Conservation consciousness and environmental literacy are key to securing an environmental future for all people, says the minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy.
”Conservation consciousness cannot be the exclusive domain of a select and privileged few. It must be a key component of our environmental literacy,” said the minister during her keynote address to the 10th Oppenheimer Research Conference in Midrand.
Raising environmental awareness
The research conference is being held under the theme of “Advancing Conservation Consciousness”, which is important in light of the need to raise the level of national awareness about the environment.
Minister Creecy announced that, following research by the department and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the department was exploring the concept of a Citizen’s Environmental Awareness Index based on the results of an annual independent national public environmental awareness survey.
The development of the Index would be a first for South Africa – a country where no previous specific national surveys on the level of environmental awareness among citizens have been conducted. This includes surveys on water and waste services and climate change awareness.
Fighting climate change
On 23 September the minister attended the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The summit aimed to boost climate ambition to accelerate action to implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and ensure that all nations collectively prevent the mean global temperature from rising by more than 1,5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Minister Creecy said she believed that environmental degradation, loss of bio-diversity and climate change are everyone’s issue.
“I believe this because everyone’s lives will be affected by these realities. Each and every one of us needs to understand these processes, so we know what we can do individually and collectively to remedy the situation,” she said.
Developing an understanding of ‘conservation consciousness’ among ordinary South Africans is essential if government is to measure how effective any of its consciousness-raising efforts have been, or will be, said minister Creecy. “What we do know already suggests that we have our work cut out for us,” she added.
The 2018 Afro-barometer survey that tried to establish whether South Africans are prepared to confront climate change found, among other things, that 54% of South Africans had never heard of climate change. While the survey found that particularly rural residents and citizens without a formal education were likely to be unaware of the phenomenon, 37% of people with post-secondary education had also not heard of climate change.
This meant that millions of South Africans who are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are the least informed. An additional finding was that although 53% of South Africans who had heard of climate change said it was making life worse, only about half believed it needed to be stopped. Far fewer thought they could do a lot (20%) or even a little bit (15%) to help fight it.
“It is our intention to change this situation. We want all our citizens to understand that climate change, loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation are happening now; that these phenomena are highly undesirable; that we as human beings are primarily responsible and most importantly; that we can do something and we can do it now,” said the minister.
An environmentally literate society
An environmentally literate society is one where everyone has the understanding, skills and motivation to make responsible decisions that consider her or his relationships to natural systems, communities and future generations.
The minister said if one believes that sustainable development is only possible if it is underpinned and informed by an environmentally literate society, then it is not just about making scientific evidence more available, accessible, clear, relevant and reliable for policy-makers. It’s about making it more available, accessible, clear, relevant and reliable for everyone.
Creecy said in the medium to long term, government would only be able to develop and implement progressive environmental policy in a receptive environment.
She emphasised the importance of evidence-based policy-making, saying it was unfortunate that “across the world we are witnessing the blatant disregard and/or arrogant gainsaying of science by some of the planet’s most powerful people”.
“This requires that all of us take steps to re-affirm the centrality of evidence-based policy-making in our own discourse,” she said. It is important to note that evidence is made up of a range of components – not only scientific – and it is never used in isolation”.
The government believed that policies based on evidence were more likely to be better informed, more effective and cost-efficient than policies that are formulated through typical time- and politically constrained processes without evidence input.
The need for societal partnership
“Without abdicating our own responsibility, and running the risk of sounding trite, I want to argue that making environment, biodiversity and climate issues everyone’s issue, is not the work of one government department; it is the work of the nation,” she said.
Minister Creecy called on the research community to identify, explore, forge, create, operationalise, inspire and inform the societal partnerships that are necessary to secure an environmental future for all. – Press release, Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries