For deconscientised Durban, a month until climate wake-up call, Patrick Bond

The Mercury, 25 October 2011
You can sympathise with our city’s community, environmental, labour and faith leaders who in preparing for the world climate summit here in one month’s time, must wake their sleepy flocks to the greatest threat humanity has ever faced.

Their challenge is to fill the “We Have Faith!” prayer meeting next to Mabhida Stadium on November 27, to attend public teach-ins and exhibits at the Durban University of Technology’s “People’s Space” alternative summit from November 25 to December 9, and to get thousands of us to join the December 3 non-violent protest. That march will weave past the US Consulate, City Hall, and the International Convention Centre all the way to the beach for the “Going Away Party” – a farewell to one of South Africa’s most democratic spaces, because the seawater is rising by a meter or more this century.

The last poll I have seen comparing climate awareness amongst major countries puts South Africans next to last, slightly ahead of the Chinese, when posed the question “Is climate change a serious problem?” Only 45 percent answered yes, whereas at least 70 percent say yes in Brazil, Germany and Japan, according to GlobalScan pollsters a few years ago.

Creative consciousness-raising antidotes are coming: a mock Noah’s Ark near North Beach, the ‘Blue Line’ that in parts of central Durban will ink out the rising high-water mark – far higher than the elite Vetch’s Beach development near uShaka, incidentally – or the Climate Train from Cape Town via Joburg. And a series of caravans from East and Southern Africa will make stops along the way so PanAfrican Climate Justice Alliance members can recruit our neighbours to the cause.

But people are also realizing systematic duplicity by governments from Pretoria to eThekwini City Hall. For example, last week’s national Climate White Paper consultation process was far too short. Although some in civil society observed an improvement over the Green Paper because there’s no mention of nuclear energy, a draft R1 trillion nuke tender is circulating, starting in Jeffrey’s Bay where even apolitical surfers awoke to the threat and protested vibrantly in July. Who do the White Paper authors think they are fooling, leaving out nukes?

Pretoria is also sly when it comes to emissions targets, as Cape Town researcher Eugene Cairncross pointed out: “The White Paper unfortunately does not include a reasonably up-to-date emissions inventory for South Africa,” a crucial omission because “Eskom remains absolutely committed to building new coal fired power stations, at a cost of about R500 billion for Medupi and Kusile.” And Sasol has the world’s single worst CO2 emissions site, at Secunda.

Cairncross also complains the White Paper’s benchmark CO2-equivalent emissions range is so wide that it allows “an increase of emissions from the current 500 to 540 million tons per year to 614 million tons per year in 2035. That is, the Benchmark accepts a further 20 percent increase in GHG emissions over the next 25 years, during a period when the global climate change crisis demands a decrease in emissions!”

Brainwashing us won’t work, when Pretoria offers this monotone ministerial pronouncement: “Working Together: Saving Tomorrow Today” – better translated into the reality, “Warming Together: Stealing Tomorrow Today.”

The minister in question, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, will chair the climate summit. She is best known for refusing a first-class Norway-Bulgaria plane journey last month because airport authorities insisted that, like all others (aside from royalty and heads of state), she put her handbag through the x-ray machine. Refusing, she instead landed SA taxpayers with a R235 000 bill to hire an executive jet.

A month later, the Dalai Lama visa-delay fiasco called into question Nkoana-Mashabane’s capacity to act independently when she presides over the climate summit. Will she be an agent of Beijing – or instead, like Jacob Zuma in Copenhagen two years ago, of Washington? She certainly isn’t going to protect the interests of the planet or people, judging by national and municipal climate malgovernance.

For example, City Hall’s decades-old bias towards a ‘climate-dumb Durban’ – i.e. the officials’ nudge-nudge wink-wink posture when in the presence of massive polluters – was evident again on October 10 at Merebank’s Settlers Primary School. It is a reflection of city health management and the provincial education department that a decade ago, Settlers was found to have a 52% asthma rate, the world’s highest, and that the neighbourhood’s main carbon polluters carry on with noxious emissions, periodic explosions and lethal fires.

As The Mercury reported, “More than 100 primary school children were taken to hospital – some struggling for breath, others with itchy skin and eyes – after being splattered by air-borne droplets of crude oil and a cloud of smoke and soot from another fire at the Engen fuel refinery in South Durban.” Engen’s Herb Payne replied to The Witness, “It wasn’t serious and we managed to contain the fire with internal firefighters.” Engen handed out a few hundred new school uniforms and R30 car-wash vouchers.

Reading from Payne’s script, climate-dumb Durban’s municipal officials also show a consistent lack of seriousness. Climate change will intensify extreme weather events and floods that could devastate our cracking stormwater drainage system. When in 2008 Durban’s Blue Flag beach status was decertified due to high E.coli counts, it should have immediately generated a sanitation construction boom. But go to any of Durban’s more than 100 major shack settlements and try finding a ratio of decent, working toilets that is higher than one per 1000 people.

Without decent sanitation, worsening rainstorms coursing through low-income areas will gather E.coli in amounts far higher than the recommended 130/100ml for recreational river use. As a recent State of the South African Rivers Report found, on the “uMngeni River at Kennedy Road, E.coli up to 1,080,000. (Cause: Informal Community on the banks of the Palmiet River.)”

Another climate-dumb Durban strategy is to cut poor people’s electricity – often illegally connected due to the municipal policy of not supplying most settlements, and often due to the price hikes Eskom imposes to pay for Medupi and Kusile – resulting in an upsurge of violent service delivery protests. Those which got recent media attention in Kennedy Road, Sea Cow Lake and Chatsworth are joined by thousands of others across South Africa each year.

We desperately need to connect the dots between genuine local grievances and insensitive government climate politics, so as to solve these problems from both below, in the wretched townships, and above, by regulating those infernal smokestacks.

On Friday at 5pm, the Community Climate Summit at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Memorial Tower Building is one place to begin, for so many of us vaguely aware of the UN climate negotiations – for which we in Durban are told by the government and allied NGOs to just go plant a tree or replace a lightbulb, instead of addressing this crisis from the standpoint of justice.

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