Talking climate, without polar bears

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Copy of iol pix wld _CHINA-ENVIRONMENT-POLLUTION_0326_11 Reuters File photo: Carlos Barria

This article is about climate change – but don’t turn away! I probably would; I am jaded by the topic. Being talked to about climate change is like being talked to about Aids 10 years ago; a highly important education and discussion repeated so many times that you wanted to run away rather than turn and face the issue.

Climate change has filled the gap.

I am tired of polar bears. I am tired of melting ice caps, especially when shown by passionate footage of collapsing ice shelves. I am tired of overly emotive environmental propaganda so desperately trying to fight the naysayers that it falls into the trap of exaggeration, abuse of biased statistics and badly scripted videos that try to tug at heart strings long since hardened to the message.

All I want are the facts.

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is about as close as anything can be to them. Written by 436 authors worldwide, supported by contributions from more than 2 000 experts, it is one of the greatest collaborations of work and knowledge in our time.

Laid out in black and white Garamond font, type size 12, with no visuals or music, the content of the summary report is uncomfortably stirring.

Page 12 holds a list of the risks that can be attributed to climate change with a high level of confidence. They are singled out because they are not future scenarios but current ones, have global reach, are highly probably and have a large impact.

Most relevant to Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and East London is the increase in sea level and coastal flooding. The damage is not done by the marginally rising level of water but by the increased potential for storms to burst further inland and beyond the current infrastructure protecting residents from damage.

Another danger – which this year became a reality in the UK and more recently in Gauteng – is the risk of inland flooding and the consequence this has for highly populated areas. Even in water-scarce areas, periodic and intense rainfall does more damage than good.

Linked to this is the damage extreme weather events will do to basic infrastructure such as electricity, water supply, communications, and health and safety services. New Orleans, New York and Tohoku in Japan have still not recovered from the loss of infrastructure caused by the natural disasters that tore those cities apart in 2005, 2012 and 2011, respectively.

The most dangerous, however, is the threat to food security. Flooding and droughts have caused more crop failures, decreasing the net supply of agricultural goods and raising the costs of production.

Increased acidification of the ocean is causing a decrease in the amount of smaller marine life. This means less feedstock for larger fish and less food production from the sea, a key source of human nutrition and much of it also used in the farming beef, chicken and pork.

Fewer global food supplies mean higher prices for food, especially on basic items, and a greater reliance of the poor on the support of the state and taxpayers. South Africa is already stretched in this regard.

Some of you may have been jolted with my initial comparison of climate change to Aids. But it is no less frightening and no less deadly, yet it is non-selective and no pharmaceutical product or even abstinence can protect you as an individual.

The only solution is an immediate and collective response.

* Pierre Heistein is the convener of UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision-Making course. Follow him on Twitter @PierreHeistein.


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