Category: Environment

Rise up against Extinction

SOME TEN  months ago, I published The End of the Anthropocene, my response to the H20 Day Zero crisis in Cape Town. Needless to say, it got people talking about climate change in a new way.

The resulting global debate around extinction has been simply phenomenal.

Not only did the IPCC released an alarming report in October, warning of the dangers of 3 degree climate change, in effect demanding drastic action, followed by a report by 13 federal agencies presenting ‘the starkest warnings to date of the consequences of climate change for the United States itself’ but the naturalist Sir David Attenborough was moved last week to issue a statement that climate change is ‘humanity’s greatest threat in thousands of years’.

The BBC reported Attenborough’s statement at the opening ceremony of United Nations-sponsored climate talks

Climate Change, he said ‘could lead to the collapse of civilisations and the extinction of “much of the natural world”.

Thus we can only congratulate the rise of an allied environmental movement Extinction Rebellion, which also intends making waves around the world.

The movement advocates direct action and civil disobedience in defence of human habitat.

“We are facing an unprecedented global emergency. The government has failed to protect us. To survive, it’s going to take everything we’ve got” say Extinction Rebellion.

Extinction rebellion demands:

  1. The Government must tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, reverse inconsistent policies and work alongside the media to communicate with citizens.
  2. The Government must enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels.
  3. A national Citizen’s Assembly to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.

Meanwhile, our own inept and scandal plagued department of environmental affairs, released a half-hearted statement reiterating the national position on climate change and calling for a ‘just transition to renewables’ amidst ‘aggressive awareness campaigns.’ GHG emissions however grew at an accelerating pace this year. Scientists described the quickening rate of carbon dioxide emissions in stark terms, comparing it to a “speeding freight train” and laying part of the blame on an unexpected surge in the appetite for oil around the world.

I’m afraid this type of DEAT public relations hot air in the face of intransigence by our energy minister isn’t going to cut it, and rather a change of government is required.

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Vegter doesn’t understand science let alone physics

IN A RAMBLING and shoddy piece of quackery published by Daily Maverick, discredited anti-humanist curmudgeon Ivor Vegter claims, inter alia “a lot of opposition to nuclear power is motivated by fears over the safety of nuclear reactors. Chernobyl and Fukushima scared the pants off people. But they’re wrong. Nuclear is by far the safest form of energy on the planet, bar none.”

It is clear from the manner in which the purported facts are presented, that Vegter doesn’t understand science, let alone scientific evidence. Is opposed to humanism and the manner in which scientific consensus is driven by published research, peer review and moderation.

So far as Vegter is concerned, not a single person has died as a result of direct exposure to radiation in the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters. Vegter thus proceeds to impute the findings of the Japanese government, who likewise impute the findings of the World Health Organisation attributing an increase in infant mortality as a result of radiation exposure.

Did anyone die because of Fukushima?

Thyroid screening of under 18-year-olds, conducted in the aftermath following the Fukushima disaster “detected a large number of thyroid cysts and solid nodules”, ‘including a number of thyroid cancers that would not have been detected without such intensive screening.’

A UNSCEAR report quoted by Vegter, and used apparently as strong evidence of ‘no deterministic effects from radiation exposure’ is a merely a ‘white paper’ to ‘update and consolidate’ some of the earlier findings and conclusions of an assessment of the ‘radiological consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi accident’ and fails to note the deaths of workers.

Instead of affirming the earlier prognosis of no deterministic effects, it rather provides a political platform for a ‘Recapitulation of the earlier 2013 report’, in effect carrying news of  ‘a controversial document stating a radiation-induced increase in thyroid cancer incidence’ amongst the public where the authors reported ‘a 50-fold (95% CI: 25, 90) excess in Fukushima Prefecture.’

UNSCEAR however discount the controversial finding,  as ‘too susceptible to bias’, thereby upholding the validity of the earlier committee findings and paving the way for new data and experimentation. Far from being definitive, the UN committee sponsor merely restates the areas and vectors of investigation requiring more research, alongside abnormalities (or lack thereof) in the gonadal tissues of frogs, collected from sites with elevated levels of radionuclide concentrations and ‘morphological defects in Fir trees’.

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South Africa’s Anti-Climate Science lobby

IF THE latest IPCC intergovernmental report on climate change, didn’t draw your attention to the dire impacts of global warming at 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels then a new study of the Earth’s oceans, showing the planet is much more sensitive to fossil-fuel emissions than past studies have shown, really ought to get your attention.

Because of South Africa’s relative isolation, you are probably either reading urgent press releases reiterating the IPCC position on the likely effects of climate change or equally colourful reports purporting to debunk these pieces as alarmist. The cadence of environmental debate here is such that the nay-sayers are still being given equal opportunity to spread their jaundiced lies and scholastic gobbledygook, in the process smearing genuine climate science as hopelessly flawed.

Statements by Patrick Dowling of Wildlife and Environment Society of SA (WESSA), an organisation which was forced during the closing stages of apartheid, to include habitat as part of the broader picture of wildlife and thus environment alongside humans, after criticism of white privilege and shallow ecology published by South Press under my own byline back in the early 90s, thus appear alongside the work of professional hucksters and anti-climate charlatans.

Neo-Con columnist Ivo Vegter for instance, has made a career on purporting to debunk climate change, and his work regularly appears in The Daily Maverick

Stop for a moment to reflect on the content of the latest report carried by the venerable Independent, a UK based news outlet: The world’s oceans have absorbed far more heat than previously estimated, “suggesting global warming and climate change could accelerate faster than predicted,” according to new research.

“The results suggest over the past 27 years, the world’s oceans have retained 60 percent more heat each year than research teams had previously thought.”

All of which supports my own contention, as one of the founders of the environmental justice movement in South Africa (and author of a chapter on climate change in a book trashed by the apartheid regime), that far from being at the start of the Anthropocene, we are for all intents and purposes at its End.

The End of the Anthropocene is a geological period immediately preceding the point at which humanity itself becomes extinct. Our civilisation is not simply in peril from runaway climate change as the IPCC would have it, we may be endangered by a malignant cycle and impending catastrophe associated with previous mass extinction events, with a thermal max some 20 degrees hotter than now.

Alarmism has become acceptible, according to David Wallace-Wells writing in the Intelligencer

“We are on track” he says for four degrees of warming, “more than twice as much as most scientists believe is possible to endure without inflicting climate suffering on hundreds of millions or threatening at least parts of the social and political infrastructure we call, grandly, “civilization.” The only thing that changed, this week, is that the scientists, finally, have hit the panic button.”

Catastrophic climate change, has an upside. It is not all doom and gloom and the slow-moving disaster (by some accounts already locked in) may also be the catalyst that creates the first Post-Humans, that is if one defines humans beings, not simply as ‘human because of other humans‘, but rather human because of our collective habitat. In other words, human because of the necessary conditions for the existence of mammals and great apes on planet earth. In the future, entire Cities may be covered by domes, while we colonise Mars and our deep oceans, ironically, experiencing failing atmospheres on both planets.

Instead of grappling with the impetus, massive scientific consensus on global warming, and the credible problems and complications presented by new data which show that all our current climate models may be way off, and the situation worse than even the IPCC is willing to let on, online periodicals such as the Daily Maverick continue to peddle the climate debate within the narrow confines of a binary opposition. In effect, excluding any opinion beyond the centre, and to the left of the spectrum, and instead, entertaining us with neo-conservative claptrap.

That the 2018 IPCC report signals a turning point in the consensus view of climate change is clear from the language of the document. “Warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system.”

Drawing this position out and reiterating IPCC findings, is not the purpose of this piece. Suffice to add, that what is missing from the media narrative, is the counter-narrative supplied, not by those idiotic skeptics who believe themselves to be especially privileged by race, class and social status and thus ordained by neoliberal theology to defend the worst ravages of capitalism, but rather the absent history of the environmental justice movement in general, and equally the present litany of hatred against climate scientists in particular.

Take Naomi Oreskes, a science historian, earth scientist, and author, who first became a target of the anti-climate science movement in 2004 when she published documentation of the scientific consensus on climate change.

Fourteen years ago Science magazine published a peer-reviewed article by Oreskes on the state of scientific knowledge about anthropogenic climate change. “After analyzing 928 scientific abstracts with the keywords “global climate change,” she found no disagreement in the scientific community that human activities were resulting in global warming. All of the papers reviewed agreed with the judgment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, and other leading professional scientific societies and organizations on this point.”

Then Oreskes began receiving hate mail just days after her Science essay came out. The escalation of the hatred of our habitat forced her to “reach out to  climate scientist Ben Santer, who connected her with a group of scientists who had also been similarly attacked. The group helped Oreskes understand that the harassment wasn’t personal; it was about the role she plays in the conversation on climate science.”

“We weren’t being attacked because we’d done something wrong,” says Oreskes. “We were being attacked because we’d done something right. Because we’d explained something significant, we’d laid facts on the table, those facts had implications, and some people were threatened by those implications.”

Oreskes’ book Merchants of Doubt How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” (an excellent read) went on to expose a network of ideologues that attacked scientific data on several issues: the ozone hole, acid rain, tobacco use, and climate change.

“The common thread among these issues is that the scientific implications of each imply the need for some kind of government regulation as a solution, challenging the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism. A common tactic used by those resisting policy solutions and attacking the scientific data is to sow doubt and confusion about the science among the general public — a strategy still being used today with climate change.”

Vegter’s latest unsubstantiated piece on climate change littered with straw man arguments on crop yields and biofuels, dated critique of alarmism and misplaced quotes by well-meaning UN officials taken out of the context of the IPCC and scenario planning and given the sheen of evidence and aura of credibility via publication in the Daily Maverick, must be seen in the same vein as similar denials by the tobacco industry.

“Dire predictions about the consequences of climate change” Vegter says “are a staple of the sensationalist media, but a lot of past predictions have failed to come even remotely true. Yet climate change activists want to dismantle the world’s capitalist economy by whipping up fear.”

Fear indeed.

 

Earthlife Africa, a long history of coalition-making

download (2)EARTHLIFE Africa (ELA), the environmental organisation started by ‘four bearded white men’ during the 1980s, in the aftermath of the banning of the End Conscription Campaign, transformed itself into a national movement headed by women, in the process winning awards.

One black woman in particular, ELA national director Makoma Lekalakala has been named co-winner of the prestigious Goldman Award alongside Liz McDaid of SAFCEI, a Southern African multi-faith institute addressing environmental injustice.

The pair received global accolades for building a powerful coalition to stop the South African government’s massive secret nuclear deal with Russia. This is the first time that a director of Earthlife Africa has received the award.

ELA, alongside SAFCEI, has a long and illustrious history of grassroots activism and coalition-building on environmental justice issues.

From the early days of the environmental alliance with workers affected by mercury poisoning (Thor Chemicals) and asbestos, (both well-known international cases), to several coalitions which evolved around various nuclear deals — the now mothballed R10bn PBMR programme and subsequent programmes —  Earthlife Africa has always sought to mobilise issues affecting the earth, human health and human habitat.

The connection between ‘earth rights and human rights’ was a crucial dimension of the broad campaign to include ‘ecological sustainable development’ in South Africa’s constitution. A key element of our democracy.

Defending article 24 via a broad-based environmental justice movement has been a key to the success of the organisation and its latest coalition with SAFCEI.

It would therefore be in remiss if we failed to recognise earlier precursors, the Nuclear Energy Cost the Earth Campaign (NECTEC), which teamed up with the community of Kommegas and Richtersveld, as well as workers in Atlantis opposed to Koeberg and Nuclear One. ELA Cape Town under Maya Aberman made extensive submissions to Parliament.

While the later emergence of the anti-nuclear umbrella organisation known as CANE, which aside from the communities of Eastern Cape (Thyspunt) and Overberg (Bantamsklip), in many respects, dissipated anti-nuclear activism on the ground, failing to draw experience from previous epochs of anti-nuclear activism.

NECTEC as a non-racial campaign can be seen as a precursor to later coalitions which evolved around national health insurance. In this instance, ELA teamed up with People’s Health Movement, and Section 27 to promote universal health coverage.

The latest round of coalition-making under the auspices of Makoma and McDaid, has certainly brought home success and international attention.

We wish ELA and SAFCEI well in the future.

Edna Molewa’s SASOL greenwashing faux pas

IT IS NOT often that one gets to see blatant greenwashing non-science on SABC, ‘the use of marketing to portray an organization’s products, activities or policies as environmentally friendly when they are not’. The latest antics of the Dept of Environment’s Edna Molewa is possibly a low-point in the campaign to shift South Africa from coal to renewables.

In a televised broadcast from Sasol in Secunda, Molewa appears to claim an Oxygen (O2) plant ‘the world’s largest” is the solution to GHG. Gesticulating wildly without any supporting evidence, the minister claims that the O2 plant “helps us to fulfill our nationally determined contributions we committed ourselves to in Paris”

The departmental gibberish about reduction in tonnes of GHG and energy efficiency,  sounds exactly like a Zuma-era Eleventyseven, a purported 20% more energy efficient system is suddenly an 80% reduction in GHG? Is she quoting our national GHG targets? The medium-term goal of INCREASING CO2 equivalent emissions to somewhere between 398 – 614 MtCO2e until 2025 and 2030, which, according to the department “will represent South Africa’s peak GHG emissions phase” and only then to “reduce emissions thereafter up to 2050.”

No, she may as well be just making up her figures and fluffing stats as she goes along, while the public is oblivious to the problem that South Africa has committed itself to ramping up GHG until 2030 and only thereafter reducing emissions. The country negotiated a COP-out deal at Paris, and has been given until 2030 by other nations to come up with better targets, by which time, the human species will be extinct.

You can thank the ANC and Dame Edna Molewa for thinking through the nuts and bolts of a dangerous negotiation strategy called ‘Peak, Plateau and Decline‘, which is really a massive failure of governance and will haunt future generations and our own, for a long time to come. Given our low GHG profile over the turn of the century, we chose a dirty coal future instead of renewables and environmental justice.

The rush by the department to provide a positive spin on Sasol gas and Big Coal, is most certainly a reaction to a very public End Fossil Fuels campaign. Eish, look, there’s O2, must be good for the environment, bang.

To put this in some perspective, GHG (or CO2 equivalent) includes Carbon Dioxide, Nitrous Oxide, Methane, and Fluorocarbons. According to a statement released by SASOL the plant is merely an ‘air separation plant’, separating out Oxygen and Nitrogen. IT WILL NOT REMOVE CARBON as such from the atmosphere, but rather create less O and N in the atmosphere, while redoubling the coal and natural gas operation. If anything any carbon chains (and we have yet to see any information on the actual process) in SASOL’s primary operation will simply be going into more fossil fuel energy systems, and right back into the atmosphere, and must not be seen as a solution to the problem.

Bongani Nqwababa SASOL CEO can also be seen launching into a big speech about ‘government targets on beneficiation of minerals’ set during the past Zuma administration, 14 million tonnes of COAL to produce 30% of fuel in SA and this without mentioning GHG. Falsely claims process is more efficient, since according to him, ‘O2 reduces need for Coal’, and no we not going to be driving around in oxygen-powered vehicles any time soon, it would be far better if Nqwababa was announcing that SASOL was shifting away from liquid fuels to renewable energy while promoting EV technologies. South Africa is falling far behind Western nations in their rush to adopt eco-friendly transport systems.

Molewa later attempted to clarify her idiotic statements in Businessday, claiming that SASOL would be saving 200 000 tonnes of CO2 because of energy efficiency. The group produced some 69,3 Mt of CO2 equivalent in 2016 and contributes some 14.5% to our nation’s total. How exactly the savings target would be derived from an expansion in production of fossil fuel components remains to be seen. In other words, Sasol just increased our GHG emissions but did it in a more efficient manner. Until such time as Sasol releases a road-map for ending fossil fuels, its attempt to greenwash itself as an “oxygen company” must be viewed with some skepticism.

Local media outlets appear to have bought into the Big Rand greenwashing figures surrounding the Sasol investment, and are touting a relativistic and unproven ‘breathing fresh air into the economy story‘ as a solution to climate change, even if it means first polluting the environment with dirty coal. The audit mechanism surrounding fossil fuels will be coming up for debate in the National Assembly later this year, as a carbon tax is being introduced from next year. It remains to be seen whether or not any carbon offsets will be factored into the new tax regime, in effect making adoption of renewables more economical via a rebate on solar and EV.

South Africa’s compliance with GHG reduction targets is currently rated as “highly insufficient”

​SOUTH AFRICA’S compliance with GHG reduction targets is currently rated as “highly insufficient” by http://climateactiontracker.org/. Our national targets are ‘equivalent to a 20–82% increase on 1990 levels’, in other words, while the rest of the world is decreasing emissions, we have seen fit to increase GHG due to ​an​ emphasis on ideological rather than scientific concerns. Our GHG ranking as 18th largest emitter, is not surprising, coming one position behind the UK, but an embarrassment considering the relative size of our population.

Although our global contribution of 510.2377 tonnes CO2e or 1.13% of total emissions is far behind the world’s top emitter China, at 11735.0071 CO2e and 25.93% respectively of the total, this figure must be compared with the 24 least polluting nations, whose meek contributions are all less than 2.0022 CO2e per country and thus less than 0.00% each of the total. (see Climate Data Explorer and http://climateanalytics.org/)

Our nation’s excessive GHG contributions commit the World’s major cities to inundation by the ocean. South Africa needs to accept both liability and responsibility for the collapse of the Polar Vortex, the unstable configuration of the Antarctic Ice​shelf​, the melting of glaciers and permafrost, and thus the hockey stick curve showing ​an ​alarming rise in global temperatures. We are currently on track for a 1.7 meter rise in sea level by 2030, and saying this in no way describes the problems associated with complications arising from climate change.

