Fabian Oliver, CYNESA South Africa.

Between ecological conversion in South Africa and international climate politics at the COP24 in Katowice, Poland.

An interview with Fabian Oliver, led by Verena Himmelreich, December 2018.

Verena Himmelreich talked to Fabian Oliver about ecological conversion in South Africa and international climate politics during the COP24 in December 2018.

Fabian is a student of theology and works as a Youth-Pastor in Johannesburg, South Africa. He participated in the last COP24 in Poland as representative for CYNESA (Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa), a Catholic youth organization that works towards ecological awareness and the teachings of Laudato Si throughout Africa. Besides the official conference, Fabian engaged as a volunteer amongst 100 others for the campaign “Change for the planet, care for the people” by CIDSE, a Catholic organisation for solidarity and development based in Brussels.

What does ecological conversion, climate justice and Laudato Si mean to you? And why are they important?

Laudato Si is the ecological blueprint for the Catholic Church. Not because its writings are something new (many Catholics have been writing on similar issues way before this document was released), but because it comes from the pope. Laudato Si reveals how humanity have ploughed with the idea that we were created above other creation and can destroy when we feel it’s necessary. Pope Francis suggests that the sin we have committed upon the earth is the projection of our inward sin as humanity. The word “poor” features very often in the document because he makes deep connections between the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor at the expense of profiteering systems. Finally, this idea of “ecological conversion” is brought up in which we ought to turn from exploitation to total solidarity with creation. Ecological conversion is a changing of one’s mindset, a “metanoia” with regards to our common home. It can even be described as the opening of our eyes to see the ecological crisis at hand. That is to say that we can see the crisis for what it is, then understand who the winners are and losers in this predicament, and finally it enables us to take action in our own personal capacity. Conversion is the heartfelt step towards a greener lifestyle for all. Climate justice is more than just getting mainstream companies and governments to lower carbon emissions. It is about caring for all of creation. Being the voice to the voiceless, or better put as giving the voice back to the voiceless. Climate justice is about caring for the bees, trees, seas and “the least of these”. Here, justice is not to be confused with charity. We can’t ignore the fact that for decades an elite few have benefited at the expense of the earth and most vulnerable. We have a duty to look after our common home and ensure that future generations can live fruitfully in the earth they inherit. Climate justice must do just that.

Which connections to climate change do you see in your country, South Africa?

Climate change affects us all. South Africa is no different. We have both drylands that are getting dryer whilst other places are getting filled with water. Sadly, South Africa is big, if not the biggest emitters of carbon in Africa. From what I know, not much is been done about reducing it. Perhaps much cannot be done without consultation and permission from the West. The bigger challenge or realization is that with climate change, food supply becomes less, and prices go through the roof. For a country already plagued with massive poverty and unemployment, climate change and global warming may deepen our wounds. On the other hand, the usage of renewable energy may pave the way to massive new business and employment opportunities which enable our people to provide and sustain themselves. A shift to more local community-based farming may drop manufacturing emissions and provide for the many that go to bed hungry.

How is your work as a youth pastor practically connected to climate change and climate justice? And how exactly is CYNESA engaging in teaching ecological awareness?

At this stage, my primary task in the field of climate change is to bring about awareness through the various ministries I am in. In the past, I have conducted several workshops to the youth on caring for our earth, focusing on the message of Laudato Si. I also teach Bible study classes in which we relook at our role as humans in relation to the rest of creation. I have also taught on the climate impact of meat, fuel consumption and coal. Other practical steps such as “reduce, reuse recycle” are often mentioned within our framework. In the coming years, many young people will be studying and working in industries at the forefront of either reducing or increasing carbon emissions. My job is to bring awareness to them now so that they can make the best moral choices tomorrow with regards to climate justice. “CYNESA’s Mission is to help young Catholics in sub-Saharan Africa – their movements and communities, individually and with their colleagues – to respond to the twin challenges of environmental degradation and climate change in an effective, coordinated and evangelical manner, culturally sensitive and spiritually grounded. Its mission is to link young Catholics together with colleagues in mutual encouragement and support.” CYNESA also promotes greener entrepreneurial initiatives for young people.

Fabian Oliver at COP24, CYNESA South Africa.

What are your experiences in Katowice so far, which impressions, feelings and thoughts will you take back home?

In my trip to Poland, and short attendance at COP24, several things were brought to my attention. Firstly, the science suggesting that climate change is real and affected by our carbon emissions is staggering. The idea that the earth simply warms and cools on its own and will soon stabilize with or without our carbon reductions is highly contested. More and more scientists are confirming that we have a huge impact on global warming. This is not another “hippy” protest or business scheming manoeuvre. Secondly, climate change affects everybody, especially the poor and vulnerable. Dry areas will get dryer resulting in droughts, death of livestock, and shortage of water and food. As supply shortens, prices increase, and the poor are affected the hardest by this change. On the other hand, wet coastal areas will get wetter resulting in floods which break down homes, ecosystems and grounding. Sicknesses such as malaria thrive in such conditions and it is the poor who don’t have easy access to medical treatment who will suffer the most from this. Finally, it all comes down to moral will. For decades we have devoured mother-nature. Cutting of rainforests, inappropriate storing and killing of animals and polluting both sea and land. Are we capable of realizing our own moral apathy towards our common home? Civilization can thrive by using renewable energy sources. The question is are we willing to make that “just transition” by ensuring employment, equality, and take care for our common home.

What do you think is needed for a “just transition” in South Africa? What would you ask from politicians, companies, churches … What should they do, how should they act?

I think South Africa needs to have a love for justice. If this is in place, a just transition will follow. For governments and companies, I expect legislations to be put in place that lower emissions, provide job security and assist those at the margins. Aspects such as legislation, economy, ecology, employment, growth, care and sustainability are conversations that must be had. Government should educate people more on the ecological crisis because I find that many people are still clueless about their carbon imprint. If society overall can reach ecological conversion, it will only be a matter of time till governments, business policy, churches and so on will change for the better. It starts at home.

Do you think globally, we are currently on a pathway towards a “just transition” or “socio-ecological transformation”, or are we rather still strengthening existing inequalities and fortifying climate change?

The Paris Agreement suggested that globally we are on the right path. So, whether the it is fulfilled or not is a good indicator of where we’re headed. Time will tell. Personally, I am not convinced, but we must never lose hope in our attempts to bring about climate justice. There are many torchbearers in the darkness of pollution and destruction. CIDSE, CYNESA, individuals like yourself and many others are small sparks to the bigger flame that is at work globally. And in that regard, I am both hopeful and inspired.

What are you doing for climate justice and what do you expect from others?

In many ways I am still undergoing the “ecological conversion”, which is the changing of heart and mind towards proper care for the earth. Perhaps we all need to undergo a similar process? We cannot convince others unless we are changed and convinced. I work a lot with young people and aim to bring about climate awareness to them and how we directly or indirectly influence it. Finally, my trip to Poland has encouraged me to stand up for what I believe in and speak against all forms of injustice. In my own capacity, I will encourage others to do the same. Through the lens of the Christian faith, we encouraged to attend to those who suffer in society. To be present of the “least of these”.


Interview By:

Verena Himmelreich.



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