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Scientific background

Prof. dr. Paul Desanker
Global Environmental Change Program - Africa
Department of Environmental Science, University of Virginia Clark Hall, USA

Climate change is real, and it has great significance for sustainable development plans, life and livelihoods, in Africa more than any other continent. The diversity in climatic regimes across this vast continent from arid and seasonally-arid tropical regimes to humid equatorial regimes, with differing degrees of temporal variability make discussions of climate change for Africa challenging. The discussion becomes more real when local examples are used to demonstrate patterns, impacts and vulnerabilities, as this is the scale at which humans operate. This set of "Vital Climate Graphics for Africa" has been developed based on the latest IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR) and subsequent syntheses found in other literature. They highlight regional and local aspects of climate change for Africa and are designed to convey main messages about the impacts of climate change to encourage public discussion and the development of local solutions. It is hoped that these images will serve as a model for further summaries in future, and everyone is encouraged to submit suggestions to UNEP.

The IPCC TAR reports a warming of approximately 0.7°C over most of the continent during the 20th century based on historical records, a decrease in rainfall over large portions of the Sahel, and an increase in rainfall in east central Africa. The temperature trend over time is the most reliable, and when associated with warming, changes can be expected in precipitation patterns, a rise in sea-level and increased frequencies of extreme events. While the exact nature of the changes in temperature or precipitation, and extreme events are not known, there is general agreement that extreme events will get worse, and trends in most variables will change in response to warming. By the end of this century, global mean surface temperature is expected to increase between 1.5 ° C and 6° C
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These changes are expected to have serious consequences for Africa. The extreme hardships in terms of food and water for the arid and semi-arid areas of West and Horn of Africa as well as Southern Africa, are related to low and highly variable rainfall. Major flooding events in many parts of Africa have also been linked to the possible influence of climate change. The impact of these on human life, livelihoods and economies is significant, and must be clearly communicated to help establish the right level of attention on climate change that is required, especially in the midst of other more immediate problems of development such as poverty, poor health, food and water insecurity.

Climate change has a direct influence on these problems, and so, poverty, poor health, food and water insecurity cannot be overcome without due consideration to climate issues at present and in the future. The relegation by many African policy and decision makers that climate change is a long-term problem that can wait is most misleading. Climate change is real, has already started to happen, and is having major impacts in all aspects of life in Africa as highlighted in the graphics presented here.

While the science literature is full of details and assessments of various climate phenomena, stakeholders, especially those developing policies and making day-to-day decisions on production systems etc, are not readily exposed to this information. Much is often said about the need to package information in effective ways to reach the ears of policy makers and civic society. This vital climate graphics package with a set of key visual displays of climate change and its impacts is a serious attempt at achieving this science to policy and science to civil society dialogue. Examples are given of undisputed signs of global warming, and impacts on different regions and sectors.

It is very clear from the graphics presented that temperature rise in Africa corresponds to global temperature rise, and that adverse impacts including extremes, are spread across the diverse environments of Africa, putting a huge proportion of Africa at great risk. These graphics also show the severity of impacts for the important sectors of water, health, food for Africa.

A very sparse observational network for Africa is a major constraint in improving our understanding of local climate and makes predictions of future climate change difficult at the sub-regional to local level. Remote sensing methods for monitoring weather variables are a useful source of data for seasonal forecasting of large-scale processes and interlinkages such as sea-surface temperature links to major disease outbreaks on adjoining land areas. The ability to track storm systems enables communities to prepare and respond to extreme events. While technology has advanced, the transfer of these methods to the local area to help ordinary Africans to adapt to climate change remains a significant challenge that must be addressed.

On the other hand, there is vast local knowledge on dealing with climate variability in Africa. There is increasing interest in harnessing local strategies to cope with current climate and extremes to build adaptive capacity for future climate change. The study of climate change at the local scale will greatly enhance Africa's efforts towards sustainable development.

It is hoped that the set of graphics presented here will provide an invaluable resource for scientists and civil society in Africa to gain a better understanding of climate change in Africa, and how it might impact on their life and livelihood at the local scale. Background notes are given to guide technical experts in their communication with their stakeholders or students. Previous productions of similar graphics at the global level have been very successful in capturing key issues - this set follows in that tradition and is based on examples and applications that are African. It is hoped that people from all parts of Africa will find something to resonate with, and they will join in accumulating evidence on and knowledge about climate change and its impacts.


For further information, see the following and references therein:

Desanker, P.V. and C. Magadza (Coordinating Lead Authors; plus 11 Lead Authors and 13 Contributing Authors). Africa. Chapter 10 of the IPCC Working Group II, Third Assessment Report. (Published by Cambridge in 2001).

Desanker, P.V. 2001. Desanker, P.V (Guest Editor). Africa and Global Climate Change Special Issue, Climate Research, Vol 17, Number 2 (pages 93-246).

Hulme, M. (ed.), 1996: Climate Change in Southern Africa: An Exploration of Some Potential Impacts and Implications in the SADC Region. Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, Norwich, United Kingdom, 96 pp.

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