‘We are living beyond the earth’s means’ warns UCT scientist

Professor Mark New, University of Cape Towns Pro Vice-Chancellor for Climate Change and director of the African Climate and Development Initiative.

The water shortage in Cape Town is just one symptom of the enormous challenges we face – fossil fuels are being burnt at an abnormal rate.

Humans are using water in various water-stressed areas at rates that are unsustainable and which cause irreversible damage. We are living beyond the means provided by Earth by consuming bio-resources – that is, the living parts of the Earth – at a rate that is approximately two times the Earth’s ability to sustainably replenish them.

The water shortage in Cape Town is just one symptom of the enormous challenges we face. These are the observations of Professor Mark New, University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Pro Vice-Chancellor for Climate Change and director of the African Climate and Development Initiative.

Addressing a graduation ceremony at UCT recently, Professor New said: “We are burning fossil fuels at a rate that means we will have exceeded the available carbon budget that we have to avoid dangerous climate change in the next 15 years”.

Professor New compared the natural resource credit crisis created by society to the subprime crisis of 2008/9. “And perhaps even worse is that most of the benefits, the short-term benefits of this facility, this natural credit facility that we are using, are accruing to a minority; that is, the small percentage of well-off people in global society and in South Africa.”

He stressed the point that the social, economic and political system that graduands “are graduating into is creaking”. Moreover, it is locking us into an uncomfortable, unequal and probably unsustainable future, which, if we do nothing, will crumble.

He believes that it’s crucial, for several reasons, for graduands to carefully consider the role they can play in this regard. “Your studies have given you the knowledge and perhaps the tools to be productive in and benefit economically from this creaking system,” he said.

“And I hope that they have also given you the capabilities of being critical of the system. And through that critical engagement, to work to change the system or the parts of the system where you are situated for the better and for the future.”

He apologised to graduands on behalf of members of his generation who, he said, failed to effectively recognise the flaws in the system and make the necessary changes. “We’ve left you a bit of a mess that you are going to have to clean up. But, I hope that we have given you that set of skills that will position you well to clean up the mess that we have left behind.”

Professor New, whose global contributions in leading climate research were recognised in March when he was awarded the Piers Sellers Prize for his lifelong contribution to climate solutions, said: “You are graduating into interesting times – or should we say, challenging times,”.

He said South Africa is experiencing a period of cautious hope with several trials ahead.