Atmospheric System and Pollution

Ecological Collapse or Catastrophe

©Shem Compion
Kgalagadi landscape
The Conservationist John Muir once said that when you tug on a single thing in nature, you find it attached to the rest of the world. Climatic problems today is about exactly that, how tugging on the threads of life elsewhere on the planet is causing the fabric to unravel half a world away. How air pollution shunted up into the skies above coal stations in a Chinese province or the Mpumalanga highveld is drying out Namaqualand's cold fronts; or how car exhaust fumes gathering over London, Milan, Beijing or Los Angeles are driving the rivers of Mozambique to burst their banks; how the underfloor heating of a Johannesburg socialite is contributing to the sunburned skin of a Cape apple; how one person's skiing holiday means another person's empty belly.

This may appear, on the surface, to be overly simple, because attributing blame in the complicated entanglement that is global climate change is not this linear, particularly since the impacts we're seeing today are the result of accumulation of emissions put out into the atmosphere before I was born, and those put out today will only manifest in altered climate trends when I'm well into my retirement. Yet each of these is something of a caricature of complicity in a crisis which George Monbiot says has brought us to the "space between ecological collapse and ecological catastrophe".

A Metaphor Explanation

©Roger DelaHarpe
Fish tank at uShaka Marine World, Durban, KwaZulu Natal
Take a fish tank full of water and imagine emptying the cartridge of your fountain pen into all four corners. Allow your mind's eye to follow the ribbons of fading colour about. Eventually, there will be no visible suggestion of ink, but molecular remnants of it will be found in every cubic millimetre of water. You won't be able to identify where that molecule's entry point was but it is still complicit in the pollution of the tank.

Our home, in this metaphor, is the fish tank, and the water is our atmospheric system. For 10 000 years, humans have been polluting that by adding more heat-trapping greenhouse gases to an already delicately balanced system. In the past 250 years, with the start of the industrial revolution, the rate of pollution has increased exponentially.

A Giant Crisis

©Shem Compion
Sand dunes in the Namib Desert
For South Africa, this means rising temperatures everywhere. Within the next five decades the coast will have warmed by one degree. The northern interior by over 4°C. The desert will encroach on the west while the east will experience greater seasonal flooding. Extreme weather events which have carved out the natural landscapes of this country will be amplified by rising carbon dioxide in the air - meaning that the heat waves, droughts and floods which typify our climate will come with greater frequency and severity.

Extreme weather events which have carved out the natural landscapes of this country will be amplified by rising carbon dioxide in the air...

Our scientists and sociologists, who usually prefer a more measured language, do not reach for hyperbole when they say this crisis is far greater than the one faced by the rise of Nazi Germany in Europe. This is longer-lasting than the next term of political office and is a giant next to the terrible crisis of HIV.

© Leonie Joubert