Climate change is no longer imminent but violently unfurling before our eyes. As the South African government cautiously navigates the transition away from fossil fuels, the South African public is forced to contend with extreme weather events and ravenous fossil fuel companies, responsible for a majority of post-industrial carbon emissions that are desperate to eke out profits at the expense of the Indigenous communities. If the previous IPCC reports were not the glaring red alert that the South African government needed to redirect course, then the IPCC’s Working Group II Report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability is the devastating casualty list.
South Africa’s colonial legacy, the wounds inflicted by the racist Apartheid regimen, state corruption at the hands of our democratic government are a few among multiple crises the country have faced, and now it faces the challenge of facilitating a just transition in a country wrought with inequality and injustice at its very foundation, within a transient decade. The Social compact forged by the incumbent government post-1994 failed to deliver on the promise of socio-economic redress, and reinforced many of the racist policies of the Apartheid regime with little to no consequence, especially for the elite. However, this time failure at brokering a just social transition will mean devastation in the wake of extreme weather events, economic stagnation, forced migration and ultimately climate collapse.
As the IPCC report published on 28 February 2022 shows, climate risks are appearing faster and will get worse sooner than previously assessed. Climate change is already causing widespread losses and damages to nature and people. Climate and extreme weather events continue to drive displacements across multiple regions. Biodiversity loss and degradation continue to jeopardise the livelihoods of coastal communities that depend on non-commercial fishing and eco-tourism to survive. South Africa’s structural inequality, ecological dependency and weak adaptive capacity make us disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change; these communities are one extreme weather event away from absolute poverty.
However, as extreme weather events increase in frequency and intensity, so will the mobilisation of people in the streets and in the courts. Whether in the Wild Coast or abroad, communities made vulnerable by climate change will continue to vindicate their human rights, demand justice and hold those responsible to account. They are already increasingly successful and the findings of the IPCC will only serve to bolster their claims.
The government must recognise the social imperative that the Paris Agreement holds and embrace the potential of a Just Transition not only in creating jobs but also in achieving improved public health outcomes. As extreme weather events increase in frequency and intensity, South Africans will be left in the lurch for the government’s failure to take decisive action to mitigate climate change.
For many South Africans, climate change is a foregone conclusion; with every passing season yielding less than the year before, their livelihoods hang in the balance. As food security diminishes, they are forced to make trade-offs between food on the table or heat for those increasingly cold winter nights, only to watch their possessions being swept away by flash floods, locking them into a cycle of poverty. This is the lived reality of the communities of Mdantsane, Qwa-qwa and Port Saint John’s that were recently devastated by floods between December 2021 and February 2022. These communities have had their constitutional rights to clean water, food, shelter, education and healthcare stripped away and as our government grapples to restore them the inequality divide only deepens.
South Africa’s climate response remains woefully inadequate; our Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) remain insufficient and our climate change bill languishes on parliaments agenda, all the while carbon majors continue to eke out profits from their toxic operations. But the tides are changing, in the wake of the South African government’s complacency, civic engagement has reached new heights and South Africa as well as worldwide a growing number of communities and civil society groups are taking legal action to secure their human rights and demand justice in the face of climate action, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg v Department of Environmental Affairs, Thabametsi Power Project (Pty) Ltd and Others set a monumental precedent when it received a favourable judgement, in which the court deemed that the Minister of Forest Fisheries and Environment failed to consider climate impacts in her decision to grant authorisation, the first judgement of its kind in South Africa, and which has undoubtedly paved the way for more climate cases. Most recently Shell Production and Exploration were overpowered by the South African civil society through mass mobilisation and urgent legal interdicts against their planned seismic activity of the Wild Coast in ‘Boarder Deep Sea Angling Association and others v Department of Mineral Resources and Energy and Others’ and “Sustaining the Wild Coast and others v Minister of Mineral resources and Energy and others”, the latter of which proved successful in thwarting Shell’s attempts to destroy the environment and our future for their greed.
In June 2021, the environmental justice organisations of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) and Natural Justice filed a lawsuit challenging the government’s approval of off-shore and gas exploration by Italian carbon major Eni and by the South African carbon major Sasol, at issue is whether South Africa’s authorisation for the exploration violates its climate commitments.
The science is clear, and so is the law. The South African government must reign in the Carbon Majors instead of comfortably enabling them and create bold, people-centred public policies to drastically reduce carbon emissions. As the report shows, the only liveable future is one in which we transition away from fossil fuels to a low carbon economy. It is crucial that the South African government ensures equity and justice are at the centre of that transition.