When the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) recently published its most comprehensive and most drastic report on climate change to date, the president of the United States, Mr Barack Obama, called it a “call to action”. It remains to be seen if the leader of the biggest economy on the planet will live up to his words.

What interests me more than his words, is the question of action – will the US really swing into action at last, and even more important: what would this action entail? Would it be mere window-dressing, paying lip-service to the idea of a green economy (which is simply a disguised way of promoting the interests of capitalism, the real culprit in driving climate change), while leaving everything pretty much intact? Or will Obama take the first significant steps towards a non-oil-dependent economy, which is bound to make him a lot of enemies, not only among the oil companies. Or will he restrict the vaunted “action” to making encouraging noises in the direction of the car manufacturers about fast-tracking the production of electric cars (which is not without its down-side either) and the like?

It is imperative to see “action” in the context of the IPCC statement, that carbon emissions have to be cut drastically and urgently, if a catastrophic rise in global temperatures of 6 degrees Centigrade by the end of the century were to be avoided. And anyone who might respond to this along the lines of the president of Wall Street’s remark, a few years ago – with a “so what” attitude – when he heard about the notion of “global warming”, that he liked it “hot”, would simply be displaying their ignorance and cynicism concerning the likely effects of such a sharp increase in global temperatures.

This is understandably something that one cannot really imagine, if all that you have to go by is something like Hurricane Katrina and the recent super-typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, both of which have been directly linked to a comparatively negligible rise (less than 1 degree Centigrade) in global temperatures since 1970. On p. 17 of the Technical Summary of the IPCC these scientists state:

“Mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions can substantially reduce risks of climate change in the second half of the 21st century (high confidence). Examples include reduced risk of negative agricultural yield impacts, of water scarcity, of major challenges to urban settlements and infrastructure from sea-level rise, and of adverse impacts from heat extremes, floods, and droughts in areas where increased occurrence of these extremes are projected. Under all assessed scenarios for mitigation and adaptation, some risk from residual damages is unavoidable (very high confidence). Since mitigation reduces the rate as well as the magnitude of warming, it also increases the time available for adaptation to a particular level of climate change, potentially by several decades, but adaptation cannot generally overcome all climate change effects. In addition to biophysical limits to adaptation for example under high temperatures, some adaptation options will be too costly or resource intensive or will be cost ineffective until climate change effects grow to merit investment costs (high confidence). Some mitigation or adaptation options also pose risks…

“Large magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and challenging impacts. Risks associated with global temperature rise in excess of 4°C relative to preindustrial levels include potential adverse impacts on agricultural production worldwide, potentially extensive ecosystem impacts, and increasing species extinction risk (high confidence), as well as possible crossing of thresholds that lead to disproportionately large earth system responses (low confidence). The precise levels of climate change sufficient to trigger tipping points (critical thresholds) remain uncertain, but the likelihood of crossing tipping points in the earth system or interlinked human and natural systems decreases with reduced greenhouse gas emissions (medium confidence).”

You will notice that the language they use is matter-of-fact, businesslike, and not, as one might expect, bristling with alarmist rhetoric. This restrained discourse should not mislead anyone, however. For example, when they state that the lessening of greenhouse gas emissions would lead to “reduced risk of negative agricultural yield impacts, of water scarcity, of major challenges to urban settlements and infrastructure from sea-level rise, and of adverse impacts from heat extremes, floods, and droughts in areas where increased occurrence of these extremes are projected”, most people would be inclined to read it in such a way that the emphasis is on the “reduced risk”, and come away from it with a warm, fuzzy feeling that everything is under control.

The real emphasis, however, is on “areas where increased occurrence of these extremes are projected”. This is the near-certainty facing us. “Near-certainty” instead of “certainty” because when empirically given circumstances are involved, science treats projections and anticipations based on these conditions as probabilities – this is just an exigency of scientific method. But don’t let it fool you – unless something quite unforeseen happens, such as massive, globally distributed, volcanic eruptions, which would cool down the atmosphere significantly, we are in for an increasingly hot ride. So take a good look at what those “extremes” involve. They have already started manifesting themselves in the shape of animal-exterminating droughts in this country, and in extreme weather conditions such as monster-storms.

Hence the question of action. Can governments worldwide take the necessary “action” to mitigate these extreme conditions? In other words, do they have the political will to do so? Or are they all so much indebted to corporations for economic (and that means political) favours that they dare not take the lead in what will undoubtedly be a difficult process, and one that will require great sacrifices from all the citizens of the world? Can one really imagine that Big Oil will voluntarily stop oil production, or even that it would stop exploring for new oil sources? Or that those with financial interests in the extraction of shale gas in the Karoo would willingly back off and resign themselves to the truth, namely that it would be nothing short of a crime to go ahead with this in a water-stressed country (and destined to become much more so as the planet gets hotter)? After all, shale gas extraction requires the use of millions of litres of water, which is mixed with chemicals that effectively make the water unusable as water afterwards.

The unpalatable truth, therefore, is that to rescue the beings (plants and animals, including us) living on the planet in its present state, a switch to a different form of energy is urgently required, together with a switch to a different kind of economy, one not dependent on oil. For example, where the present economic model requires workers for jobs, of which they are never assured anyway, a switch would seem to me to require something far more important, namely the know-how on the part of ordinary people, to become self-sufficient by cultivating vegetables and fruit for their own use (which can be done on a surprisingly small patch of soil).

This is already increasingly happening all over the world, even in cities, where people are appropriating vacant lots for vegetable gardening. (This goes by various names, such as Community Gardens, Green Thumb, Green Guerillas, and so on. See for instance, among the evidence to this effect: http://www.wired.com/2011/08/growing-self-sufficient-cities/ ; http://www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/community-gardens/movement ; and http://www.ted.com/talks/ron_finley_a_guerilla_gardener_in_south_central_la/transcript. Read Sipho Kings’s article on the IPPCC report as well: http://mg.co.za/article/2014-04-04-the-worlds-tiny-window-to-act-on-climate-change-is-closing-rapidly).


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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