Alex Lenferna is a post-doctoral research fellow at Nelson Mandela University in the Department of Development Studies – on a National Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences Fellowship. He is also the elected general secretary and co-founder of the Climate Justice Coalition – a South African coalition of civil society, grassroots, trade union and community-based organisations working together to advance a transformative climate justice agenda. Alex also co-hosts Just Us & the Climate, a podcast which aims to bring climate change back down to earth to show how it’s not only a crisis, but also an opportunity to build a better, more just world.
Alex is a first generation South African whose family hails from the small island nation of Mauritius. He has dedicated over a dozen years to studying, researching, writing, teaching, and activism on climate justice. Alex holds a PhD focused on climate and energy justice from the University of Washington, and has been a Mandela Rhodes, Fulbright, and Endeavour Scholar. He has published a over a dozen academic publications and nearly one hundred opinion pieces in outlets such as the Mail & Guardian, the Sowetan, New Frame, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, Jacobin, the Seattle Times, and the Conversation.
Alex has written and published widely on climate and energy justice, on topics like fossil fuel divestment, geoengineering, carbon pricing, climate migration, and climate reparations. Most of his research and writing is freely available on Academia.edu here. If you’re interested in connecting, you can contact Alex at: alexlenferna [at] gmail dot com, or connect on Twitter or Facebook, which he uses to share content on social, environmental, and climate justice. Feel free to read on for a little more about Alex’s story, written from his personal perspective.
A Little Bit More About Me
Both sides of my family are from Mauritius – a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, deeply vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In 1983, my parents moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, where I was born, grew up and went to school. At the age of 19, I moved from Johannesburg to the town of Makhanda in the Eastern Cape of South Africa to attend (the university unfortunately still known as) Rhodes University. After completing a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Organisational Psychology, I went on to study an Honours and Master of Arts in Philosophy focusing on global justice, poverty, and environmental ethics. In the second year of my masters, I had the honour and the privilege of being selected as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar – an experience which introduced me to incredible leaders from across the African continent and further inspired me to dedicate my life to fighting for climate justice.
Alongside my studies in South Africa, I was involved in, helped found and/or led several primarily youth- and student-driven organisations focused on social justice, climate justice, and sustainable development. As part of those organisations, I worked on a number of projects and campaigns, including: a campaign to fight against proposed fracking plans in South Africa; a wildlife conservation and career education program with low income schools; and a campaign advocating for South Africa to put in place a robust, just, and substantial carbon tax.
After my studies in Makhanda, I worked with the Environmental Learning and Research Centre on community-based sustainable development and education projects, using indigenous amaXhosa knowledge to help low income families build food security and sustainable resilience. I also briefly worked with the Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science, where I helped coordinate interdisciplinary educational workshops on earth systems science for university students across southern Africa.
Then in 2012, I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to undertake a PhD in the United States – I had applied in large part because the United States as the world’s biggest historical climate polluter was the metaphorical belly of the beast where action on climate change was most urgently and ethically needed. So I packed my bags and headed to the United States, where for six years I researched, taught and advocated for climate justice. During my 6 years in the United States, I engaged in a range of climate justice activism, including advocating for: a progressive carbon tax with Carbon Washington; a green new deal with the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy; for international climate finance/reparations for the global south with 350 Seattle; and for fossil fuel divestment with 350 Seattle, Divest University of Washington (UW) and Gates Divest.
In academia during my time in the States, I worked as a lecturer and teaching assistant in the UW Department of Philosophy – where I completed a Masters and PhD focused on climate justice. My masters dissertation was on climate justice and migration. My PhD dissertation was Equitably Ending the Fossil Fuel Era: Climate Justice, Capital and the Carbon Budget. While studying, I also worked as a research associate several times: on climate ethics under Prof Stephen Gardiner; on questions of ethics and justice surrounding geoengineering under a National Science Foundation program; on ocean change with the UW Program on Ocean Change; and on climate change as part of the University of Kansas’s interdisciplinary climate change graduate program. I also completed a graduate certificate in climate science with the UW Program on Climate Change and a graduate certificate in environmental studies with the University of Kansas Environmental Studies Program.
In 2018, I was awarded the Endeavour Research Fellowship which gave me the opportunity to undertake 6 months of climate justice research and advocacy in Australia, the world’s largest coal exporter and a major climate polluter, ranked last in the world on climate action. I served as a research fellow at the University of New South Wales’ Practical Justice Initiative’s Climate Justice Research Stream. While there I got involved with the Stop Adani Movement, to stop the construction of the largest coal mine in the Southern Hemisphere. I also volunteered with the Repower Campaign to push Australia to 100% clean energy and stop new fossil fuel projects. After my time in Australia, I returned to the States to finish and defend my PhD, which I completed in December 2018. I then returned back home to South Africa to work on climate justice.
My Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship
As a postdoctoral research fellow at Nelson Mandela University, starting in August 2022, I will be investigating questions of climate and energy justice. My work will provide research and education support to the climate justice movement, with significant focus on the Climate Justice Coalition. My research will explore how in order to achieve climate justice we will need to transform South Africa’s minerals energy complex, along with other vestiges of ecological and economic apartheid. As part of that, I will be working on a book project entitled Overthrowing Eco-Apartheid. I will also be exploring questions of how we ensure a more just and socially-owned renewable energy future. The postdoctoral fellowship is sponsored by the National Institute for Humanities and the Social Sciences. I will be based at the Department of Development Studies and be hosted by Prof Janet Cherry.
My Work with the Climate Justice Coalition
From April 2019 – July 2022, I worked as South African Climate Justice Campaigner with 350Africa.org, Through that work, I helped co-found the Climate Justice Coalition – a coalition of South African trade union, civil society and community organisations. As a coalition, we are engaged in a range of advocacy, education, activism, litigation, and research to advance a transformative and radical vision of climate justice. One of our central pieces of work is our campaign for a Green New Eskom – calling for a rapid and just transition to a more socially owned, renewable energy powered economy, that provides clean, safe, and affordable energy for all with no worker or community left behind in the transition. We also host a podcast called Just Us and the Climate – where “we bring climate change back down to earth and show how it’s not only a crisis, but an opportunity to build a better, more just world”.
In April 2022, I was re-elected as general secretary of the coalition. Then, in August 2022, I stepped down as campaigner at 350 Africa to take on my post-doc position. The move was largely aimed at giving the coalition some independence from 350.org, so that it’s secretary was not serving as campaigner for 350.org, but rather more focused on the coalition’s work. As part of that move, I shifted my role from campaigner, to work officially one-day a week at 350 Africa as program manager, overseeing a grant from the Open Society Foundation that supports the coalition’s work and allowed us to hire coalition staff. Alongside the coalition deputy secretary Mbali Baduza, I oversee that grant and the coalition staff in order to advance the work of the coalition.