After the dust, or more appropriately the beach sand, settled in Durban this past Sunday, the UN climate change agreement that was reached by 194 nation-states kicks the can farther down the road:
After the dust, or more appropriately the beach sand, settled in Durban this past Sunday, the UN climate change agreement that was reached by 194 nation-states kicks the can farther down the road:cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will be voluntary, the actual scale of those cuts is not specified, and assistance for the most climate vulnerable countries depends on the willingness of their richer peers to donate any money up front — never a guarantee in the world of international aid. Best of all, this so-called Durban Platform allows politicians until 2015 to come up with any truly binding agreement, which would presumably come into effect by 2020.
So one can be excused for thinking that COP17 was an utter waste of human resources and frequent flyer miles; snatched up by delegates from countries without their own private jets.
As someone who helped to report on this most recent installment of COP for Grocott’s, as well as someone whose doctoral research is intimately bound to an understanding of how vulnerable people will be affected by the caprices of the Eastern Cape’s climate going forward, I admit that a feeling of hopelessness sets in the more I think about how global inaction is destining the world to a reality of a 4C rise in global temperature and a concomitant increase in the incidences of droughts, flooding, typhoons, and plain old climate variability (which is often overlooked in the news media, but could in fact be as much a driver of human and ecosystem suffering as a massive deluge).
And like a cloud seeded to induce a rainstorm, my pessimism is amplified when I see the very people who profess a concern for the planet’s plight driving and flying long distances when telecommuting might do; throwing away huge amounts of food and material waste whilst barely recycling; and consuming foods that were grown, packaged, and shipped in some of the most unsustainable ways.
I was just in Durban, so why didn’t I have myself thrown out to sea as shark chum? Certainly it would be less painful than living with the knowledge that as a species we remained inert on one of the most important issues of our times.
As appealing as suicide and martyrdom might be, I choose instead to think of the work that can still be done on educating and informing a populace who might feel the consequences of catastrophic climate change are far away, and our own ability to mitigate the effects farther still. True, any scholar of educational theory will tell you that education itself is not sufficient enough to change behaviour (witness my aforementioned frustration with those “in the know”), but it is necessary.
Over the years I’ve thought long and hard how best to do this. I am an American, and so many of these ideas have revolved around scaring people through a combination of visceral shocks (think climate change haunted house; we are fond of these in my country) and exposure to CC-induced problems the country is facing already (the Florida coastline is sinking due to sea level rise as we speak).
In South Africa, especially in functionally illiterate populations or rural people who don’t have access to formal science education, some of these ideas would be less effective. In these cases I would suggest adapting the model of Mad Science (www.madscience.org), an extracurricular program that encourages children to experiment and engage with scientific phenomena in fresh ways. Through the use of commonly available household supplies, or with poorer people commonly available materials found in most rural villages or townships, climate change-related concepts like the greenhouse effect, hurricane formation, and internally displaced peoples (think glass, ants and border walls made out of toothpicks) are not unattainable. One need not go through rigorous hypothesis testing or experimentation either. I plan on attempting some of these demonstrations in my field site soon.
(In full disclosure: I once worked for Mad Science years ago but do not speak on the company’s behalf!)
Another way still is to utilise pre-existing local knowledge on activities like the ones I witness daily when conducting my field research in the former Transkei. A colleague of mine once noted that when a rural woman cooks inside her home with poor ventilation, doing so continuously throughout the day, it becomes harder and harder for her family to breathe. If the planet’s atmosphere continues to absorb more CO2 and other gases, breathing may or may not be affected, but life as we know it is likely to face some serious impediments to survival.
Such use of informal scientific methods is not without its perils: The cultural constructs of Western science may not always fit in perfectly with the customary understanding of natural phenomena many South Africans share. This would be especially the case with elderly people or populations more comfortable with supernatural explanations for a changing environment – a difficulty not unlike the one faced by those trying to educate the public about HIV/AIDS. Plus, one can look back to my own fair land’s lack of political will on climate change and say, “if the US with its vaunted higher education system can’t solve this puzzle, who the heck can?” (My only answer would be that special interests in my country have distorted public opinion in a way that defies reason; I would never claim we’re a model for South Africa or anywhere else in this regard).
In the current world order, heavy lifting on climate change legislation will have to be done by governments and inter-governmental assemblages, like the UN, alike. Even grassroots activists and civil society recognise this fact. But no matter what theory you adopt on the power of education and its ability to change the status quo, the fact remains that one of the first steps towards changing the world’s understanding of impending climate change is to understand what it even is to begin with. But be prepared for embarrassment: makhulu may pick up on the greenhouse effect quicker than you.