Everybody is talking about climate change lately, and there are some really weird ideas being bandied about – on both sides. So I want to try and set my ideas on record, to clarify it, more for myself than anybody else. Climate change exists. It is measurable, and measured. We have a pretty good idea of how the world works when it comes to the broad strokes, but there are still a lot of the nitty-gritty details that we still need to find out about. When you work with the natural environment you soon run into the bunch of things we just don’t know yet.
Looking at the broad strokes, climate has changed. It has never been static. The problem is not the change, the problem is the rate. There is a rather good timeline, setting the change in perspective, here: https://xkcd.com/1732/.
The same goes for species. Extinction is a fact of life. But the rate has been slow and steady. What is happening at present is worse than going down the old mining railway line in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. There are two reasons for this: Development and climate change. And yes, there are documented cases of species extinction directly attributable to climate occurrences. And research, since the 1800’s has progressively built the picture of the link between the composition of atmospheric gasses and climate. Just to clear up misunderstandings, climate is the bigger picture – as with somebody’s personality, temperature is what you see when you look out of the window, your mood at the moment. They are linked, but not the same.
If we look at the bigger picture, the environment is a complicated machine, that is more complex that any machine ever dreamed up by bunch of engineers, and to actually know what’s going on, you need about double the amount of experts in different fields that NASA, or Elon, needs to get to Mars. So when you get an expert scientific opinion, what it says will depend entirely on from what angle that scientist looks at the issue. And it is, in the end, just one of the jigsaw puzzle pieces, not the whole picture. If any of you have ever tried to build a food web at school, you will have taken the first step in understanding the complexities involved.
So what are the biggest environmental problems we are facing? Climate change is one, directly linked to energy production as one of the biggest contributions. We do not just need more energy because of our lifestyles, we also need more because of the babies we have. If a population is growing at 3%, the doubling time (the time for the population to double in number) is between 24 and 30 years. In South Africa, where the population growth is now a bit under 3%, we are precariously close to having roughly 400% of the people that lived in the country compared to when my mother gave birth to me. That means we need 400% of the electricity we needed around 1960. If we count in poverty alleviation, with its implied increase in electrified housing and jobs that need even more electricity, the increase in electricity production skyrockets. All because the population grows.
Climate change is not the only problem we face. Alien invasive species, that by merely existing kills our own, is also a big, big problem. And this is actually linked to climate change. As the indigenous species struggle to cope with climate they are not adapted to, and invasive pests they have not had to deal with in the past, the aliens take over the space much more easily, and much quicker.
Water is another problem. We are a semi-arid country. Water is a (fairly) constant resource. You cannot grow water, or increase it, or lose it. You can however change its usability. It is easy to degrade potable water, it is expensive and difficult, especially energy-wise, to change water not fit for human consumption into potable water. While mining and development is degrading our freshwater sources, we need to provide more than 400% more potable water to humans than we did 60 years ago. We are also facing increasing floods and droughts, which is easy to blame on climate change. Although that certainly plays a role, the biggest cause by far is that our rampant development, driven by increased populations has trashed more than 50% of our wetlands – a critical ecological infrastructure designed to moderate both floods and droughts. It is also critical in sustaining fishing stock.
And the solution to climate change is easy, right? Less coal-fired power station and don’t even talk of nuclear. Green energy is the way to go. Only problem is that niggly little thing called the first law of economics: There is no such thing as a free lunch. It is also taken up in Barry Commoner’s 4 laws of ecology. So what is the cost of green energy? More steel and glass – both mining activities are already way beyond what the environment can sustain locally. And when we have erected it? The biggest impact will be on food security, especially for poor communities that are dependent on subsistence farming, and organic farming. Another impact will be on food prices, which will definitely go up – not only because of the loss of agricultural land, but also because of the increased poison use by commercial farmers. Really bad news if you are desperately trying to reduce poverty in a rapidly growing population.
I came across a Maroela Media article with the basic message that we are going to die if we have to cut the economy in order to reduce greenhouse gasses. Very valid argument from one narrow point of view. Unfortunately the picture is a bit bigger than that. When the really serious impacts of climate change hit us, the economy will be the first thing to collapse. And it will not be a managed collapse. You’ve seen the structures built by dominoes where you tilt one, and you end up with 20 rows knocking each other down until everything lies flat? That is about the closest thing to describing ecosystem collapse you can get. And we won’t stop it by just addressing climate change, or alien invasives, or poverty or water, or any of the single problems we like to raise, because that is easy and we can get our brains around it. We need to look at everything, as they are all connected, and influence each other. We could have done something 60 years ago to fix things, but we chose growth and development and money. Now it is payback time, and we have a choice. Pay the rather heavy price now, or face the price that mother nature is going to exact later. The choice is ours. And right now the choice is in the hands of politicians that are very much in the pockets of developers.
Article written by Willeen Olivier on her Facebook page