Climate Change is a Social Issue

South Africa  was founded on the genocide of indigenous peoples, slavery, and racism, we need a just transition that protects and cares for the most vulnerable and exploited populations. Climate justice and social justice are inextricably linked.

Justice for our planet and justice for all people are two conversations that are important to have, but often they are held in different rooms. Rethinking poverty cannot be separated from the biggest issue of our time – which is successfully addressing climate change. 

The interconnectedness of daily human life and the state of the Earth often goes unexamined, but at this point in human history we cannot afford to separate these conversations.

Issues that impact the environment have impacts on the people who live on it. Some people have access to resources that help them relieve those impacts while others don’t – that becomes a social justice issue.

From a community scale to a global scale there is an intense connection between people and the Earth, and harm to one cannot be escaped by the other.

A U.N. (United Nations) report on climate change stated that it is the poor who will suffer the most as the effects of climate change continue.

“People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change,” it said.

The Human Impact Report published in 2009 said that 300,000 people a year are already dying from the effects of climate change. 

Although these effects are not exclusive to the poor, they have limited ability to deal and cope with them.

For example, because of desertification, water shortages and crop failures, crop yields will continue to drop, and while this will eventually affect rich nations, it will first and foremost affect the countries and the people who aren’t able to afford higher-priced crops.

The poor are also hit hardest in weather-related disasters, such as heat waves or storm surges. And the number of natural disasters between 2000 and 2009 was around three times higher than in the 1980s—almost entirely because of climate related events. And as they find themselves subject to these adversities it makes it even more difficult to fight poverty.

Our indigenous partners in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest also embody the mutual inclusivity of social and environmental justice. As industries like oil continue to expand indigenous communities are needing to work harder and harder to protect the land that has been theirs for centuries.

In instances like the Chevron oil spill in Ecuador, Texaco (who is now Chevron) defiled Ecuador’s northern Amazon rainforest by contaminating its soil, rivers and groundwater because of neglectful practices.

In South Africa, coal power plants, in addition to polluting the areas around them, are among the major contributors to global climate change, coal-fired power stations are responsible for almost half of its carbon emissions. South Africa has already warmed at a rate twice the global average, and climate change is making droughts in South Africa more extreme and more frequent. Over the past few years, the recurring and worsening droughts in Limpopo resulted in severe water shortages, driving up the food prices and leaving indigenous communities without water.

As a consequence, indigenous communities suffer from epidemics of cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, thereby threatening indigenous livelihood.

And the dismantlement of any indigenous cultures can ultimately lead to a loss of deep wisdom and understanding that they hold about this planet.

It is not just a moral imperative to integrate social justice in climate change policy. Without this, achieving resilience and mitigation targets will be much harder because the transformation of our society that is needed cannot be achieved without the political and social acceptance that results from fairer policies. Furthermore, developing socially just responses to climate change, in terms of both adaptation and mitigation, is an opportunity to put in place governance, systems and infrastructure that will create a more resilient and fairer society.

The Climate and Ecological Crisis is a true emergency, and the coronavirus pandemic is revealing the catastrophic ineptitude of our government to respond to global crises. 



Contributor: Orthalia Kunene

Orthalia Kunene is a mother, activist, feminist and writer based in Soweto. 


Her journey started as a activist fighting for service delivery issues in Soweto, with an Organisation called Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee/Operation Khanyisa Movement. Her writing  gave her strength to not shy away from the truth, it gave her strength to hold local government accountable and to advocate for access to information and  transparency through addressing socio-economic issues; inequalities around gender-based violence and climate change.

She is currently volunteering for an Organisation called keep left, as a working group member, keep left is a revolutionary socialist organisation that believes in workers control of society and the means of production. She is also a volunteer at an Organization called Extinction Rebellion, a climate change Organisation that seeks to fight the climate crisis. Her main focus is on Climate change issues, gender inequality and addressing issues of capitalism and how it feeds on inequality – particularly in South Africa.

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