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Climate Sweet, Climate Bitter

Part of a destroyed mobile home park is pictured in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Fort Myers Beach, Florida on September 30, 2022. Giorgio VIERA / AFP

Last week it was Pakistan, this week South Florida. The climate collapse is like a monstrous four-dimensional version of whack-a-mole. You never know where – or how – it will hit. But the hits keep coming.

With the damaged Nord Stream pipeline (and the Global North’s unmitigated hydrocarbon dependence it represents) bubbling away in the Baltic Sea, U.S. climate czar John Kerry’s high-handed comments to the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment earlier this month seem even more grotesque. 

If you missed it, Kerry refused to take any responsibility for the United States’ pivotal historical role in the climate crisis. For the full effect, imagine this in Kerry’s Yale Brahmin voice:

“But others, despite what the science is saying, hold back, saying, pointing the finger elsewhere “You guys create it, you guys have to cure it.” Well guess what, folks? Mother Nature does not measure where the emissions come from. They don’t have a label of one country or another on them. They are from all of the choices we make about how we move our vehicles, how we heat our homes, how we light our businesses”

“Guess what folks.” As if Africans don’t know who Joe Manchin is.  

Kerry was rightly roasted online for his comments. One (among many) galling aspects was his seeming assumption that African countries aren’t making their own moves on climate. 

A new report from the think tank Development Reimagined swiftly corrects that misperception. In fact, all African countries except Libya have made Nationally Determined Commitments to better environmental management, 70% have set specific renewable energy targets, and a quarter already has net-zero targets in place.

The report gives a detailed and reinvigorating rundown of African-led climate futures, much needed in a week when living in the Global South and looking at the Global North keeps feeling like you’re the “This Is Fine” dog’s roommate.

However, I also – cynically, sullenly, hopelessly, South Africanly – have to point out that there’s nothing Africa likes as much as making plans. If you’re only tracking the targets set by African countries, things are looking great. 

So I suggest tempering that shot of optimism with this bitter chaser: the veteran SA journalist Kevin Bloom’s history of South Africa’s 2016 energy transition plan, which would have moved the country from its current all-the-pollution-but-none-of-the-development route while also avoiding spiking energy prices and years of rolling blackouts which shaved 0.7% off GDP in the last quarter of 2022 alone. 

Turns out, the plans and the tech were all in place. The problem was political will perverted by coal lobbies, elite capture, and that perennial SA enthusiasm for burning the future of the many for the wealth of the few.

That willingness to sabotage green transitions at every level in order to squeeze out a drop of local profit is one of the highest hurdles to our global green transition.

I have to admit I’ve lost most of my hope that SA will ever overcome it. But the trend stretches so much further than my destroyed corner of the Global South.

John Kerry should know it well – he’s probably shaking hands with it as we speak

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