Al Gore brings climate reality to Jozi

Al Gore is a busy man and my request for an interview during his visit to Johannesburg is declined. But I and 900 people worried about climate change still get to listen to him for an entire day in a cavernous hall at the Sandton Convention Centre – it’s like sitting through his 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, and then have him explain it all to you again in detail, just in case you missed something.

Gore is the former US vice-president turned warrior for a habitable planet. His roving Climate Reality Project is here in Johannesburg to train lots of people to become effective advocates for stopping climate change, and the variety of people attending is remarkable: school children and professionals, small business owners and idealists mingle with NGO workers, government officials and Bantu Holomisa (MP, and leader of the small Eastern Cape-based United Democratic Movement).
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‘Denialists’ disdain for science is a vital human rights issue’

ClimateChangeDisinformationPipelinePublished in Business Day, 14 January 2014

The public debate about climate change is an aberration because we do not have debates in newspapers about the validity of medical science, physics, aeronautics, geology or genetics. So what is different about climate science?

Two things, perhaps: its conclusions demand that most of us make significant adjustments to our lifestyles, and it threatens major vested interests: the fossil fuel industry that supplies the world’s coal, gas and oil.

But, like the tobacco industry before it, the fossil fuel industry has funded a vast campaign of lies and disinformation to undermine public trust in science. To understand the so-called climate debate, one must understand this context, rarely if ever acknowledged in South Africa. A debate fuelled mostly by propaganda is not a real debate.

As Jeremy Grantham, a leading US fund manager, observes: “We have the energy industry — the only other vested interest as powerful as that of the financial world — egging people on to be confused about the issues. They do it very successfully, with foundations with misleading names, think-tanks like the Cato Institute and the Hudson Institute, whose job in life appears to be propagandise anything and everything that is useful for energy interests.”

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‘New alerts highlight need for urgent climate change action’

Climate negotiators huddle during the closing hours of the COP17 UN climate conference in Durban, 2011. Pic: David Le Page
Climate negotiators huddle during the closing hours of the COP17 UN climate conference in Durban, 2011. Pic: David Le Page

Published in Business Day, 19 September 2013

PERHAPS, one day, an article on climate change will be written that tells us that things are getting better. Sadly, this is not that article and that day, if it ever comes, is a long way in the future. Though climate change has largely disappeared from the public agenda in South Africa since the 17th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP-17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban in December 2011, the problem itself remains stubbornly immune to fluctuations in media attention.

Two recent climate-change updates from the World Bank and International Energy Agency have restated the scale and dangers of the problem. The reports should make anyone younger than 50 worry about the future, because, on present emissions trends, significant effects are predicted in just the next 30 years. Some of the worst effects will hit sub-Saharan Africa.

There are a few points to bear in mind when either contemplating or skipping in dread past the predictions. First, global carbon emissions are still growing and show no sign of slowing down. Continue reading

‘SA must build economic democracy’

Published in the Mail & Guardian, 21 June 2013

This is not Constantia.Twenty years after this country chose to end relentless violence and injustice by introducing political democracy, our rightwing government is ready to roll out the troops and subdue mineworkers by force of arms. But the only lasting remedy for the discontent on the mines is to make South Africa an economic democracy.

Currently, South Africa is being crushed by economic totalitarianism. Few of us realise this, and few of us know that there are alternatives, many of them up and running in other countries.

Economic democracy is about ensuring that everyone in society, not just the elites, has a meaningful share in the wealth of the country, and a voice in deciding how that wealth is shared. It’s a term that has emerged from nearly two centuries of worker mobilisation in Europe, the United States and Latin America.

It’s particularly necessary in South Africa because of our history of colonialism and apartheid. To paraphrase Walter Rodney, most South Africans are not underdeveloped, they have been underdeveloped. This means that real development will be impossible so long as the institutions responsible for underdevelopment persist. Continue reading

Fix inequality with a maximum wage

'Toilets, washbasins and geysers last maintained by apartheid.' Protester in Durban, December 2011. Pic copyright David Le Page.
‘Toilets, washbasins and geysers last maintained by apartheid.’ Protester in Durban, December 2011. ©David Le Page.

