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Keynote address by Minister Barbara Creecy’s at 10th Oppenheimer Research Conference (ORC2019)

Randjesfontein, Midrand, 1 October 2019
Conference theme: Advancing Conservation Consciousness

Mr Nicky and Mrs Strilli Oppenheimer,
Mr Jonathan Oppenheimer,
Ms Polly Carr: Chief Executive Officer, Oppenheimer Generations
Mr Arnold Meyer: Executive Chairman of Tswalu
Dr Duncan MacFadyen: Head of Research and Conservation
Ms Bridget Fury: Head of Philanthropies
Mr Fundisile Mketeni, the CEO of SANParks

Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you very much for inviting me to join you at, what has been described as, a highlight on the academic calendar of many researchers.

On a lighter note,  when I was on my way here this morning , I remembered my son telling me, that night in May, when I was appointed to this job, that every Sci Fi disaster movie always starts with a scene where politicians ignore scientists.  He is a junior biologist. I guess my career choice is obvious.

I am hoping that my being here demonstrates my commitment to listening to the scientists and my support to the Oppenheimer Generations’ struggle to  leave the world better than how we found it, and build sustainable and prosperous societies.

As you probably know I have just returned from the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on the 23rd of September. The summit aimed to boost climate ambition to accelerate action to implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and ensure we collectively prevent the mean global temperature from rising by more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

It was a day of tough talk but also inspiration. This inspiration came not only from the countries and companies committing themselves to the required changes but from the practical and innovative work of the winners of the 2019 UN Global Climate Action Awards.

With projects ranging from an in-app mini program that’s helped plant 122 million trees, to a “climate positive” burger that’s taking the fast food industry by storm, these interventions remind us that, although hard, scientific research and innovation will play a central role in our ability to both mitigate and adapt to the change that lies ahead.

Returning to your conference theme of “Advancing Conservation Consciousness,” I thought it important to share with you that the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries is in the process of exploring the concept of a Citizen’s Environmental Awareness Index to be based on the results of an annual independent national public environmental awareness survey. 

As part of this process, the Department, in partnership with the CSIR, has just concluded research on environmental awareness surveys in South Africa.  Not surprisingly, we have found that the country has never conducted specific national surveys on the level of environmental awareness amongst our citizens. Consequently we have no baseline against which to measure future interventions.

There have been numerous awareness surveys conducted around specific environmental topics in specific locations by Masters and PhD students. There have also been a few national surveys on water and waste services as well as a few international surveys that have included South Africa on climate change awareness.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe that environmental degradation, loss of bio-diversity and climate change are everyone’s issue. I believe this because everyone’s lives will be impacted on 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.

Consequently, we believe that an understanding of ‘conservation consciousness’ among ordinary South Africans. Is essential if we are to measure how effective any of our consciousness-raising efforts have been, or will be.

What we do know already suggests that we have our work cut out for us.  The recent 2018 Afro-barometer survey that tried to establish whether “South Africans are prepared to confront climate change” found that –

  • More than half (54% ) of South Africans said they had never heard of climate change.
  • Rural residents (63%), women (58%), and citizens without formal education (65%) were particularly likely to be unaware of the phenomenon – meaning that some of our fellow South Africans who are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are the least informed.
  • Nevertheless, even among South Africans with post-secondary education, 37% said they had not heard of climate change.
  • Although the majority (53%) of South Africans who had heard of climate change said it is making life worse, only about half (52%) of those believed it needed to be stopped, and far fewer thought they could do “a lot” (20%) or even “a little bit” (15%) to help fight it.

It is our intention Ladies and Gentlemen to change this situation. We want all our citizens to understand that climate change, loss of bio-diversity 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!

This brings us to the importance of environmental literacy.

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.

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.

In the medium to long term, we will only be able to develop and implement progressive environmental policy in a receptive environment.

Moving from personal research to inform personal behaviour change to public research to inform public policy, I would like to touch on the concept of evidence-based policy-making. Evidence-based policy-making is based on the premise that better policies and better decision-making result when these are based on sound empirical evidence and solid rational analysis.

In our government, the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency (DPME for short) is a vocal advocate of evidence-based policy-making, even offering courses on the concept to senior government officials. Their motivation is that we need to know with an estimated degree of certainty: what works, to achieve which outcomes, for which groups of people, under what conditions, over what time span, and at what cost.

Unfortunately, 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.

