Opinion: Climate ‘apartheid’ is looming large
CREAMER MEDIA SENIOR DEPUTY EDITOR
In this opinion piece, Engineering News Senior Deputy Editor Martin Zhuwakinyu writes about the impact of climate change on the poor.
I doubt if many people in Mzansi know of Philip Alston. The Australian-born international law expert and human rights campaigner is the United Nations’ (UN’s) special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, a position he assumed in 2014. To ensure the independence of the position, the incumbent does not receive remuneration from the multilateral organisation, save for support to enable him to execute his mandate.
A while back, he released a rather depressing report that predicts that more than 120-million people worldwide could slip into extreme poverty in the next decade as weather events such as droughts, floods and hurricanes become increasingly frequent.
“Even under the best-case scenario [of reduced carbon emissions], hundreds of millions will face food insecurity, forced migration, disease and death,” Alston states in the report, which synthesises the findings of upwards of 100 previously published reports and scientific studies. He charges that governments, corporations and human rights bodies – including those within the UN fold – have been aware of the threats posed by climate change for yonks but have simply not done enough to avert a catastrophe. He does, however, acknowledge several positive developments, including litigation against fossil fuel companies and carbon emission reductions in at least 7 000 cities across the globe.
The inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America – which happen to be the world’s poorest regions – will bear the brunt of the impact of climate change; these will find expression in severely limited food and water supply, as well as inadequate healthcare provision. Experts calculate that, despite releasing only one-tenth of global emissions, the three regions will carry about 75% of the cost of climate change.
But what’s the relevance in all this of the apartheid metaphor, which Alston uses in the report? To some extent, the rich can cushion themselves against the effects of climate change, while the poor can not. Alston states: “People in poverty tend to live in areas more susceptible to climate change and in housing that is less resistant, lose relatively more when affected, have fewer resources to mitigate the effects, and get less support from social safety nets or the financial system to prevent or recover from the impact. Their livelihoods and assets are more exposed and they are more vulnerable to natural disasters that bring disease, crop failure, spikes in food prices, and death or disability.”
Put differently, the rich can pay to escape the throes of climate change impacts, while poor people are left to suffer. In fact, as Alston states in his report, one can already point to instances of this. For example, when Hurricane Sandy pummelled New York in 2012, leaving low-income households without electricity or healthcare, the headquarters of Goldman Sachs was protected by tens of thousands of the financial services group’s sandbags and electricity from its generator. Similarly, he adds, in more recent times, “private white-glove firefighters have been dispatched to save the mansions of the wealthy”.
But how did we get here, despite the fact that we have been aware for decades that we are barrelling down a precipice? I stated on this page a couple of weeks back that, akin to what happened during the well-nigh-four- centuries-long Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the profit motive has been so strong that those responsible for belching climate-changing emissions into the atmosphere haven’t felt sufficiently persuaded to do the right thing. In the case of coal users – your power stations and others – this could include installing clean coal technologies as a matter of urgency.
And what has been the reaction to the less-than-adequate response to climate change? As Alston puts it, all we have witnessed are “sombre speeches by government officials [that] have not led to meaningful action and too many countries [continuing to take] short-sighted steps in the wrong direction”.
Regrettably, the steps taken by the UN and human rights bodies to deal with the challenge to humanity represented by climate change have also been inadequate. The answer to the problem is to make deep structural changes in the world’s economy, transitioning to a green, sustainable economy. If the heavy polluters do not come to the party, they must be pressured to do so. We owe this to posterity.