At one level, whites are indeed responsible for cyclone Idai

This article appeared in the Business Day on 26 March 2019. The original article can be viewed here.

Last week Jacob Zuma apologist and Gupta frontman Andile Mngxitama of Black First Land First (BLF), stated that white people were responsible for the devastation caused by cyclone Idai.

Drawing attention to the “Western system of ecological assault for profit”, Mngxitama stated that those who were responsible for the climate crisis should pay for the catastrophe unfolding in Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

While Mngxitama’s support for Zuma, the Guptas and their various captains (currently being revealed, or should that be reviled, by the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture) demonstrates that the BLF couldn’t give a damn about climate change or the environment more generally,  he does nonetheless draw attention to a very important reality. A reality that is often conveniently overlooked by both governments and multinational corporations.

Climate science reveals that between 1850 and 2006 the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — the world’s richest nations — contributed more than 80% of the increase in CO² concentrations in the atmosphere. And the richest 7% of the world’s population produce about 50% of CO² emissions, whereas the poorest 45% produce less than 8%. The average American produces as much CO² as 500 citizens from Ethiopia or Chad or Mali, among many other similar developing countries.

According to the World Bank, in 2014 the per capita CO² emissions for sub-Saharan Africa was 0.8 tons (including SA, which sits at an eye-watering nine tons per capita), compared to 6.4 tons in the EU and 16.5 tons in the US. While China is now the largest emitter of CO² in the world, this dubious goal was only achieved in 2006, and per capita figures are still significantly less than half of the those of the US.

David Satterthwaite, of the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, estimates that no less than a sixth of the world’s population cannot be held accountable for greenhouse gas emissions at all, because their lifestyles are essentially carbon neutral.

What this reveals is that countries populated by mainly white people in the global north are indeed both largely historically responsible for climate change and continue to be disproportionately responsible today. This is a historical reality that cannot be ignored. While the nations of the global south have been repeatedly making this point at international climate negotiations under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, trying to steer the conversations away from the purely technical into the political via the concept of “climate justice”, very little meaningful or tangible progress has been made to date.

For example, the Green Climate Fund, established by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2010, was conceived to “support the efforts of developing countries to respond to the challenge of climate change” with “advanced economies mobilising significant financial resources”. The fund set itself the target of raising $100bn a year by 2020. Yet to date it has raised a paltry $3.5bn, while President Donald Trump recently withdrew the US from the fund altogether. Contrast this with the trillions of dollars that were found to bail out the banks during and after the economic crisis of 2008.

Andreas Malm, human ecologist at Lund University in Sweden, has brilliantly characterised greenhouse gas emissions as the “effluent of power”. It is this power, in its political form, that consistently pushes back against being held accountable for climate change and the disasters, like the devastation caused by  cyclone Idai, it causes.


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