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. Scientific evidence typically includes: research and surveys; quantitative and statistical data; and qualitative data and analysis. It also includes economic, attitudinal, behavioural and anecdotal evidence; together with the knowledge and expertise of experts, as well as lay persons; propaganda; judgements; insight; experience; history; analogies; local knowledge and culture.

With this, and despite reservations about how policy-makers may source information with a particular agenda in mind, we still believe that policies based on evidence are 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.

International synthesis research has been carried out on the barriers to- and facilitators of-, the required science/policy dialogue that should be a key element of evidence-based policy-making. This research reveals ‘availability and access to research’ as the top barrier with ‘clarity, relevance and reliability of research findings’ coming a close second.

In essence, if policy-makers don’t know that policy-relevant research is available and easily accessible then, of course, it is not used. Furthermore, if policy-makers can’t understand the research findings, can’t see its relevance, or are uncertain of its quality, it is not used.

However, the reverse is also true – if policy-makers know that policy-relevant research is available and it is easily accessible, then it is used. Similarly, if policy-makers understand the research findings, see their relevance and are confident about its quality, it is used. Indeed, availability, access, clarity, relevance and reliability are the top facilitators of the use of scientific evidence by policy-makers.

So here is the challenge –

  • In terms of availability - how do we align the, often, drawn-out academic research and publication process with, often, urgent policy questions?
  • In terms of access and clarity - how do we ensure that scientists are not only talking to scientists?
  • How do we increase the policy relevance of research or how do we highlight the relevance of research findings to policy?
  • How do we make research more accessible and understandable without dumbing it down?
  • In terms of reliability - how do we stop ‘bad science’, ‘alternative truth’ and ‘false facts’ being given equal media prominence with robust and high quality research under the misguided belief that this is presenting a ‘balanced view’?

I am not proposing any answers to these questions, but I’m sure that an august group like this could come up with many effective and innovative ideas. With this, I would be very interested to know what comes out of your “Science Communication” panel discussion.

Leaving you with this challenge, I would like to turn to the ‘conservation’ element of your theme.

I probably don’t need to remind this audience that South Africa is one of the world’s top three mega-biodiverse nations, along with Brazil and Indonesia. We are thus one of the richest countries in terms of the diversity of plants and animals (marine and terrestrial) and levels of endemism. Although the immense contribution of our biodiversity to our economic, social and spiritual well-being is difficult to measure, it is generally accepted that this contribution is significant and essential to our health and well-being.

Our National Development Plan recognises this biodiversity wealth and requires us to leave future generations an environmental endowment of at least equal value to the one we have now.

To this end, although we are not yet meeting international targets, our conservation estate is growing, both on land and at sea. You will know that the latter has been the star performer, given that a couple of months ago 20 new Marine Protected Areas were declared. These new ‘ocean parks’ have increased South Africa’s marine ecosystem area under protection by 1 250% overnight - from 0.4% to 5.4% of our oceans. But it’s not size that counts.

Unlike many of our game parks, these ocean parks have been identified scientifically and provide protection to an impressive 90% of our marine habitat types. In terms of government priorities, these ocean parks will not only protect our rich marine biodiversity, but will also contribute to the sustainability of our fisheries and our fishing industry – a perfect example of sustainable development, evidence-based policy-making, and a valuable outcome of the Operation Phakisa: Oceans Economy initiative.

This notwithstanding, in two days time I will be launching South Africa’s 3rd National Biodiversity Assessment (NBO 2018). This new assessment will provide us with a clear picture of how we have performed in terms of conservation since the 2004 and 2011 reports. The National Biodiversity Assessment is the primary tool for monitoring and reporting on the state of biodiversity in South Africa. It is prepared as part of the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s (SANBI) mandate to monitor and report regularly on the status of South Africa’s biodiversity, and is the result of the collaborative efforts of many institutions and individuals.

In this regard, I note that the conference organisers have put together an extremely interesting, cross section of panellists for your ‘Challenging the Conservation Paradigm’ discussion. I have no doubt this will contribute to the ongoing debates around the concepts of ‘sustainable use’ and ‘access and benefit-sharing’ that are the foundations of our conservation approach.

In closing, let me once again emphasise that  I have deliberately left you with far more questions than answers, because I am looking to communities like the one gathered here to find some of the answers.

Conservation consciousness cannot be the exclusive domain of a select and privileged few. It must be a key component of our environmental literacy.

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 everyone’s issue, is not the work of one government department, it is the work of the nation.

And so, I call on this community to identify, explore, forge, create, operationalise, inspire and inform the societal partnerships that are needed to secure an environmental future which will leave to future generations an endowment at least equal to the one we have inherited.  

Thank you.


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