Published 18 November 2012 by the Sunday Times (in print, but not online)

Since the tragic massacre at Marikana, there’s been increasing discussion of the problem of South Africa’s terrifying inequality. But commentators and government representatives get rather shy when it comes to talking about real solutions. They take refuge in calls for ‘solidarity’, ‘symbolic steps’, ‘dialogue’ and, as ever, ‘poverty reduction’.

These calls are at best timid and ignorant of the real nature of inequality, and at worst, evasive.

Eight thousand kilometres from Nkandla, the Uruguayan president, Jose Mujica, eschews his official residence for his wife’s shabby old farmhouse, and gives a large portion of his salary to the poor. That’s real solidarity.

But since we’re not yet seeing that kind of solidarity here, let’s talk frankly about two things: Firstly, the ways in which the very existence of excessive wealth actually creates poverty, and secondly, what some real solutions might look like.
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Business Day: ‘South Africa needs a business alliance to protect biodiversity’

Published in Business Day, 19 November 2012
THE other day, I spotted a small flurry of activity just outside my front door. A gecko had died and its body was covered in black ants. Within days, the ants reduced it to a shell of crumbling skin.

The world is full of beings and processes that support us in ways we take for granted, just as some take for granted their domestic workers. Yet this symphony of all life on Earth, “biodiversity”, is profoundly threatened. The word is almost designed to sound inconsequential. Yet biodiversity is the sum and wonder of all species on Earth — perhaps all species in the universe.

Last month, the Convention on Biological Diversity met in India. The world barely noticed, which is amazing compared with the attention given to climate change, because the biodiversity crisis is more advanced than the climate crisis.

Consider all we take for granted: every dead creature is returned to the greater ecology by other creatures; plants and plankton make every breath of oxygen. Continue reading

Our democracy needs a major acccountability service

Published in Informanté, November 2012

ImageYou’ve probably heard it said a hundred times that South Africa has one of the world’s best constitutions. But do we have the world’s best parliament? Hm…

So what would a really great parliament look like?

Well, we’d probably have members of parliament (MPs) who run strong constituency offices and are visible in the communities they represent. They would be standing up regularly for the rights of the vulnerable. Like MPs in the UK and members of congress in the US, they’d have no hesitation in criticising the leaders of their own parties or big businesses that abuse their power and influence. But unlike US congresspeople, they would not be receiving enormous amounts of money from special interests and handing out endless favours in return. Unlike the British government, they would not be giving more attention to the needs of bankers than to those of ordinary people.

We have good people in our parliament, but who knows of a South African MP like that? Anyone? So why don’t we have a parliament like that?

A big problem is that our current institutions Continue reading

Groundup: ‘The immense danger and opportunity of climate change’

Hurricane Sandy approaches the US before wreaking havoc. The intensity of the storm has been linked to climate change by some climate scientists.Published 10 October 2012 in Groundup. This article relates climate change to South Africa’s conventional and failed mode of development, which is over-reliant on extractive industries, heedlessly dependent on fossil fuel, and generates wealth for the few and poverty for many.

There’s an astonishing blind spot that afflicts most of South Africa’s elites and intelligentsia, and indeed, our civilisation. It’s particularly tragic that South Africa, which suffered nearly 10 years of HIV denialism, should now also be afflicted by climate change denial.

If you’ve never been scared witless by climate change, then you clearly just don’t understand it or know enough about it – because the effects of what we are doing to this planet with our unending emissions from coal, gas, oil and deforestation are absolutely terrifying.

When I refer to climate change denial, I’m not referring to the contrarians, attention seekers and paid propagandists for the oil industry who claim that climate change is not happening or that humanity is not responsible. Rather, I refer to the kind of denialism that formally acknowledges that climate change is happening – but then refuses to engage in a genuinely honest assessment of what that actually means. Continue reading