A rare cloud formation is seen amidst toppled banana trees, which was destroyed at the height of Typhoon Bopha, in Montevista town in Compostela Valley, southern Philippines.  Picture: REUTERS
A rare cloud formation is seen amidst toppled banana trees, which was destroyed at the height of Typhoon Bopha, in Montevista town in Compostela Valley, southern Philippines. Picture: REUTERS

"I ASK of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?"

This was the powerful and emotional appeal made by Naderev M Saño, the Philippines climate change commissioner at the recent ill-fated United Nations climate change talks in Doha, Qatar.

His tears in the desert for those losing their lives and livelihoods as a consequence of Typhoon Bopha slamming the Philippines sadly did not shock the hearts of the negotiators out of the flat line to deliver much-needed money or ambition, or drive home the need to provide hope.

The energy levels in the negotiations were in inverse proportion to the power of the climate change-driven storms wreaking havoc around our planet. As I said in Doha, these UN talks are not about statistics, not about carbon balance sheets — they are about lives and lives are being lost now. Continued inaction across the world is a disgrace and delay is costing more lives.

We must all now ask ourselves the same question: if not me, then who? If not now, then when? If not here then where? Whether as citizen, as company director or politician, we need to ask what contribution we are making here and now to avert a worsening climate crisis. What are we doing to save lives, to improve the lives of current and future generations?

Doha loopholes

In Doha, politicians agreed to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol that is full of loopholes and will have little or no effect on carbon emissions. This means we have not even slowed the inexorable march to 2°C of warming, a tipping point to runaway climate change with catastrophic consequences. Let’s not forget what is at stake here: climate change will lead to massive geopolitical destabilisation.

Africa is being affected now, people are dying now, but that is only a small taste of what is to come if the world continues on the current political path. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pentagon have warned that climate change is the biggest threat to geopolitical stability, security and peace — and this is especially true for Africa, a continent already torn by conflict and instability.

A taste of what’s to come. This year the US suffered its worst drought in half a century. Superstorm Sandy killed at least 250 people in the Caribbean and the US. Record flooding was seen in Beijing, Manila and across the UK. Deadly floods in the Black Sea area of Russia killed at least 171 people. In India, the worst monsoon floods in a decade hit the northeastern state of Assam, killing more than 80 people and forcing about 2-million from their homes. Drought in the Sahel threatened millions with hunger.

The annual death toll worldwide from climate change is estimated to be at least 400,000 and, despite warnings from agencies and multilateral organisations, the political and business class continues to remain indifferent.

Europe — usually seen as a leader on climate change — left Doha with dirty hands. Due to a collective failure of political courage, European governments chose to take the side of Poland, which demanded the right to keep "hot air" Kyoto credits awarded to it in the 1990s. Europe also refused to go beyond an inadequate 20% emissions target, which would barely decrease emissions from today’s levels. The one faint glimmer of responsible behaviour on the part of the Europeans was that a few put climate finance pledges on the table. Europe has a long way to go if it is to ever reclaim credibility on climate.

The US remains outside the Kyoto Protocol, and its delegation came to Doha and immediately launched into blocking progress on nearly every front. Despite the devastation of Sandy and polls showing majority support for climate policy, US President Barrack Obama’s team exhibited no improvement from previous Conferences of the Parties (COPs), as the climate change talks are officially known). With his administration’s subsidies of fossil fuel export that could negate domestic carbon pollution reduction, Mr Obama’s legacy could turn out to be no better than his predecessors’.

Emerging economies such as China, India, South Africa and Brazil should step up and take a more progressive role in constructing a 2015 climate deal, as well as tightening emissions targets before 2020.

Narrow, short-term thinking

It appears governments once more are putting national, short-term interest ahead of long-term global survival and, as much as it hurts to admit this, South Africa is no exception. Despite Africa being the continent hardest hit by the devastating effects of climate change, the South African government continues to invest in dirty energy and develop two of the biggest coal-fired power stations in the world, Medupi and Kusile.

It is time to end the era of coal and South Africa (the continent’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and the 14th in the world) can no longer ignore the devastating consequences of delaying a transition towards renewable energy and energy efficiency. The continued prioritisation of coal in South Africa flies in the face of the need for urgent action to avoid a climate crisis, and will also put South Africa’s scarce water supplies at risk. As an already water-scarce country, climate change is likely to increase the instability of South Africa’s water supply, and continued investment in coal could push South Africa closer to a water crisis.

Investing in new coal-fired power stations, instead of renewable energy and energy efficiency, puts all South Africans at risk. Renewable energy and energy efficiency investments have great potential to create numerous jobs in Africa and globally.

Africa continues to be on the frontline of climate change, with many already suffering devastating effects of drastic changes in weather patterns, droughts, floods and the social injustices that accompany this. It is up to the big emitters (including South Africa) to step up, and avoid devastating an entire continent.

Time is fast running out.

• Naidoo, a South African human rights activist, has been Greenpeace’s international executive director since November 2009. Follow him on Twitter @kuminaidoo