Climate change - why should we care?

Scientists say the climate is changing and human behaviour is responsible. In particular increased industrial activity is releasing harmful gases into the atmosphere. They say the implications for food, disease and life in general are enormous. Churchill Otieno discussed some of the issues with Professor Paul Desanker, a leading researcher on climate change.
By Churchill Otieno, journalist of the East-African Paul Desanker is Professor of Geography at Pennsylvania State University and a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment Report (African section).

Q: What is climate change and why should the world care?

A: When we talk of climate change we are really talking of changes brought about over the industrial period – the last 60 to 100 years – during which time we have seen increased use of energy sources that emit harmful gases into the atmosphere, which have a warming effect and hence shifting climate patterns.

Most serious, especially for Africa, is the shift in the rain patterns over the year. Traditionally we are used to a certain pattern of life; long rains, short rains, dry season and so on, so all we do like planting is synchronised to the seasons. The fact that climate change has resulted in this shift means we end up with crop failure – rainy seasons no longer coincide with crop planting, areas that never had drought begin to experience it or we suddenly have lots of rain like the el Niño.

Q: But the science community seems divided as to whether climate change is happening at all.

A: By now the majority view is that climate change is happening, it is for real. Only very few would be doubtful. The only thing we are unsure about is by how much and where will the change happen. Some areas of the world will get warmer, others cooler. Phenomena like el Niño will get more severe.

Q: What does this mean for Africa?

A: Africa is trying to develop and most of this development is linked to rain fed agriculture as opposed to irrigation. Most of the rural communities rely on rainfall patterns for their crops. Whole economies are driven by agriculture. This also has implications for health since most diseases are associated with poor or contaminated water; parasites thrive when it floods resulting in more cholera and malaria. Mosquitoes do not survive below a certain temperature but with the warming effect they are able to survive in some highlands.

Low lying coastal areas, where most cities in the world are, are particularly vulnerable to flooding and other ramifications during major storms. But while these are things no one can do anything about, most developed countries have much better coping mechanisms in terms of early warning systems and the ability to recover after the havoc. Africa has none of this.

Studies have shown, for instance, that the glaciers atop Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya have greatly reduced. Some even see them melting out as soon as another 20 years. Yet it is well known these glaciers are the source of streams and rivers and are also important for rain.

Q: What ammunition has Africa to respond?

A: There is very little Africa can do to change events.

Q: But do we have to cope with climate change?

A: Not the whole lot. There is some local knowledge, like the rural communities eke a living in very hard conditions, but these conditions are changing, for instance the nomads like the Maasai in days gone by would move away from harsh weather but this is not possible anymore because land use has changed.

What is needed is much greater awareness of what the issues around climate change are. You cannot respond to what you do not know. Also, no one country can go it alone. Technology has also improved to help us cope; fairly accurate seasonal forecasts to help farmers plan better – but its not an exact science.

Africa’s contribution to emssions of harmful gases is minimal, less then 10%. Even if we were able to reduce this to zero we would still be in danger because much of the emissions come from the industrialised world, like the United States. But if Africa were to industrialise we would be in deeper problems because this unfortunately comes with more harm to the environment.

The US is leading in pumping these harmful gases into the atmosphere, yet it has refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol to help stabilise these gases.

Q: Are they holding the world to ransom?

A: They are not holding up the Kyoto Protocol anymore because with Russia having ratified, it came into force in February, this year. Since the US emits the largest amount of harmful gases it makes little sense for everybody to act and not them. The protocol demands that developed countries reduce their emissions by 5%, which is obviously minimal, but all are agreed it would be an important first step.

All the same, a lot depends on what the US does. American officials have argued that there are more effective ways of reducing emissions, for instance the use of less fossil fuels. This involves developing technology for cleaner fuels, which is possible given the speed with which technology advances, but also unlikely.

In the final analysis, every country has a right to take whatever position so we really cannot force the US, but the world should encourage them.

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