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YONELA DIKO: Youth and the climate crisis: the next frontier of struggle

OPINION

Denise Dunning, founder and executive director of Rise Up, once said ‘’If we let them, young people will be the world’s most powerful solution’’. Despite resistance from those so well served by the status quo, young people, against a prevailing tide, have always pushed forward with their imaginative and courageous ideas.

Young people have always loathed obsolete dogmas and stale rhetoric. They have always rejected the ways of their elders, the familiar, the safe, and have always preferred the excitement of the new, for it is in the young to have a searching heart.

As a result, young people have always been at the cutting edge of new breakthroughs and new frontiers, they are highly networked, trend setters and technologically savvy. Young people are always looking for ways to improve on the world of their parents, if not to upend it and upending the world of their forebears is no more critical and necessary than now.

Young people were at the core of the 18th century horticulture revolution, which for the first time allowed people to produce enough food to be able to live their days focusing on other pursuits and crafts. When new sources of energy were discovered to power water mills and harness large scale farming, it was young people who kept looking for new and better ways to develop. When the first Industrial revolution began in the 18th century, young people were at the centre of it. Since then, however, there has been massive increase in carbon dioxide emission due to excessive use of oil, coal and gas and massive deforestation.

Young people of today have inherited a world industrialised by fumes and carbon emissions with devastating effects on the world's way of life and on citizens livelihoods. In some areas of the world, the seasonal disruptions, where summers are excessively hot and wet seasons experiencing floods, there has been disruption to many critical aspects of life. There has been displacement of people from the lands they once knew, disruption in food production, erosion of land at the coast, violent hurricanes, and outbreaks of disease and infections. This is the reality of our world today, and for those who are going to be here in future - the young - an unstable, broken and dangerous world is all that awaits them, unless today’s young people come up with new ways to develop their world to take us out of the devastation we are meting on to our world today.

The world needs a shift in industrialisation, a change in lifestyle, change in recurring habit, and young people, are the most well placed to start new habits. We need low carbon development, ecological preservation, a world we can do more with less and young people have already demonstrated this. Young people can help shape both current and future legislation but more importantly, they can shift culture.

Fighting climate change is a complicated endeavour, with scientific and social challenges. It requires a new kind of activism, one that must be both appealing and impactful, convenient but not lazy. It requires that idealism of young people who believe they can change the world.

There are already outstanding stories of young people remaking their future worlds. Young people have already designed devices for monitoring climate change, devices for monitoring air quality, others are trying to clean the ocean. These are ambitious projects deemed impossible by a generation before.

South Africa has not been spared some of the violent effects of climate change. We have had extreme weather, heat waves have been regular, extended and far reaching droughts, and spells of heavy rainfalls into floods and no rain whatsoever for extended periods. The usual climates have been shifting, resulting in the destruction of ecosystems. We have seen high rates of fires and a stressed marine system.

Climate change has implication on food production, on availability of water due to evaporation in catchments and destruction of water banks by flooding, as well as outbreaks in diseases, which become recurring phenomenons and this require proactive efforts from the Department of Water and Sanitation, especially from the young water experts who have joined its ranks. The Climate Change Adaptation strategy developed by the department needs new impetus and greater vigour and determination.

Unfortunately, while much of Africa has not been responsible for the carbon emissions but have been at the receiving end of its consequences. What will happen when Africa becomes the centre of manufacturing and industrialisation and start emitting much more fossil fuel? What will happen when more cities become centres of coal driven development? Can we afford the China and India route, where our manufacturing cities are covered in fumes? What will happen when more of our citizens move from rural areas into these hubs of development and every nook and cranny of these new epicentres emit fossil fuel fumes and carbon? What will happen when Africa becomes like the rest of the world, just as the rest of the world moves into more safer forms of development. Can Africa leapfrog this phase of development and spare itself the devastating effects of coal driven industrialisation.

Can young people help the continent leapfrog the more devastating form of industrialisation?

The first thing we need is massive reduction in consumption of fossil fuels. This literally requires us to rethink the whole concept of development. We have not only been destroying the ecological ceiling but we been depleting much of our natural resources in the singular pursuit of a particular version of development.

The role of young people becomes critical in finding alternatives to this fossil fuel driven development and with 558 million people in Africa without electricity, development of personalised power through solar and other measures at young peoples' finger tips can give us this leap in development and a new way of lighting our homes from people who will not be stuck in the old ways of fuelling their lives.

Now that our country and our world is facing the economic devastation of COVID-19, young people can help us with their courage to embark on a green recovery. This gives us an opportunity for new kinds of jobs, in an improved health environment, with less pollution, protected forestation and wetlands, for a more resilient and better society.
The fact that Eskom is already warning us of increasing energy use as we begin to open our economy after the lockdown means we are already going back to our old ways of energy consumption. Were young people leading our energy institutions, we would have used the three-month lockdown to develop new sources of energy that are environmentally friendly and reliable.

As insignificant as it may seem, changing our eating habits, growing our own food, eating organic and more meat-free meals has an impact on the sustainability of our planet and the protection of the environment.

Young people are also at the cutting edge of reducing transport carbon emission, by riding bikes, using and developing efficient public transport, and sharing cars. Whatever social status people derive from having their own cars with big engines, young people seem happy on their iPhones, networking with the world in buses and trains and have a different sense of what is important.

We can have a world where we consume less, where we destroy less, waste less, but live more fulfilling lives and it is only young people who can lead this new living revolution.

_Yonela Diko is Head of Communications at the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on Twitter on @yonela_diko.