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Extinction is an Option

The high incidence of natural disasters, like the cyclones which have wreaked devastation in Mozambique, should heighten our and especially our politicians’ concern for our planet and for implementing policies to curb climate change. Yet, just days before elections in South Africa, it seems climate is not high on the agenda of political parties — whether in South Africa or elsewhere. It’s time we factor parties’ climate policy into the equation for who gets our vote says Chris Chatteris SJ.

‘My generation will only be able to travel by air in emergencies’. Quite a quotable quote from Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year old Swedish schoolgirl who has become the Joan of Arc of the climate movement. 

Thunberg’s simple courage and a touch of Asperger Syndrome, now classified as Autism spectrum disorder, have enabled her to tell the truth about climate breakdown to the political and economic elite in a way that adults have so far failed to do. She hopes to rouse our lethargic leaders to real action in the face of an existential crisis. And incidentally, she doesn’t fly if she can help it; her recent round trip to the UK was completed by rail.

Meanwhile, an organisation unknown until just a few weeks ago, has paralysed central London with non-violent direct action. Hundreds of Extinction Rebellion activists have been delighted to be arrested for breaking the law for the sake of the planet. 

Unelected and unexpected, they have thrust the climate crisis onto the media and political agenda like no movement before them. The British Labour Party now proposes to put before Parliament a motion that acknowledges that there actually is a climate crisis requiring urgent political action. Well, who would have thought? Judging by the coverage of the past few weeks, most of the British media seems to have thought that Brexit was the most important issue on their ‘sceptered isle’. 

Across the Atlantic, in the USA, there are calls for a ‘green new deal’. Naturally, this call is condemned in apocalyptic terms as the end of the American dream and of the sacred American way of life, by politicians and media in the pay of big oil. However, the fact that it is being talked about at all, and in US Congress by fresh, young faces such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, is another blow to ‘business as usual’.

These signs of the times are welcome, if dangerously tardy. For decades we, and our so-called leaders, have known that there is a major environmental problem facing humanity, but we have dawdled, bickered and wasted precious time. Some have, criminally, positively obfuscated the scientific facts in order to make short-term profits. 

The scientists now tell us that unless we take urgent and drastic action in the next decade, we run a huge risk of runaway climate change, of a ‘hothouse earth’ as some call it, in which all bets are off, even the bet which says that the human species will somehow survive. 

The other signs of the times are extremely unwelcome for those bearing their brunt. The people of Mozambique, for example. Right on cue, number-crunching scientists at Stanford University have recently told us that the rise in average global temperature impacts worse on poorer countries. It’s not just a question of not having the resources to handle natural disasters. It seems terribly unfair but, apparently, the GDPs of poorer countries have grown less than they might have without global warming and the GDPs of richer countries have grown more as a result of it. 

Why? Because there is an ‘empirical optimum’, an average temperature of 13 degrees Celsius at which humans flourish best. The poorer countries are mostly in the hotter parts of the world and so, as the average temperature increases, they move further away from this optimum temperature and disease increases and energy levels and industrial and agricultural productivity go down. 

The richer countries are in the cooler regions, and as the temperature moves up towards the ‘empirical optimum,’ harvests are generally better, people have more energy, and GDP increases. Hence wealthy countries have a short-term gain from climate change. This study says that South Africa is 10-20% poorer because of global warming, Nigeria is 29% poorer and India 30%.  

Charismatic individuals like Pope Francis, Greta Thunberg and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the Extinction Rebels, plus the brutal weather events, are all telling us that life is going to get rougher in the next few decades. They pull their punches less and less. 

Extinction Rebellion activists do not promise us a brighter future in any materialistic sense. They say that all we can hope for now is survival. Our material expectations will have to be lowered drastically. Thriving will have to give way to surviving as we ride out Mozambican-type climate chaos which is already locked in thanks to that extra one degree Celsius and the carbon dioxide emissions of the industrial age. 

Herein, of course, lies the problem for politicians. They are accustomed, especially in election times, to tell us that things will get better if we vote for them. And we have colluded with them by failing dismally to stop them lying and demand that they tell us the truth. Few are the Vaclav Havel’s who, when he inherited the economic wasteland of post-Soviet Czechoslovakia, famously said in his inaugural speech, “I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.” How many politicians would publicly agree with Greta Thunberg on the future of flying?

Polls suggest that if our leaders could find the courage to speak the truth about the climate, they would get the support that Havel got. When there is a crisis, people know it and they are able to hear ‘blood, sweat and tears’ speeches from their leaders. But our elected leadership fails to listen to these new voices and continues to lull us into complacency with the usual messages of endless growth, full employment and inexorable progress, it runs the risk of being elbowed aside, if we are lucky, by the new generation of climate activists, or, if we are unlucky, by violent, climate-change-denying, immigrant-blaming populists.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.