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CLIMATE CRISIS PART TWO OP-ED: Forget the deckchairs — we must navigate past the flotsam to avert sinking the climate change struggle

Eskom’s Kusile coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

By Jeff Rudin | Daily Maverick | 04 Dec 2023 

There is no shortage of widely held explanations of why so little has been done about climate change. I think most of these explanations are wrong. This is part 2 of a four-part series. 

Read Part 1 here


Climate change has alerted many of us to the importance of ecology. Unfortunately, much of the ecology used fails to recognise that ecology is much more than just a single branch of nature dealing with the relationship between living organisms and their environment.

Each small part of Earth is an ecological system with external as well as internal connections. As an integrated global system their numbers are, well, astronomical. This is even when narrowly understood by Ernst Haeckel who introduced the term ecology in 1866 to better describe Charles Dawin’s notion of “the economy of nature”.

Ecology’s full complexity arises when we add ourselves as an integral part of nature. This means adding human society to the complex, for we not only add to both the internal and external ecological systems of human interaction but also those of all other living organisms.

This is the reality of everything being connected to everything else. But such is the enormity and complexity of this reality that knowing it other than conceptually is unrealisable by individuals. We must perforce rely on those specialists who also see their work as part of a complex of organically linked ecosystems that must be recognised as forming a constantly changing, and, therefore, reconstituting organic whole.

My purpose in writing this series of articles is to provide a broad framework specifically focused on the main interconnections behind an on-rushing climate change, a sinking Eskom, and the blight of the unemployment, poverty and inequality for which South Africa is notorious.

It then offers general guidelines to help make sense of these interconnections and the systems they form. These guidelines should facilitate a better understanding of what’s gone wrong and what should be done to make it better.

But, for reasons that will be covered in Part 4, it must be recognised that there are several competing realities — understandings — even to the few issues I’m addressing. This necessitates first subjecting some of these different understandings to a brief critique in order to create the space necessary for my alternate viewpoints.

Climate change

There is no shortage of widely held explanations of why so little has been done about climate change. I think most of these explanations are wrong. There is similarly an abundance of popular solutions to climate change. I intend to show that most of the proffered climate change explanations and solutions are probably not aware of the broader ecosystems and the connections in which they are contained.

Climate change protest

People carry signs as they participate in the ‘March to End Fossil Fuels’, being held in advance of the United Nations’ Climate Ambition Summit, in New York City, New York, US, on 17 September 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Justin Lane)

The climate change red herrings

1 The fossil fuel industry is the problem

For many people, it is fossil fuels that keep the gates of hell open. In the build-up to the first-ever UN Climate Ambition Summit, convened during this year’s UN General Assembly in September, some 75,000 protestors took to the streets of Manhattan demanding the end of fossil fuel. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, echoed these sentiments. The bluntest message typically came from António Guterres: “The fossil fuel age has failed”.

But not its profits. They continue returning record highs worldwide.

The high cost of electricity in South Africa assures fossil fuels the “nice returns”, as Stephen Grootes has noted on SAfm (Mediated Conversation 29 August 2023). This is the short answer to why South Africa is not the “Saudia Arabia of oil and gas” it should be, as Professor Guy Midgley puts it (Accelerating climate change, AIDC, 19 July 2023).

If only the answer was as simple!

In a Daily Maverick article “Why the fossil-fuel industry is a distraction to understanding the failure of COP27”, I drew attention to the essential political protection this industry enjoys. This political protection, however, is seldom acknowledged and almost never explained. Rather than repeating my arguments from nearly a year ago, I shall bring them up to date.

The Mail & Guardian described Africa Energy Week (17-20 October 2023) as a “missed opportunity”. With the slogan “make energy poverty history”, the Mail & Guardian’s assessment of the event is: “A stubborn refusal to acknowledge the harmful nature of fossil fuels.”

For Caroline Lucas, a Green Party MP in Britain:

“We know that fossil fuels are the root cause of climate change. We know that breaking our dependence and keeping them in the ground is our only way out. Yet for some reason, we haven’t stopped digging.”

Her answer to this puzzle?

“Because major fossil fuel giants, and the nations propping them up, are acting like tobacco companies, stonewalling any efforts to reduce — let alone end — global fossil fuel production. Global climate diplomacy has now become [like] an anti-smoking campaign… too afraid to mention the word “cigarettes”.