The blame for climate change will ultimately be placed upon our nation’s leaders who have collectively committed the country to a hot global 3.4 degree C by 2100 if all countries stick to the Paris Agreement and the promise of no more than 1.5 degree temperature change beyond pre-industrial levels by 2030.  In 2016, planet Earth’s temperature averaged 1.26 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages, which is dangerously close to the 1.5-degree-Celsius limit set by international policymakers. There is no guarantee when it comes to temperatures.

A​ll​ this without any firm science to back up the proposition, that we can ​survive in such an altered climate. A global two degree rise could translate into a local six degree change. Climate change represents an existential threat. In this respect it is the ruling ANC with its ​Anti-Poor ​carbon policy reality of ‘peak, peak and peak’, (peak forever) which is most responsible for the current drought and thus Day Zero.

In the future, low-lying micronations will hold us all responsible for their ​country’s loss of territory. As will the citizens of coastal cities inundated by rising sea-levels. Both Cape Town and Durban will experience massive loss​es​ in land mass over the ensuing decade. ​We are already on a path towards a worst case scenario mapped out by academics during 2008. ​Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa and ESKOM CEOs should ​shoulder​ most of​ the blame.

Under Molewa, national climate outreach programmes were cancelled, while government to civil society programmes aimed at Post-COP17 climate change sessions​, and more recent UN climate sessions​ were not included in their budgets.​ We have withdrawn for all intents and purposes from our role as deal-makers during the Durban round, preferring Davos over the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.

The DEAT ​thus ​appears to have decreased its spending on climate change outreach and education​, a legacy of ​the previous administration of Jacob Zuma, while favouring coal over renewables​. The latest interdict by NUMSA against IPP renewables​ does not bode well, any wonder since the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) drafted to protect our environment​ and atmosphere, alongside the right to water,​ has been gutted by successive ANC ministers.

The proposed introduction of a “carbon tax” under Cyril Ramaphosa merely shifts GHG responsibility from the public to the private sector. Introducing a new form of tax revenue which fails to incorporate the carbon offsets which could generate jobs and create economic opportunity via a just transition to renewables. There are thus no incentives to offset and promote the introduction of electric vehicles, energy efficient public transport and renewables in South Africa in the foreseeable future, as the country slips to the bottom of the global rankings for energy efficiency

South Africa is responsible for 53.3170% of total GHG emissions in SADC, an economic block including Angola, Botswana, DRC, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We dominate our neighbours and as the dirtiest emitter, must take responsibility and liability for regional climate problems.

BRICS countries are in turn responsible for 40.59% of global carbon emissions alone, we have some of the worst GHG profiles on the planet and may as well be called the Dirty Five. In this respect South Africa is not alone.

 

 

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The End of the Anthropocene

The End of the Anthropocene, a retort to Stewart Brand.

THAT popular science has a difficult relationship with mainstream research is evidenced by the introduction of a term popularised by atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen nearly two decades ago, at the turn of the new millennium.

In recent years, the Anthropocene, a period defined by significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, has begun to dislodge the long-held view that we are in an epoch known at the Holocene.

I will argue that not only are we in the early Anthropocene, but that human impact upon planet Earth, and hence our own habitat and species, requires that we define what it means to be human in rather different terms. And also, that far from being at the beginning of the early Anthropocene, we are instead approaching the end of this epoch. Human habitat, defined as it is by climate, polar ice, glaciation and weather systems (systems that have remained relatively stable for millennia), is entering a period of rapid change. All leading one to question what it is to be human. Changes that could lead to the sixth major mass extinction event, and along with it, not a de-extinction of mammoths, but rather the complete removal of anthropos by the technium as a defining moment of evolution.

A spate of articles on the subject of the Anthropocene followed its introduction, beginning in 2014  Borenstein, Seth (14 October 2014). “With their mark on Earth, humans may name era, too”.  Edwards, Lucy E. (30 November 2015). “What is the Anthropocene?”Eos96.  Castree, Noel (2015). Associated PressWaters CN et al. (2016). “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene”Science351 (6269) and “The Anthropocene: a primer for geographers” (PDF). Geography. 100 part 2: 66.

According to the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), the professional organization in charge of defining Earth’s time scale, we are still officially in the Holocene epoch, an epoch which began 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age.

“But that label is outdated” writes Joseph Stromberg in the Smithsonian ” They argue for “Anthropocene”—from anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new”—because human-kind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts.”

Coupled with the emergence of this new epoch, used to define human intervention on our planet, has been the concomitant rise of new terms within popular culture to describe human evolution itself. Thus the rise of the cyborg, transhumanism and post-humanism, ‘concepts originating in the fields of science fiction, futurology, contemporary art, and philosophy’ that literally ‘means a person or entity that exists in a state beyond being human’.

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