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“As one the biggest carbon emitters on the planet, South Africa has a lot to answer for”

Updated: Aug 31

Investigative journalism decries the destruction of our planet.


Photo: Chris Leboutillier, Unsplash


Our human behaviour takes a heavy toll on our planet’s health. While we debate how we can drastically reduce our impact, we can wonder: does nature have a voice in this debate?


In South Africa, Our Burning Planet, the global climate change unit of Daily Maverick, aims to be this voice.


Tiara Walters, senior science journalist for Our Burning Planet, is deeply invested in this mission.


Our Burning Planet


“Our Burning Planet (OBP) was the brainchild of Daily Maverick stalwarts Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak. Kevin was profoundly moved by the implications of the UN’s bombshell 2018 special report, Global Warming of 1.5°C. This predicted by decisive scientific consensus a salvo of catastrophic global impacts should humanity fail to limit warming.”


With the understanding that all journalism would become climate journalism, Kevin and Richard brainstormed OBP’s mission over a glass of whiskey.


“Kevin held the fort for the first months with a staggering output of investigative articles, and I joined the fray in August 2019.


We are now also supported by the Absa Group, which means that we have been able to expand OBP into Africa’s largest investigative unit — about 10 writers — dedicated to documenting human-induced planetary change.”


Effects of the climate crisis on Southern Africa


Southern Africa is deeply affected by the climate crisis. Tiara explains the complex challenges our region faces:


“Sub-Saharan Africa, as historic unrest in South Africa has reminded us all too clearly, finds itself in the grip of complex social challenges. These will be exacerbated by global change, which is represented — among others — by the climate, biodiversity and pollution crises.


“Sub-Saharan Africa, as historic unrest in South Africa has reminded us all too clearly, finds itself in the grip of complex social challenges. These will be exacerbated by global change, which is represented — among others — by the climate, biodiversity and pollution crises.


An uneasy dance between need, greed and ignorance across the illegal supply chain is also fueling a vicious wildlife trade in the region: by penetrating wilderness, humans come into contact with diseases that have piggybacked in wild species for millennia, but to which their human harvesters and consumers have not evolved immunity.


Photo: Matt Palmer, Unsplash


“Southern Africa is also a climate hotspot", Tiara explains. "We are warming twice as fast compared with the rest of the world, according to the UN report. If business-as-usual persists, this region will — to quote the late, great systems ecologist Professor Bob Scholes — become unliveable.


As one the biggest carbon emitters on the planet, South Africa has a lot to answer for, so we have no shortage of reasons to focus on the region.”


Journalism that makes a real difference


In its first years of operation, Our Burning Planet’s work has made a real difference in South Africa, while also driving global conversation.


In February last year, Tiara and Don Pinnock became the first journalists globally to investigate and report on the links between pangolins as a possible intermediate vector of Covid-19.


Closer to home, Kevin Bloom exposed the contracts between the king of Western Pondoland’s and a Chinese company to develop the Wild Coast.

The same company had plans to dam the Orange River and put up gas-to-power plants. Thanks to the investigation, local chiefs invoked the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act to ensure the deal did not go ahead.


And, after pursuing a tip-off, Tony Carnie discovered that a Turkish company tried to dodge a mandatory environmental impact study by convincing government officials that the powerships deal would somehow alleviate the Covid crisis. The application was exposed by OBP, and the “emergency exemption” was revoked.


These are huge successes in defending South Africa's nature, ecosystems, and of course people. Tiara believes the battle is worth fighting - and that we can win.


Fighting for solutions


"Humanity is a species of innovation that has a right to do business on this planet as long as it’s sustainable and, yes, restorative. The circular economy concept, which is regenerative at its core, is a prime example of the kind of issue that solutions-based journalism can use to demonstrate urgency. It’s an elegant answer to a hard problem, made all the harder by vested interests who are making other plans.”


Tiara Walters, Our Burning Planet senior science journalist. Photo: Daniel Manners



Tiara’s committed and fervent journalism shows a deep personal motivation.


“My father spent much time animating the beauty of nature and deep geological time in our everyday lives, and I partially grew up in the Lowveld bush, so becoming a science journalist was a natural extension of a cellular curiosity. Whether working in radio, television or writing, reporting on snow or string theory, my professional focus over 20 years has been the natural world.


I’m driven by my awe for the shimmering complexity of what deep time has created on Earth. There is a new meme going around that the planet will be fine — it’s humans who need saving. This view may be a coping mechanism for many: 'things will be fine ‘once humans are gone'. But I don’t subscribe to it. Yes, the planet would recover. Eventually. But at what cost? At what level of baseless suffering? And at what irretrievable loss of complexity, both delicately and violently forged over the unimaginable extent of Earth’s lifespan? Life as we know today and the processes that forged it are simply not replaceable. But we still have a chance to put this planet on a path to proper recovery and regeneration.”


Photo: Karsten Wurth, Unsplash




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