Why this is so is left unexplained.

Our Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources, Gwede Mantashe, has no such inhibitions. Moreover, he speaks on behalf of one of the “nations” providing the essential political protection to the fossil fuel industry, even though leaving us befuddled as to what are his real motivations.

When not lifting the moratorium on oil and gas exploration; or proudly informing the Oil & Gas Conference in September 2023 that South Africa stood to benefit from the planned R288-billion investments in oil and gas projects; or that he should attack NGOs for challenging his schemes; or blaming “Western-sponsored” just energy transition programmes for the rolling blackouts; or arguing that Africa must be allowed to use its own fossil fuel resources for its development; or dismissing just energy transition as a new kind of colonialism; or accusing NGOs of being CIA-funded in order to “block development in a poor country like South Africa,” he was telling the African Energy Week that “Africa must intensify its efforts aimed at developing its oil and gas sector in order to benefit from the expected increase in natural gas market in global supply.”

Climate change protest

Climate activists protest at the African Energy Week outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre on 17 October, 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

Recall that although the slogan for Africa Energy Week was to make energy poverty history, Mantashe’s object for developing Africa’s fossil fuels was to supply the global market. According to an October 2021 report, 83% of proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal capacity and 77% of proposed oil and gas pipeline projects in Africa are for export overseas rather than addressing Africa’s domestic energy poverty.

For now, let’s just thank the minister for making it so clear that fossil fuels are but a part of a much larger and more complex whole. Alas for easy answers.

However, it could be said that Mantashe is just a minister in an insignificant country. What does the president of the world’s most significant country have to say? All the right things when the occasion calls for it, like when addressing the annual UN General Assembly in September this year.

Recalling some of the recent climate calamities, Joe Biden concluded that they “tell an urgent story of what awaits us if we fail to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels”.

When not required to speak about climate change, he is back to promoting the US economy, which for him includes protecting fossil fuels. An aptly titled article — “Biden’s fossil fuel hypocrisy is betraying the planet” — details what this means in practice. So, too does the IMF. Rather than the reduction of these global subsidies promised at COP26, in 2021, they have risen from $2-trillion to $7-trillion in November 2023.

2 The Green Economy

The Green Economy is widely seen as the antidote to the fossil fuel industry. In a Daily Maverick article from May this year, Morné du Plessis, the long-serving CEO of WWF South Africa (with WWF being a leading global environmental NGO) implied that the Green Economy is just waiting for take-off.

A similar point is made by John Matisonn’s September 2023 Daily Maverick article, “Electricity and the Green Economy – a once-in-a-century opportunity”. Alas for simple answers to climate change, the Green Economy is long past its salad days. It could be said to have come of age in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio, the first global meeting on the environment attended by world leaders.

Drawing from my Daily Maverick article — “The Green Economy: at best, a wishful illusion; at worst, a deceptive myth”, of May 2023, and the AIDC booklet from 2013, “Green Economy: The Long Suicide,” the Green Economy serves interacting and powerful functions: There is a very real economy, and it is this economy that causes and relentlessly accelerates climate change. It is indeed this very reality that creates the need for the idea of a new and different Green Economy to provide the fantasy that something is being done.

The Green Economy claims to be the opposite of everything the non-Green Economy is. Thus, the high-carbon reality of the non-Green Economy is replaced by the low-carbon claim of the Green Economy.

Similarly, the Green Economy’s social inclusiveness, equity and abolition of poverty — to pick only three of its many social claims — replaces the reality of the firmly entrenched inequality, social exclusiveness and poverty that characterise un-green globalisation. This sharp contrast between the desirability of the one and the unpleasantness of the other is not a coincidence. The Green Economy is, at best, the home of fanciful-though-noble wishes.

The proponents of the Green Economy sustain their illusions by usually presenting the Green Economy as an entirely new, stand-alone economic sector secure in its pristine greenness. For Morné du Plessis, there would be no separation between the green and non-green economies: there would be only one economy, as is captured by the headline to his article, “The Green Economy is not just part of the global economy – it is ALL of it.”

