We can still turn things around, but we need to act immediately and collectively, writes Melanie Verwoerd.
"I don't want your hope. I want you to panic."When a 16-year-old says these words, I believe all adults should sit up and listen. Even more so when the teenager says it calmly, yet with a sense of urgency at the World Economic Forum at Davos.
Greta Thunberg has taken the world by storm and has triggered a global movement which is also mobilising teenagers here in South Africa. At the age of 8 she first heard of climate change. Even then she found it strange that, if human beings were able to change the earth's climate, they did not speak about it all the time.
"Headlines, radio, newspapers, TV – surely you would never hear about anything else, as if there was a world war. But no one ever talked about it," she said during a Ted Talk.
So troubled was she about it that she became severely depressed at the age of 11. She did not talk for months and barely ate. Doctors diagnosed her with Asperger syndrome, OCD and selective mutism. "That basically means I only speak when I think it is really necessary…now is one of those moments," she said disarmingly during her Ted Talk. Talking is what she is now doing all over the world, because she has something to say that we all should hear and that should scare the living daylights out of us all.
There is no question anymore that the world is heating up – fast. As Greta puts it: "Our house is on fire." If we don't act immediately through a massive global effort we are heading for a total catastrophe.According to the IPCC (the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) we are 12 years away from a point where we can no longer undo our mistakes. At that point the earth will reach a 1.5 degrees increase in temperature and it will continue to rise beyond that if drastic action is not taken immediately.
One and a half degrees might not sound like much, but it will have very unpleasant consequences. A C40 Cities report indicates for example that Port Elizabeth, Durban, Cape Town and East London will be flooded by rising sea levels (up to 6 meter) and storm surges. If the earth heats up with a further half degree (so 2 degrees in total) we are in unchartered waters which would most probably be apocalyptic. Last year's water crisis in Cape Town would be a permanent feature for most of South Africa and Africa. In fact, it would be worse – we will simply not have water to live on. Livestock and food crops will fail – causing a crisis in food security.
It is estimated that even at 1.5 degrees, climate change would directly result in over 215 million people living in severe poverty – mostly in Africa and Asia.
And let me repeat we will be there in 12 years from now.At this stage those who understand climate change do not talk much beyond 2050, because they know that human beings could by then face a survival crisis never before experienced. "I will only be 47 years old in 2050", says Greta Thunberg. "Half of my life expectancy. What happens then?"
This is the question that this young woman with pig tails and thousands of teenagers are asking decision makers and adults all over the world.
Greta did more than just talk, though. In August 2018 she started a school strike. "I sat myself down on the ground outside the Swedish parliament. I striked for the climate," she told a captivated audience in Stockholm. Despite being fined by the Swedish government she persevered and soon her story spread, inspiring young people all over the world to take action.
The #FridaysforFuture campaign was formed and young people all over the world started to stay away from school and protesting outside parliaments on Fridays. This Friday (15 March) in particular, tens of thousands of children in more than 70 countries globally will be going on a school strike and march to government buildings as part of the campaign started by Greta.
In Cape Town they will come together at Parliament around lunch time and the same will happen at the Union Buildings.
Of course some people might object to children missing school. (Friday is end of term in South Africa, so no need to panic – well, not about school at least.) Greta was heavily criticised in Sweden for missing school. Unsurprisingly she has a thoughtful response to that.
"Many people said that I should be studying to become a marine biologist to 'solve the climate crisis'," she says. "But why should I study for a future that would not exist?"
The bottom line is that we can still turn things around, but we need to act immediately and collectively. We need carbon emission to be massively reduced. Yes, the so-called developed world has the greatest responsibility, but we have to act too.
Amongst others we need to understand that there is no way that we can continue to rely on coal fired power stations for electricity – not if we want our children to have water and food beyond 2050. Government and industry should immediately figure out a way that alternative energy supply – which is now cheaper than coal – can be mainstreamed and in so doing provide a viable alternative for workers and management of Eskom.
Sadly, all political parties have the environment as one of the last points in their election manifestos. It is there, but barely so.This despite the fact that climate change is the single most complex challenge that the human race has ever faced.
Our house is on fire, yet we are throwing cups of water at it.
We all have an obligation to do something immediately – because 12 years is not a very long time. The young people are challenging us to do that. They don't want our hope or our excuses. They want us to panic. They want us to take action so that they can have a future.
- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.
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