Environmental Ponderings: environmental decision-making

Text Arend Hoogervorst Photograph saveourwilderness.org

The consequences of environmental decision-making can have significant positive and negative impacts over as long as multi-generational time periods. This implies that these decisions need to be carefully thought through and discussed, weighed up and considered so that the optimal decisions for the present and the future can be made. This was hammered into us as undergraduate students of one of the first multi-disciplinary environmental sciences degree courses run in the UK over forty years ago.

So, today, who makes these carefully thought through, highly significant decisions? People like President Donald Trump. In his infinite wisdom, he has decided that the USA, the second largest global carbon emitter (after China) will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. His initial reason for this was contained in a tweet that said, “…The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive (sic)…” His later reasons included that there would be job losses in the US coal sector as a result. (Interestingly, a group of 22 Republican senators who wrote a letter to Trump calling on him to withdraw from the Paris Accord had collectively received over US$10 million in campaign fund contributions from the US Coal industry.)

If one tests his other “more considered” reasons, they are based upon inaccurate, selective and biased data. (See http://www.businessinsider.com/fact-check-trump-reasons-for-leaving-paris-agreement-2017-6/#job-losses-1 for a more detailed fact check of his data.)

The Paris Accord is probably the most influential international agreement achieved in this century. It will affect us all and may be the first concerted initiative to slow the negative impacts of human activity upon the planet.

So is it only American politicians that make dubious decisions which affect the environment? No, South African politicians do it as well. It was recently decided that the Department of Mineral Resources (whose mission is “..To promote and regulate the minerals and mining for transformation, growth, development and ensure that all South Africans derive sustainable benefit from the country’s mineral wealth…”) would take charge of the environmental assessment of mining applications and the Department of Environmental Affairs ( mission – “…Providing leadership in environmental management, conservation and protection towards sustainability for the benefit of South Africans and the global community…”) would be the appeal body in cases of dispute.

Is this not a case of putting the fox in charge of the sheep? If the environmental department only gets involved at the end of the process, surely then it is too late to reverse decisions and courses of action? The time to get involved is at the early stages of preliminary planning so that directions can be changed, conditions modified, and, if necessary, projects halted. It seems that politics has decided that the environmentalists must not be allowed to get involved in mining decisions too early because they may cause problems and delay the “important” exploitation of mineral resources.

South Africa is a beautiful country with many wonderful natural resources which have significant tourist appeal. Tourism is more sustainable and job creating than mining. The trouble is, if you mine the areas that are attractive to tourists, will the tourists still want to come and visit? Does it make any sense to put a mine on the boundary of a world renowned game reserve and sanctuary like Hluhluwe? Does it make sense to put the decision making on the exploitation of game reserves and natural areas into the hands of mining decision makers?

“Somkhele Mine in Zululand – This shocking, devastating sight could easily occur across the river at the iMfolozi Wilderness Area if the proposed Fuleni coal mine is approved. This mining application has currently been withdrawn but it could be re-instated if we are not vigilant”.

Image from Save our Imfolozi Wilderness

About the author

Arend Hoogervorst is an environmental scientist with some 35 years of experience in South Africa in environmental management and sustainable development in local and central government, commerce and industry and private practice.