It is this essential separateness from the non-Green Economy — a difference that is often unconscious in other writers — that transforms “green” from an adjective into a distinct thing. As a noun, it merits the use of capital letters — Green Economy — which is the way I use it.

3 Green jobs

Like the Green Economy from which it is derived, there is no difference between green jobs and non-green jobs, as workers in the renewable energy sector affirm in both research papers and my own experience at several AIDC workshops with renewable energy trade unionists.

4 Green colonialism

This hasn’t yet become a widely-used popular idiom in South Africa. However, it is already in use here in departments of the University of the Western Cape (UWC), such as Plaas and the Dullah Omar Institute. And internationally published academic books — like “Dismantling Green Colonialism” and learned articles — such as “How Colonialism Spawned and Continues to Exacerbate the Climate Crisis” published by the prestigious Columbia Climate School — Green Colonialism will soon be entering the popular lexicon.

“Colonialism” has indeed become a fashionable word. Linked to “Green” increases its trendiness. But for all that, it remains either anachronistic or just lazy thinking. Worse still, it obfuscates an understanding of the present, as will be made clear in due course.

5 Political will

“Here in the UK, renewables are now a staggering nine times cheaper than gas; and on a global scale, solar and wind has the potential to meet our planet’s energy demand 100 times over. It just needs the political will to adopt the infrastructure at speed and scale” — Caroline Lucas

Using the absence of political will to explain the otherwise seemingly inexplicable — as Caroline Lucas, the previously mentioned Green Party MP does — is widely invoked across the world. Like in the April 2022 headline in Time, the US weekly available worldwide, including South Africa: “We have the technology to solve climate change. what we need is political will.”

Weak political will does characterise some political leaders and even political parties on some occasions. But, when used to explain the enduring global failing, over several decades, including what the political leaders themselves acknowledge to be the necessary action against climate change, the absence of action must be due to reasons much more complex than the supposed absence of political will.

6 Irrationality

This — along with stupidity and hypocrisy — is another widely invoked explanation for why climate change is constantly being allowed to get even worse. While there is no shortage of political leaders across time and country whose sanity has been questioned, irrationality, like questionable political will, is manifestly an inadequate answer for the persisting failure of leaders across time and place to take the action they know is needed to stop, or at least slow down, climate change.

Behind the appeal of irrationality to explain otherwise inexplicable behaviour is the idea that our leaders, in coming to their decisions on any matters, are guided by the evidence of what is best in the national interest. This after all is the rationale for the National Census all countries take at regular intervals.

This is the response, for instance, to South Africa’s recently released Census 2022. Headlines “Why data matters for good governance”, or “More accurate understanding of population movements would improve government spending”, written by respectable researchers, highlight this expectation of evidence-led, rational decision-taking — in the “national interest”.

“National interest”, in any country, is a fiction, as will be demonstrated.

But this doesn’t stop powerful economic and political interests from identifying their own interests as the national one. As an early example of where I’m heading, consider a recent Mail & Guardian article, “Mental illness costs SA billions”. Mandla Ndlovu, the writer of this article, is left bewildered by the Health Department’s “National Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Plan for 2023 to 2030” which shows that it costs South Africa more not to treat mental illness than to treat it. Whose interests are being best served by what would otherwise be seen as patently irrational?

March to End Fossil Fuels

People take part in the ‘March to End Fossil Fuels’, being held in advance of the United Nations’ Climate Ambition Summit, in New York City on 17 September 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Justin Lane)

7 Over-population

The impact of climate change on food security has long been recognised. A 2009 report, prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute (Ifpri) for the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, for instance, found that 25 million more children would go hungry by 2050 as climate change leads to food shortages and soaring prices.

The then UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, pressed the World Bank and other institutions to do more. He particularly urged the industrialised world to step up investment in seed research and to offer more affordable crop insurance to the small farmers in developing countries. Apart from the fact that the World Bank, and related institutions, and the industrialised world have essentially ignored these calls, Gerald Nelson, the lead author of the report, having noted the world’s population would have increased by at least 50% by 2050, added what he thought was an additional major concern: “Meeting those demands for food coming out of population growth is going to be a huge challenge — even without climate change.”

