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Youth speaking to power: Act on climate change now

19 July 2022 at 12:50 pm

South Africa’s young people can no longer stand by and watch as the older generation fails to take action on climate change. (Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images)
South Africa’s young people can no longer stand by and watch as the older generation fails to take action on climate change. (Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Original Article by Tatenda Muponde & Khumo Lesele, published by Mail & Guardian

It is South Africa’s youth, the children of today, as well as future generations, who will bear the brunt of the poor decisions currently being made by the older generation. And when it comes to climate change impact, make no mistake, these consequences will be dire.

The climate crisis is a child rights crisis. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund Children’s Climate Risk Index close to one billion children around the world – almost half of all children – are at “extreme risk” from climate change.

In South Africa, a country which has been identified as a climate hotspot, a recent report by global change expert Nicholas King, which is based on the latest climate science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, predicts that climate impacts in South Africa will include not only floods, droughts and heat waves but also crop failure, food insecurity, water stress and various forms of economic collapse and social conflict.

These impacts will dramatically alter the lives and prospects of today’s youth and future generations. There will be negative effects on our physical and mental health and our wellbeing and reduced opportunities for self-advancement. Any further delays in taking action will condemn today’s and tomorrow’s youth to even more significant climate change harm.

Despite this, the older generation, those who are in power now and whose decisions have led us to this point, seem unable to act with the required urgency. If anything, many decision makers still seem to think that investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is the way to go, despite the negative climate consequences.

The youth of South Africa could be forgiven for thinking that the older generation is wilfully ignoring the science on climate change when the government still proposes building 1500 megawatts of new coal-fired power, is still pursuing Karpowership projects and investing in oil and gas projects.

How can we trust them with our future when they are responsible for the decisions that have led us into a crisis? As women in our 20s, living in South Africa and witnessing this catastrophic lack of action and these frightening predictions, we question our future in light of climate change and our government’s response to it.

Making our voices heard

So what can we do? According to section 195(1) of the Constitution, public administration must be governed by the democratic values and principles enshrined in it and the public must be encouraged to participate in policy-making. In other words, everyone — including the youth and children — can actively participate in government decision-making processes, especially in those matters that affect them. To enable effective participation, decision-makers must be transparent with the public by providing relevant and accurate information in a timely and accessible manner.

This was not the case earlier this year when the parliamentary portfolio committee on environment affairs published the critically important Climate Change Bill for public comment. The bill, which is set to become the Climate Change Act and will govern South Africa’s response to climate change, does not adequately provide for this transparency and access to information in its current form.

Yet this is essential if we are to participate in processes that affect us from an informed position. The science is clear that the youth, and children born today, will be the most affected by climate change and yet the bill largely excludes their voices from the decision-making process.

The climate crisis is today’s problem

Young people in South Africa are already experiencing the harm of climate change. During the April floods in KwaZulu-Natal, 400 people died, including 60 children, more than 40 000 people were displaced without basic water and sanitation and about 600 schools were damaged, destroyed or made inaccessible. The cost of rebuilding and repairing the homes and infrastructure was estimated to be R7.5 billion.

During his speech on the floods, President Ramaphosa admitted the extreme weather events that caused the flooding were a result of climate change. This was also confirmed by World Weather Attribution, which concluded that the probability of such floods happening was doubled by human-induced climate change.

The floods are just one example of climate-related natural disasters. The recent floods in the Eastern Cape and wild fires in the Western Cape, as well as the day-zero drought experienced in the Western Cape in 2018 have been attributed to climate change.

These recent events have given us a glimpse into how devastating and traumatic the effects of climate change can be.

Living through a climate catastrophe is not the future we want for ourselves or the generations that come after us. Most of our predecessors will not live to see the future they are destroying by failing to act but, as the youth of today, we must be more proactive, more vocal and put more pressure on the government to act on the climate crisis.

Nothing about us, without us

If we have any chance of creating a proper response to climate change in terms of mitigation (that is, reducing or preventing the emission of greenhouse gases) and adaptation (adjusting to current or expected effects of climate change), the voices of the youth of this country need to be heard.

For a start, we can take the initiative to learn about climate change and how it affects us in our daily lives. We must call on the government to empower young people to contribute in shaping energy policies and decisions that affect them. We must learn about the Climate Change Bill, and when there are calls for public participation on it, we must attend, raise our concerns and ask questions. Young people should join social and environmental justice groups.

History has shown the strength that South Africa’s youth has. We have always been revolutionary and have never sat back while our future was being tarnished. We must now claim our constitutionally-guaranteed right to public participation, as well as the right to a healthy environment protected under section 24 of the Constitution, by taking a stand and ensuring that our voices are heard.

It is our responsibility to protect and shape the future we want to experience. Let us stand up and fight for our future together.