Building the Scaffolding for Resilience at the Intersections of Climate and Socio-Economic Justice

Sekoetlane Phamodi, Director, New Economy Campaigns Hub

Understanding our world 

We are hurtling faster and deeper into an ecological catastrophe that poses an existential threat to life on the planet as we know it. Even if we meet the global targets to reduce carbon emissions and global heating to below 1.5°C by 2030, it is no longer a question of when we will start to experience the impacts of human-made global heating, but for how long people and planet will experience cascading socio-ecological collapse. This is the message from a recent series of scientific reports stemming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[1].

For Africa and the majority world – those nations which hold the majority of the world’s population and resources, but have the least share in the distribution of its wealth and power – the stakes are all the higher. Even while South Africa hosts some of the worst greenhouse gas emitters in the world – Eskom and Sasol – we are, nevertheless, among the countries that are the least responsible for the causes of the global climate emergency. Yet, we are amongst those worst affected by its effects. More than the seemingly anecdotal “extreme weather events” we’ve experienced in recent years – from the debilitating drought that affected Cape Town and various parts of the Western and Eastern Cape in 2018 to the humanitarian catastrophe that followed in the wake of cyclone Idai in 2022 – South Africa has to plan for by far more grave and systemic climate shocks.

These shocks, just to name a few, include:

  • increasing water scarcity and desertification, South Africa being among the driest countries in the world;
  • declining biodiversity which has direct implications for the resilience of food systems and real hunger; and
  • urban densification, a spiralling affordable urban housing crisis, and the practical inability of municipalities to deliver basic services evenly as climate shocks drive migration from provinces and countries which are vulnerable to climate events.

Intersection of climate and inequality     

In this complex web of imminent and unfolding crises, South Africa remains in the grip of the triple challenge of structural and racialised wealth inequality, unemployment, and multidimensional poverty. While these problems are firmly rooted in colonialism and apartheid’s inheritance, the state’s inability to make meaningful inroads in addressing them, combined with the real crisis of capability and accountability in key governance institutions also means that the stakes are even higher for the people of South Africa and our development aspirations.

The scarcity of direct and structural measures to mitigate inequality and poverty amplifies the socio-ecological impact of climate change on the most vulnerable people in our society. Climate change, like the HIV and AIDS pandemic and Covid-19, can be seen as a political, social, economic, and human rights crisis. Health journalist, Mia Malan, points out the pervasive impact of inequality resulting from apartheid, and highlights that inequalities are a policy choice – it stems from the choices our governments make. Malan’s article further explains how inequality restricts the ability of South Africa’s Black working poor majority to access adequate health services and an adequate continuum of care. The climate emergency echoes a similar narrative.

Climate positive development pathways

Through its innovation of the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) and related Investment Platform (JET-IP), South Africa has positioned itself as a majority world leader in framing how climate positive development pathways might be mobilised to catalyse economic and social transformation. However, this promise will ring hollow if it only produces a transition by default that transfers the unjust dynamics that prevail in South Africa’s fossil fuel economy into a decarbonised one.

Harnessing the global transition to build a new economy, as the JETP proposes, calls for fresh perspectives and radical imagination. It requires communities, NPOs, and philanthropy to do more than plugging the gaps while waiting for market-driven development projects whose benefits we can only hope will eventually trickle down to the people and communities who need them most.

It requires a paradigm shift about what an economy exists for, towards the notion of a “new” economy characterised by collective well-being, mutual solidarity and care, and comprehensive social security. To realise this means demanding and making investments that demonstrate how economic renewal and shared prosperity can only be brought about by the reliable availability and accessibility of public goods and services, green decent jobs, and comprehensive social protections. Not just for their own sake, but to produce the material economic and social conditions that give all people a meaningful shot at attaining a secure and dignified life.

Philanthropy can help shape the “new world”

What does this mean for philanthropy? Where and how should philanthropy be directing their efforts and resources towards shaping the “new world” that must be created with urgency for our collective survival in the near-term to make meaningful social impact over the longer term?

A “just” energy transition requires an immediate energy transition and the associated adaptation of our economy, society, and systems to be resilient against escalating climate shocks. To do this, we must build the scaffolding for our survival through the unfolding socio-ecological catastrophe that is already here. Currently, the conversation is dominated by the public and private sectors in the line of mobilising and deploying staggering levels of finance to transition our energy production capability from fossil fuels to renewable energy to keep the lights on and existing industries firing.

However, all of this work is happening in the context of the rising cost of living, tightening austerity, and the inability of public goods and services to catch the rising number of people who depend on them. As a result, the challenge to us is no longer simply about what we can do to mitigate climate change – which is really about how we mobilise the state moves to protect society from the failures of capitalism and the private sector. The challenge is to also work out where and how we direct our resources and energy to adapting our society, our economy, and our political and governance systems to respond directly to the needs of the most marginalised segments of our society in the face of unfolding climate chaos.

Reimagining social and economic relations

Our efforts must work to ground the climate actions of state actors and their impacts in the material realities and aspirations of the people who have the least stake and the most to lose in our failure to restructure received paradigms about what “normal” social and economic relations look like in South Africa and the world. More than funding education, food security initiatives, and social enterprises because they offer the beneficiaries of our philanthropy the pathways out of the meagre conditions they have been trapped in as a result of state and market failures, our investments must do the further work of guiding society along the actionable pathways for reimagining social and economic relations in action.

This calls on us to think differently about the meaning and impact of our work and investments in the face of assured socio-ecological collapse. It also calls on us to be brave enough to not only direct but scale investment into the essential and powerful work happening in the socio-economic justice movement that could be leveraged to advance the urgent climate action required for our adaptation and resilience.

It demands of us to understand audacious demands like those for a universal basic income grant that provides expanded social protection to households experiencing multidimensional poverty as a climate action. Not only because they are the most vulnerable to the spiralling cost of food as a result of climate shocks on food systems, but also because a universal basic income grant provides a lifeline to those households whose livelihoods depend on the carbon-intensive industries we must urgently phase out.

It calls on us to double down on supporting the civil society infrastructure that campaigns for electoral integrity, public sector transparency and accountability, and strengthening democratic institutions and processes. This is not only to mitigate the erosion of state capability to deliver the public goods and services more and more of our country depends on to access basic municipal services, healthcare, or quality education, but also to mitigate the powerful influence of corporate lobbyists over the policy choices and actions of political parties and governments on the question of whether and how urgently we address the existential threat climate change poses on present and future generations.

Philanthropy can have strategic impact  

Now more than ever, we have to apply a deep climate adaptation and resilience lens to the work we are already doing. We have to direct our support to socio-economic justice campaigns whose work has always been about guiding the adaptation of our society and economies to be resilient to the failures of the state and markets. Our bravery and commitment in this line is all the more urgent because climate change is practically heightening the very fragile conditions our philanthropy seeks to mitigate. When strategically directed, our resources can build the scaffolding for resilience.



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