A More Temperate Dominion: Climate change and the threat to food security

by Iswamo Kapalu

Climate change and the threat to food security.

It is estimated that in South Africa 12 million people go to bed hungry every night. This is not for a lack of availability of food but rather for a lack of access to what food is available. Because the right to access to sufficient food is protected by our Constitution, that statistic represents a violation of the constitutional rights of about one fifth of the population.

Several factors complicate the realisation of the right to food security both today and in future. Over the next few pieces, I will aim to discuss two of those complications. Namely; climate change and land reform- starting here first with climate change.

Some view climate change as a problem which will only have practical expression in a generation or two. It is however believed by others that we, in our lifetime, have already seen the first of many waves of climate change refugees.

Between 2006 and 2011 large parts of Syria were affected by extreme drought. Some climate scientists believe that the effects of the drought were aggravated by climate change. This drought, and the massive urban migrations that followed it, are thought to have played an instrumental role in the political unrest that led to the civil war that has displaced thousands.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, January 2016 was the hottest January on record. As the world gets warmer, the effects of climate change will be less remote. Unarrested, the effects could be devastating especially on the poor. With this summer’s drought we saw first-hand the effects of extreme weather on food production. Food prices are expected to soar, further limiting access to food in low income households both urban and rural. The lack of rainfall this year will also affect the food security of the millions of South Africans who depend on subsistence farming for their food.

What lies in wait for us should our management of the environment not change is longer, more severe droughts and other extreme weather patterns. These conditions are likely to disproportionately affect the poor and create fertile ground for social strife.

In Genesis 1:28 God gives people “dominion” over the earth. Pope Francis rightly points in his encyclical Laudato Si, that such dominion must not be misunderstood to mean the right to exploit. Rather, it entails the responsibility to care for and protect the earth. He states that “we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”

As the species divinely charged with its care, it falls on us to faithfully answer the call to cherish this planet. What we require is a change in mind-set. We must begin to view ourselves not as owners but as custodians of this earth. This is necessary not just for the survival of the millions of species that we share it with, but indeed for our own survival.

The global scale of the problem necessitates a global response. And because climate change does not recognise borders and sovereign territories, combating climate change requires international cooperation. A robust and meaningful response had for a long time been alarmingly absent. World leaders have in the past shown little to no political will to change our environmental trajectory. Previous conferences like Kyoto 1997 and Rio de Janeiro 1992 yielded underwhelming results. Our latest attempt at international co-operation in combating climate change, COP21 was held in Paris last year. The aim of COP21 was to arrive at a universal and legally binding agreement to keep temperature from rising by more than 2°C.

This agreement was reached but will have no legal effect until it is signed and acceded to by 55 signatories. The Paris Agreement opens for signature on the 22 April this year and will remain open until 21 April 2017.

However, even our best efforts at preserving the environment must be coupled with a pro-active, rather than reactive, approach to managing the fallout from the damage we have already done. In this regard, the duty falls chiefly on the shoulders of the State to adequately plan for the inevitable changes we’re going to experience. Where possible, organisations, both secular and faith-based, must commit themselves and their resources to rehabilitating our common heritage.

On a personal level, small steps like recycling, only buying environmentally responsible products, using public transport and conserving energy can go a long way. On a larger scale, lobbying for and advocating environmentally sustainable laws and practices; as well as ensuring our governments abide by the international agreements they make can help avert impending disaster. Without these and other relatively small sacrifices, we could be heading for centauries of immeasurable suffering. Suffering of a kind and scale which we have never seen and we will not survive intact.

Mr Iswamo Kapalu
LL.B. (Wits)

Iswamo Kapalu is a young South African of Zambian origin. He holds an LLB from the University of the Witwatersrand and currently works as a researcher, writer and social justice advocate at the Jesuit Institute.

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