Mamphela Ramphele: Existential threat from climate change presents a historic opportunity

Schoolchildren protest to draw attention to climate change. (Ethan Van Diemen, News24, file)
Schoolchildren protest to draw attention to climate change. (Ethan Van Diemen, News24, file)

Our country has an opportunity to develop a national holistic climate emergency plan that would provide a platform for transformative development programmes that would promote prosperity for all, writes Mamphela Ramphele  

My upbringing in the village of Bochum in Limpopo, with both my grandparents as farmers, made me very conscious of the inextricable links to, and interdependence within nature as a source of life and livelihoods. 

It comes as no surprise that President Ramaphosa who also grew up in rural Limpopo would link the inclusive growth agenda of the SONA to the existential threat posed by climate change.   

The acknowledgement that humanity faces an existential threat by President Ramaphosa in Parliament last week has opened a window of opportunity we dare not let slip. 

The existential threat posed by climate change puts at risk the very existence of the human race.   

Our biosphere as we know it today is being irreversibly changed by extreme weather patterns. 

We only need to look at what happened in Australia over the past few months with the raging fires that destroyed vast tracks of land and lives of both humans and wildlife. 

California has also had its share of infernos that have changed the face of the region.   

Our own country is going through unprecedented droughts, heatwaves and biodiversity losses that have put livelihoods of millions of citizens, especially the most vulnerable in rural areas at risk. 

Young people across the country from Rainbow Warriors, Extinction Rebellion, Green Peace, Earth Life, and individual young leaders such as Ayakha Melithafa, are demanding action to protect not only their futures but also that of their unborn children and grandchildren.   

The acknowledgement by the president of this real and present danger presents an historic opportunity for him to lead the charge to develop a national emergency climate change plan that provides a holistic pathway to a sustainable future for our country. 

We cannot afford national cabinet ministers, provincial public leaders and local authority officials who continue to speak of climate emergency manifestations as inexplicable, uncontrollable natural events.

They ought to know better. 

The existential threat of climate change is a result of human actions and not nature. 

Nature is inherently regenerative and renews, recycles and preserves and protects ecosystems that sustain life.

Our patterns of economic growth, development, production and consumption are pushing the Earth's life-support systems beyond their natural boundaries.

For 10 000 years, human civilisation has grown and thrived because of Earth's remarkable climate stability and rich biological diversity.

In the last 50 years, human activity has severely undermined this resilience.  

Our country has an opportunity to develop a national holistic climate emergency plan that would provide a platform for transformative development programmes that would promote prosperity for all.

Such a plan should have clear short, medium and short-term programmes that would enable us to emerge out of this emergency stronger and wiser as a people. 

This would enable us to tackle the inherited inequalities in our society that were engineered by apartheid to divide and rule along colour-coded lines that persist to date.  

Our broken social relationships, our neglected physical and social infrastructure and our poor quality education and training that are stealing the hopes and futures of our children, can be mended by a holistic integrated development plan that puts prosperity of people and planet at the forefront.  

We need to draw on our heritage of the African belief system and culture centered on Ubuntu - the I am because You are - that promotes a profound understanding that unless there is harmony between us as humans, and between us and nature, the universe cannot align to create prosperity for people and planet.    

The proposed integrated development plan would also help heal and cleanse us from the greed and corruption in both the public and private sectors that undermine programmes to uproot poverty, unleash the talents of all persons, and restore the dignity of all people. 

This would enable more citizens to contribute to a shared prosperous future for present and future generations.   

Our president has identified a hook to enable him to grasp this opportunity to honour the responsibilities of generations yet to be born, by tackling the existential threat at our doorstep. 

So what is to be done? 

The Presidential Climate Commission should act with deliberate speed as people do in an emergency that poses an existential threat to all life. 

Time is of the essence when one faces an emergency. 

We need an emergency plan that sets out who is to do what, how, and with what outcomes over what time frames. 

Young people, who are the majority in our country and on our continent, are asking questions about what vision of a post-fossil fuel society we have.   

As the president was delivering his speech in Parliament last week, I was confronted by young people at a Dialogue Series Session at the Sustainability Institute at the Lynedoc Eco-village in Stellenbosch. 

They wanted to know what our country’s vision of a 100% renewable energy future could look like.  I could not offer them a satisfactory answer. 

Does the Presidential Climate Commission have such a vision?  

We are well endowed with sun, wind and open spaces to rapidly move from dependence on fossil fuel to create a booming self-sufficient renewable energy system that would be the envy of the world. 

Such a system would also require a completely new infrastructure layout to replace our inadequate ageing physical infrastructure to offer coverage for all citizens.   

Imagine the training opportunities and the thousands of sustainable jobs we would create in the process of this transition to a more sustainable future! 

In the process, we would create jobs in rural areas and far-flung non-arable land to keep people where they are to live in dignity and in harmony with nature. 

We cannot afford the delaying tactics by bureaucrats who are enjoying luxurious lifestyles whilst poor people go to bed hungry. Renewable energy systems are the future and that future is now. 

Our water and sanitation systems are literary and symbolically bursting at the seams, further eroding and polluting our extremely limited water sources. 

One just needs to look at the Vaal River system that has become inundated with sewerage and unmanaged stormwater drainage. 

Imagine the opportunities to train and sustainably employ young people where they live in rural provinces to lay new and more resilient systems for water and sanitation, and maintain these systems.   

Our coastal cities, starting with the mother city Cape Town, continue to pollute the oceans around us by discharging raw sewage into them. 

The science and technology is available to create bio-digesters to process sewage from all our human settlements and provide significant biogas to augment our renewable energy sources even in remote villages.   

We need to re-imagine waste removal in both urban and rural areas by leveraging technologies that turn waste into wealth and restore nature’s beauty and dignity in areas where the majority of citizens live.  

We dare not miss this opportunity that the existential threat of climate change presents. 

The future of our children and those yet to be born depends on how we respond now. 

 - Mamphela Ramphele is co-president of Club of Rome and co-founder of ReimagineSA  


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