of course we are already seeing much of this happening. Remember Day Zero in Cape Town? Many other towns have also run out of water and we have seen extreme floods in places such as KZN.

These weather events are already having and will continue to have a negative effect on food production – resulting in sharp food price increases.

As these extreme weather events continue, we will see an increase in refugees and migrants – especially into places such as South Africa, which in turn would increase xenophobic sentiments.

So we simply have to make sure that we do not get to a 1.5°C rise in temperature by reducing our rate of emissions. The problem is that at the current rate we will run out of time in eight years. Then we can not reverse the effects of what we have done have.

This means that governments (including our own) have to take dramatic steps such as reversing our dependence on coal and other fossil fuels. However, there are a few other things that they can do immediately that can make a big difference.

1)      Give generous tax incentives to people and institutions to change to solar power generation. There is absolutely no reason why homes in South Africa should not be using alternative energy.

2)      Allow people to sell or get a rebate for pushing green energy back into the grid.

3)      Generate a model where Eskom can also invest in green energy and allow municipalities to make money out of alternative energy sources.

4)      Protect our strategic water resources. It is just mind boggling that mining continues to be allowed in strategic water catchment areas (the 10% of our land that generates over 50% of our water), reducing and polluting the little water we have.

5)      Educate girls and women. Scientists have shown that this has a massive positive impact on climate change.

6)      Make climate change an important part of the school syllabus.

7)      Look closely at our farming practices. We have to find more climate resilient ways of growing food. Agriculture currently uses 60% of all our water and pollutes a lot of what is left.

8)      In our cities, designate certain car lanes for cars carrying more than one person. This has had a lot of success in other countries. By encouraging carpooling, you reduce the number of cars on the road, traffic flows more easily and emissions drop.

9)      Ban all single use plastics. Don’t let the plastic industry tell you the answer lies in recycling. It doesn’t! Single use plastics – which we really don’t need – are choking our oceans and animals. Many of our neighbours have banned these types of plastics – so can we. There are many other alternatives.

As private citizens, we can also do things that can make a difference:

1)      Educate yourself about climate change and how you can help to reduce emissions.

2)      Plant a few Spekbome (Portulacaria afra). These clever little plants are environmental miracle workers. Hectare for hectare, they are ten times more effective than the Amazon rainforest at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One hectare of Spekboom can remove between 4 and 10 tons of carbon per year out of the atmosphere. They are indigenous and really easy to grow.

3)      Stop using plastic. Period. Complain to your supermarket about all the packaging and encourage them to get alternatives.

4)      If you can afford it – install solar panels.

5)      The same goes for water tanks.

This week the children of the world are going on climate strikes. There will be events from Cape Town to Klerksdorp and Louis Trichardt. Get involved. The future of the world depends on it and perhaps it will make you feel a little bit better about our world and country. 

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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