It is getting hot in the kitchen, time to act for those who will pay for climate change. Stellenbosch Business School Skip to main content
Business School Director, Prof Mark Smith, calls for urgent action in order to respond to the impending repercussions of climate change.

As the world is experiencing record temperatures and parts of the Northern hemisphere are under climate emergences the urgency of climate change seems to have increased a notch. Yet we seem to have an inability of leaders around the world to lead meaningful change world in relation to the climate. There is often more concern about their personal failings in terms of self-interest, ineffectiveness and national or international criminality. It really is time to look at the bigger picture.

Climate changes is clearly one of the greatest challenges we face. Only in the last few weeks have we experienced the hottest average global temperatures ever. There is panic about temperatures well in excess of 40c in Europe and North America. The changes to climate and the planet seem to be occurring at a much faster rate than predicted. And this week geologists have claimed that we are now part of a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – characterised by the human impact on the earth's geology and ecosystems and climate. Yet leaders seem remarkably inactive.

We hear frequent calls for our leaders to be responsible, ethical, values-based and other such descriptions. Responsible leadership can be said to have four characteristics – accountability, integrity, citizenship, and stewardship. These are perhaps useful for the climate challenge. In relation to climate change, Mandela Day might lead us to ask our leaders to be accountable for climate change and to demonstrate stewardship for future populations.

There is, however, little evidence of either stewardship or accountability let alone integrity and citizenship. Stewardship seems to be replaced by short-term outlook in relation to the climate and something of a focus on the interests of older generations. Meanwhile there is little sign of accountability among older generations who had a significant role in creating climate change. The intergenerational gaps in wealth and security that we see around world are mirror by intergenerational gap in concern for and the impact of climate change – young people will bear the brunt of its effects. Concern for climate is unsurprisingly much higher among younger generations.

The history of climate activism is actually based in youth movements. The very first Earth Day in 1970 was driven by campaigns by young people. This is perhaps unsurprisingly as they have fewer vested interests and more skin in the game when it comes to a warming planet. Furthermore, today’s young children, who will live in tomorrow’s even warmer planet, are also more vulnerable to high temperatures today – small children find it hard to regulate their temperature.

In Africa we face many other challenges, and we know it is too simple to separate the social inequalities from the climate challenges. This has long been a message from the Global South. Indeed at the very first UN Climate conference in 1972 the then Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, pointed out the need to address poverty and need in order to effectively combat global warming. Just as then it is not and/or question it is a and/both question – poverty and global warming need to be tackled and are both impacting on young people. The consequences of a combination of the two are even more deadly now and more so in the future. 

A report recently suggested 2 billion people will be living in extreme heat by 2070 with average temperatures in excess of 30c. While many of the leaders who could act today will not be around then, today's young people may well be dying in the heat or trying to escape uninhabitable regions. The populations of Greece, California and Italy and are getting their first taste of these excessive temperatures now.

Yesterday Mandela Day called for global action by individuals to take charge themselves and change the world around them. While we cannot help but reflect on the scale of challenges around us, the topic of climate change seems to be number 1. And for a country like South Africa, there is perhaps an opportunity for activities to combat climate change that could be positive for employment, skills development and for reducing some of those inequalities. Most of the research points to the greater costs of climate adjustment in the future through the postponement of responses, investments and activities today. If there is one thing, the climate crisis seems to be aligned with the needs of a young country and continent.

Prof Mark Smith is the Director of Stellenbosch Business School


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