Extra Virgin October 2009

Pegging Down Climate’s Big Number?- Leonie Joubert

Leonie Joubert sat down to an early morning coffee with journalist-turned-activist Bill McKibben ahead of International Day of Climate Action on October 24 to talk about saving the world. As you do.

We're meeting in Kalk Bay, near Cape Town. It is very early and I’m working my way through a second coffee. “The biggest single task for our society, for the next forty years, is the rapid transition away from fossil fuels towards something else,” says McKibben, founder of the organisation 350.org. “There’s no bigger job than that, that governments have to do.”

We’re talking about the big, round number that NASA climatologist Jim Hansen presented to the world in 2007: that we need to get the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere down to 350 parts per million (ppm) if we wanted to survive climate change. Above that, and we don’t have a planet “similar to the one in which modern civilisation emerged or to which life on Earth is adapted”.

But we’ve already overshot that by 40 parts per million. We’re at 390ppm and rising fast. Finding a way back to a safe level of CO2 is what the United Nations climate negotiations, planned for Copenhagen this December, are all about.

Doing so means rewriting the way countries power their grids, move people and goods about, manage waste, and eat. And even though developing countries aren’t expected to do the lion’s share of the work in order to bring down emissions, these countries will still be required to wean themselves off fossil fuels within our lifetime, South Africa included.

“Many argue that we’re at a pivotal point in society, similar to the start of the industrial revolution,” I put to Bill, “many lost livelihoods, then, while others gain new ones. Charles Dickens wrote about that. And yet, tell that to a coal miner now who can’t necessarily be re-skilled to work in a solar power plant. We’ll have massive resistance from trade unions, understandably.”

“Managing that transition is difficult,” Bill says, looking intently into his cup. “That’s why we have leaders to help do it. South Africa will have to figure out how to make that transition. Everyone will. The alternative is to ignore (the world’s response to) this, and to figure out how to deal with the endlessly more costly problem of how you deal with the effects of climate change.”

If the taxi industry’s resistance to the Bus Rapid Transport system in Gauteng is anything to go by, government needs to reframe the way it communicates this issue to the industry. After all, effective, reliable public transport is key to reducing our travel-related emissions.

“We’re past the point where we’re going to solve this thing one light bulb at a time, one community at a time or even one country at a time, though,” Bill asserts.

This is why his organisation’s lobbying civil society to put pressure on governments to aim for a tough deal in Copenhagen. But following the monumental failures of previous attempts at emissions reductions (the Kyoto Protocol),the jury is still out on whether Copenhagen will achieve that.

Visit www.350.org to get involved.


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