THREE NEW EXPERT REPORTS were commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights. They look at the future effects of climate change on mental health, as well as what basic lifestyles and services will look like for future generations in South Africa by 2030, 2040 and beyond. And they paint a bleak picture if we continue on our current climate trajectory.
Profoundly negative impacts
The first report, by global change expert Prof Nick King, paints a dire picture of the “enormous negative physical, socio-economic and ecological impacts” that South Africa will experience under all climate change scenarios. In particular, King’s report focuses on climate impacts on the Western Cape, Limpopo and Mpumalanga.
These impacts will include extreme heat stress, extreme weather events, including storms, flooding and droughts, sea-level rise and coastal damage, crop failures and food insecurity, water stress, disease outbreaks, various forms of economic collapse and social conflict and mass migration to informal settlements around urban areas.
According to King: “Impacts do not rise linearly with rising temperature, but with an ever-steepening curve, rapidly making large parts of the interior of the country, as well as vulnerable low-lying coastal areas, uninhabitable. All of these impacts together will dramatically alter the lives and prospects for today’s and tomorrow’s youth, who will suffer significant harms in a combination of detrimental physical health and wellbeing, mental trauma, social upheaval and reduced opportunities for self-advancement.”
For example, in the Western Cape between 2021 and 2040, the report predicts that “residents of massively expanding informal settlements such as Khayelitsha will spend much of their days waiting in queues at standpipes, where these exist or paying exorbitant prices for tanker water.”
In Limpopo, between 2041 and 2060, temperatures will increase to the point that it will “almost certainly be too hot to work outdoors for most of the year, curtailing almost all agricultural fieldwork and manual labour.”
Moreover, because Limpopo will no longer be able to depend on rain-fed agriculture and rangeland grazing for livestock, “food insecurity will very likely quickly become a major cause of socio-economic stress. Commercial farmers will likely struggle to obtain sufficient irrigation water, and conflict over water use and allocations will rise.”
After 2041, Mpumalanga’s dire socio-economic conditions will almost certainly be exacerbated by the “coal death-spiral being brought about by the necessary country-wide transition away from coal to renewable energy”. According to King, without an immediate, proactive just transition, “the collapse of any visible future potential for education, employment and self-advancement for the young adults in the region will cause significant mental trauma.”
Southern Africa warming at twice global rate
The second report, titled Climate impacts in Southern Africa during the 21st century, by the late Prof Bob Scholes, examines how climate harms will impact the Southern African region. It has a particular focus on changes to long-term weather patterns, agriculture and food security, water availability and biodiversity.
The report underscores the fact that Southern Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with warming in the interior of the region occurring at about twice the global average rate. “Substantial changes in the number of extreme temperature events in southern Africa can already be detected,” confirms Engelbrecht. “Further drastic increases in events such as heatwaves, high fire-danger days and oppressive temperatures impacting on human comfort and health can be expected under futures in which climate change mitigation efforts are low or unsuccessful.”
The report also concludes that there is a high likelihood that agricultural production in Southern Africa will be reduced and eventually collapse under low mitigation futures, while livestock production, including meat and milk, will also become unviable.
There will also be serious threats to South Africa’s access to freshwater. Freshwater availability, already critically limited in Southern Africa, will be reduced in the future as a result of decreasing rainfall and increasing evaporation.
The risk of severe storms, including intense tropical cyclones and very intense thunderstorms, long-term droughts and heatwaves will increase with climate change in Southern Africa. As a result, loss of life, injury and damage to infrastructure will also increase.
Lastly, thousands of species, many occurring only in Southern Africa, are at increased risk of premature extinction as a result of human-caused climate change. This loss has negative consequences for human wellbeing and the economy, as well as weakening the capacity to adapt to climate change.
Climate change and mental health
The final report, by community psychology expert Dr Garret Barnwell, shows that climate change harms are already negatively impacting mental well-being of people in South Africa. These effects will only accelerate in the future, placing today’s youth and future generations in harm’s way. And people living in South Africa are particularly vulnerable to these effects.
“It is extraordinarily difficult for the majority of South Africans to adapt to the advancing climate shocks, such as climate change-exacerbated disasters, water insecurity and economic losses. The same social conditions that make individuals and communities more vulnerable to climate change are the same that put people at higher risk of mental illness and psychological adversities,” Barnwell explains.
Barnwell is a clinical psychologist with more than 10 years of experience in the international medical humanitarian sector. He describes in the report how people experience climate change through a range of traumatic and stressful events, or climate change exposures. These can include natural disasters, water insecurity, food insecurity and air pollution.
These exposures lead to well-understood psychopathologies, including anxiety, depression, suicide, interpersonal violence, decreased work productivity and increased hospitalisation, amongst others.
Barnwell goes on to explain that climate change exposures can be experienced directly or vicariously through witnessing others suffer. Climate disruptions can also be experienced on the level of community, as a loss of people’s sense of place: “Studies have shown that the climate disruptions are also threatening communities’ intergenerational identity processes as land is lost, communities’ social cohesion is fractured as land is not arable, and sacred natural sites are threatened by ecological degradation.”
Children and future generations are particularly vulnerable. Affected children are likely to have extra challenges at school, as their concentration is impaired and they are emotionally overwhelmed by the impacts of the climate crisis and fears for their futures. Children can turn these feelings inwards and experience profound sadness, loss, helplessness or hopelessness, or they can turn these feelings outwards in destructive ways. Barnwell notes, “It is not only the negative experiences that children and individuals have, but what these experiences can take away. Hope, happiness, a sense of self-worth and trust in the world can be challenged and dulled.”
According to Barnwell: “The government’s choice to not adequately avert the mental health impacts of climate change contribute to the psychological experience of institutional betrayal and secondary trauma for current and future generations. Climate change has profound adverse mental health implications for those living in South Africa.”
The #CancelCoal youth case
The series of reports was commissioned by CER on behalf of the African Climate Alliance, groundWork and the Vukani Environmental Movement in Action, in support of the recently-launched #CancelCoal court case. The case was launched after government failed to respond to a letter of demand sent to Minister Mantashe on 17th September 2021 by CER. It demanded that government halt its plans to build new coal-fired power as outlined in the Minister’s September 2020 determination for 1500MW of new coal and in the 2019 IRP.
The case argues that the burning of coal is the biggest contributor to global climate change, in addition to unacceptable health impacts caused by air and water pollution. These current plans are an unjustified limitation of the Section 24 right to an environment not harmful to health and wellbeing, along with other rights, and should be abandoned. There is no justifiable basis for the limitation of constitutional rights because cleaner and less harmful renewable energy is both a feasible and cheaper alternative to new coal power.
Nicole Loser, Programme Head: Pollution and Climate Change at CER, points out that government’s plans for new coal-fired electricity also directly contradict Section 24 of the Constitution.
“New coal-fired power flies in the face of our constitutional right to an environment not harmful to health and wellbeing, not only for the present generation but for future generations too. This is especially so because government has alternative solutions at its disposal – alternative solutions which would not pose this threat to human rights.”
The Centre for Environmental Rights is a non-profit organisation and law clinic based in Cape Town, South Africa. As a group of activist lawyers, the CER helps communities and civil society organisations in South Africa to realise our constitutional right to a healthy environment by advocating and litigating for environmental justice.
Ambre Nicolson is the Senior Writer at the Centre for Environmental Rights.