The northern hemisphere summer just peaked. Though torrid heat is now ebbing, even worse is coming, for a giant Arctic Ocean “belch” of 50 billion tons of methane is inexorably escaping from seabed permafrost, according to scientists writing in the journal Nature last month. North Pole ice is now, at maximum summer heat, only 40 percent as thick as it was just 40 years ago.
The damage, according to Cambridge and Erasmus University researchers, could cost R600 trillion. Global warming will speed up by 1535 years.
Extreme weather just hit China, whose world-record CO2 emissions – mainly a result of producing junk purchased by wealthier countries which have outsourced their industrial emissions to East Asia – generate as a byproduct, not only thick layers of smog in the main cities.
There were also scores of heatrelated deaths last month.
Shanghai suffered 10 straight days above 38°C, with temperatures in some places high enough to fry eggs and prawns on the pavement.
Also facing blowback, the US western drought is so severe that 86 percent of New Mexico’s water supply evaporated, extreme bushfires broke out – for example, scorching Yosemite Park’s famed redwoods and threatening San Francisco’s water supply – while California’s Death Valley temperatures soared to 50°C.
In Alaska, a source of enormous oil extraction, record temperatures in the 30s left thousands of fish dead. One result of global warming is to push marine life towards the poles by 7km each year, as numerous species attempt to find cooler waters.
Durban’s fishing industry was traumatised, as billions of sardines which annually swim close to shore stayed away owing to the warmer sea temperatures.
And in the Indian Ocean, more climate damage comes from – and is also visited upon – the shipping industry.
In the world’s largest coal export site, Richards Bay, the China-bound MV Smart tried to exit the port in 10m swells on August 19, with a load of nearly 150 000 tons of coal and 1 800 tons of oil. The huge ship split in half when it grounded on a sandbank.
Our shipping industry is ill-prepared for the rise of both overall sea levels and the “monster waves” which accompany climate change.
Columbia University’s Earth Institute now projects “sea-level rise of as much as six feet (1.83m) globally instead of two to three feet” by 2100, with higher amounts (3m) possible if more giant ice sheets crack.
Meanwhile, vessels can now carry more than 10 000 containers.
Known as “super post-Panamax”, they are so named because the Panama Canal’s limits allow only half that load. A R52.5 billion dig will deepen and widen the canal by 2015, with a R400bn Chinese-funded competitor being considered in nearby Nicaragua.
Most harbours are following suit, including in Durban where R250bn is promised from national, provincial and municipal subsidies and loans for the port/petrochemical complex – the origin of South Durban’s status as the most polluted African suburb south of Nigeria.
The project is managed by Transnet, and is the second main priority in the National Development Plan. The plan claims that from handling 2.5 million containers last year, Durban’s port productivity will soar to 20 million containers annually by 2040 – although these figures don’t jell with the industry’s conservative projections.
State planning hubris is already costly, in the form of Transnet’s R23bn Durban-Johannesburg oil pipeline. Although behind schedule, already corruption is suspected in the collusion-suffused construction industry, for early pipeline costings were half that price.
Notwithstanding “aerotropolis” fantasies, Durban’s King Shaka International and the speedy Johannesburg-Pretoria-airport Gautrain are operating at a tiny fraction of the capacity that had been anticipated by state planners. The 2010 sports stadiums are such blatant white elephants that even soccer boss Danny Jordaan felt compelled to apologise.
One reason they breed is that climate is not being factored into any of these carbon-intensive white elephants, as I learned by offering a formal Environmental Impact Analysis objections to the port’s expansion. As a result of my critique last November, Transnet’s consultants finally considered prospects that sea-level rise and intense storms might disrupt the Durban port’s new berth expansion.
But their study on sea level rise – by Christopher Everatt and John Zietsman of ZAA Engineering Projects in Cape Town – is as climatedenialist as the Transnet consultancy report last year by the SA Council on Scientific and Industrial Research’s Roy van Ballegooyen.
To be sure, like the dreaded Aidsdenialism of a decade ago, the allegation of climate-denialism is a very strong term of abuse. But what else would you call a November 2012 report (mainly by Everatt) that cites five studies to claim we will suffer only a maximum 0.6m maximum sea level rise this century, based on data from 1997, 2004, 2006 and 2008 reports. Five-year-old information is, in this field, ridiculously outdated.
In Pretoria, de facto climate denialists are now led by an SA Communist Party leader: Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies.
Last week, he pushed through cabinet approval to build yet another coal-fired power plant, plus permission to frack the extremely water-sensitive Karoo.
The awful precedents that Davies avoided mentioning include environmental damage and the corruption, labour-relations and socioecological crises at the main powerplant construction site, Eskom’s R100bn Medupi generator which at 4 800MW will be the world’s third largest coal-fired generator.
Medupi was meant to be providing power in 2011, but may finally be finished in mid-2014.
Eskom’s main beneficiary, also unmentioned by Davies, is the world’s largest mining house, BHP Billiton, a firm at the centre of South Africa’s crony-capitalist nexus, dating to apartheid days.
Eskom subsidises this Australian giant with R11.5bn annually by giving it the world’s cheapest electricity.
South Africa has not been particularly climate-conscious, and thousands of recent social protests are mainly directed against a state and corporates which deny immediate needs, from municipal services to wages. Still, in Joburg, 1 000 community and environmental activists protested at the Anglo American Corporation and Vedanta coal-fired power plant last month.
A Pew Research Centre poll, released two months ago, found that 48 percent of South Africans call “global climate change” the most important “major threat”, followed by “China’s power and influence” (40 percent) and “international financial instability” (34 percent). Across the world, 54 percent of people Pew asked, cited climate change as a major threat, also the highest of any answer.
A century ago next month, Mahatma Gandhi prepared a nonviolent mass assault on a whiteowned coal mine in Newcastle, supporting Indian women’s right to cross the Transvaal border and workers’ wage demands. The motivating idea, satyagraha (truth force), went from theory to practice, as militant passive defiance gained concessions that, 80 years later, helped free us from apartheid.
This time, there is no 80-year window; we all have to rise to the challenge as fast as do the mercury on the thermometer and the greenhouse gas emissions.