Which brings us back to the ubiquitous Malthusian red herring of over-population being the cause of hunger. Hunger, its causes and effects are covered in more detail in Part 3 of this series. I shall, for now, briefly address only the idea of there being too many people to feed everyone properly. A letter in the Cape Times is an appropriate place to begin. Published nearly 27 years ago in November 1996 with the headline “Market price comes before feeding the poor,” it reads:

“Henry Kissinger’s confident prediction, made 22 years ago, that world hunger would be eradicated within 10 years now reads as a callous joke. Your report, ‘World hunger grows as UN debates go on’ (Cape Times November 18) unintentionally shows that nothing has been learnt at those lavish jamborees where world leaders gather to tackle the horrors of hunger.

“Your report argues that overpopulation remains the main cause of hunger. The market continues to be offered as the principal prescription.

“Could it be that this analysis is offered by these overfed ‘experts’ precisely because it is so unchallenging to those who control what we are asked to believe is the ‘free market’?

“On the eve of the World Summit on Hunger, the SABC carried a news item that should make us ponder.

“A spokesman for the maize farmers warned at length of the disaster facing the industry. Good rains were the culprit of this impending doom.

“The thrust of the spokesman’s warning was that chaos would follow unless farmers drastically cut back on their planting. The prospect of a bumper harvest with cheap food for everyone is evidently not cause for celebration.

“On the contrary, food for all spells economic ruin for the farmers. … So, courtesy of the SABC, farmers are … urged not to produce. Affordable food for everyone is the enemy.

“And on the morning following this news item, the world leaders gathered in Rome to blame the poor for their poverty.”

(I happen to be the writer of this letter.)

Subsequent headlines show that unexpectedly good harvests remain unwelcome for those in agribusiness. The disaster of the “Biggest maize crop in 30 years” (Business Report 26 November 2010), is to be averted because “China May Absorb SA’s Grain Surplus — Agriculture Ministry” (Business Day 7 September 2010).

It’s a similar story seven years later. “SA to set sights on Asia after bumper maize crops in Africa” (Business Day 6 June 2017), followed by the unwelcome news: “Price of white maize falls with glut in SA’s export markets” (Business Day 29 June 2017).

But lessons were being learnt. One way to avoid “surplus” food — i.e. food that cannot be sold at the expected market price — is to produce less by reducing the acreage. The headline “SA’s record maize crop is now expected to be even bigger” (Business Day 27 July 2017) contained the news that the acreage would be 1.9% less than the previous year. While not commenting on market rationality, the article mentions that South Africa is a net importer of the grain! The Daily Maverick’s Stephen Grootes provides the ultimate question, with his headline: “Why are South Africans hungry when there’s surplus food?

8 ‘We are all in this together — a rising tide lifts all boats’

This idea, popularised by President Kennedy, is that everyone benefits from a growing economy, as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Sally Burdett, the eNCA’s long-serving presenter of the main evening news, voiced this now-accepted truism when commenting on the finance minister’s medium-term budget presented earlier on 1 November 2023.

“We all know,” she announced, “that we just have to grow (the economy) if we’re to create jobs.” This is a key expectation of what has become globally known as “trickle-down economics”.

Burdett, like most other people, seems to have forgotten the time when there was indeed a period when South Africa had sustained high-ish economic growth but little commensurate job creation. An article from this seemingly forgotten period serves as a reminder.

Business Day (18 June 2012), quoting from research by the business-friendly Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), reported that “over the past decade, each percentage point of growth has increased employment by less than 0.4%”. (Also from 2012, see “Growth is no answer to poverty – report”)

Less than a year ago, the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank, Rashad Cassim observed that unfortunately, 3% [growth] gets the economy going, but it will not bring unemployment down. To get unemployment down, we really need systematic 5% growth every year.”

This is the reality of jobless growth. This, indeed, is the reality of trickle-down. In the words of the world-renowned John Galbraith, trickle-down theory is “the less than elegant metaphor that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows”.


It is now clearly time for me to offer answers. Having spent the bulk of Part 2 of this article disposing of some of the main red herrings, Part 3 will introduce a different understanding and, hence, a different set of interconnections. Whether my understanding is of searchlight quality or that of a flickering candle will be for each of you to decide. DM

*This Opinion Piece was first published by the Daily Maverick.

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