Press "Enter" to skip to content

Where do we go from here?

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: ; ; and Read Sipho Kings’s article on the IPPCC report as well:


  • 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.


  1. mememine69 mememine69 15 April 2014

    Now we arrest the lazy news editors and politicians who exaggerated science’s 32 year old consensus of NEVER being as certain as you “believers” are.

  2. Comrade Koos Comrade Koos 16 April 2014

    In my opinion government leaders that do not initiate a full swing to green energy as soon as is practically possible should be tried in international criminal courts for genocide and crimes against humankind. Already climate change related events kill 1000 children a day, or 400 000 people a year. By 2030 this will have risen to 700 000 lives a year. If you add it up year on year, that is more people dying from climate change than the Nazi ever gassed.

  3. Head light Head light 16 April 2014

    A rich man sells a poor man NIK NAKS. The rich man knows that these chips aren’t made from real cheese but he doesn’t care. The poor man cares that these chips are made from real cheese but he doesn’t know. Eventually the middle man – who alone makes chips with real cheese – starts to make & buy NIK NAKS in order to make a living & feed his family. Such is the world we presently live in.

  4. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 17 April 2014

    Political will. Who is the master and who is the slave? Do Corporates control the political decision makers? Who controls the Corporates? Is it not the shareholders? Who are the shareholders? Pension funds are a key shareholder in many Corporations. So the ordinary citizen, owns the Company that is perpetuating his/ her own eventual demise. What happened the to the Politician that was a leader that took good decisions not popular decisions, or is such a beast a mythical creature like the Yeti?
    There is a part of me that says we can still head the horses off before the pass, there is a part of me that says let the whole facade collapse and we build something good from what is left, there is a part of me that says why is it my responsibility and then there is a part of me that will not be stilled that says what am I leaving my child?

  5. Yaj Yaj 17 April 2014

    Bert., a really excellent article and important discussion.
    We must connect the dots between the perpetual growth economy which depletes resources and trashes the environment and the monetary/banking system of debt, fractional reserve banking and compound interest. It is the money system that is driving this destructive and unsustaINABLE GROWTH on our finite planet.
    Therefore to achieve a de-growth or steady-state economy we need monetary and banking reform with 100% reserve banking, debt-free and interest-free money.
    This is something that Prof Herman Daly, one of the most eminent ecologial economists in the world has been harping about for years.

    BTW the other local initiatives all over the world are the Transition Towns where communities re-organise themselves using their own local currencies

  6. Yaj Yaj 17 April 2014

    To take on the banking monetary system is going to be daunting to say the least but it has to be done for our own survival.Anything else is tinkering on the surface which is what most politicians will opt to do.

  7. Richard Richard 18 April 2014

    Population growth is a major problem, and not only because of Western consumerism. The need for food to feed the burgeoning population is one of the major issues, from agricultural land to methane emissions from livestock. And this is squarely in the hands of the Developing World; Ethiopia, for instance, has tripled its population in thirty years. India’s is growing alarmingly, too. Unfortunately, we are no different from bacteria that simply overgrow our resources and then die in huge numbers. Sadly, when it comes to a toss-up between genitalia or the brain, the former are always the winners.

  8. Comrade Koos Comrade Koos 18 April 2014

    @Richard ~ The wealthiness 20% of the population use 87% of global resources. When it comes to a toss up between where the population should be trimmed, obviously the wealthiest 20%. Its a no brainer. :-)

  9. Comrade Koos Comrade Koos 18 April 2014

    ‘The wealthiest 20%…’ (damn spell check)

  10. Maria Maria 20 April 2014

    The other name by which the urban spread of subsistence gardening is known is “edible city” – google that and you’ll see what interesting things are happening the world over.
    @Yaj: You are quite correct – no one wants to touch the money system, and that’s where the process of limitless growth starts. This is what is driving eco-destruction: supposedly “limitless” economic growth. An arithmetic-savvy child would spot the contradiction – there cannot be limitless growth in a limited eco-system.

  11. Bet Olivier’s article on Climate Change, most important and true. Unfiortunatel those who have the power have acted against the universal concern, as the world has seen the Jungles of the Amazon fall to the axe, and then too the Green Strip of Africa’s
    equatorial belt while planet earth gets hotter and dryer and the deert sands increase.

    The leaders responsible don’t have to pay for these trade-offs which are not considered to be criminal behaviour, and in the name of democracy these ‘kings’ remain impervious to natures depredations. Excellent article.

Leave a Reply