African Science Academies Miss a Big Factor in Climate Statement
I was encouraged to see a joint statement released by 15 African academies of science on climate issues on the continent. You can read it below. But I was discouraged when I dug in and found they’d missed a vitally important point.
The entire statement was centered on the need to clarify and respond to risks posed by greenhouse-driven climate change. This is indeed important. Gaps in understanding of how global warming will affect Africa hold back planning efforts and have led to persistent uncertainty about the causes of recent droughts and famines.
But the statement nowhere discussed the deep and devastating vulnerability to existing climate extremes on the continent, particularly in the populous, poor and turbulent regions south of the Sahara Desert. This isn’t just a semantic glitch with no practical significance. Here’s why:
1) Studies of past climate patterns in the region show clearly that periods of extreme drought — beyond anything experienced in the modern era — are utterly normal already.
2) Persistent poverty and lack of capacity to deal with either too much or too little water (or related health problems) already make the region extraordinarily vulnerable to devastating losses from drought or flooding. And high fertility rates — think doubled populations by 2050 — are increasing exposure to hazards far faster than a push from greenhouse-driven heating of the global climate might.
3) To my mind, the world’s industrialized and fast-industrializing countries have an ethical and practical obligation to boost African capacity to track climate-related risks and foster practices (in agriculture, particularly) that can boost resilience to climate extremes, whatever mix of forces — human or otherwise — are behind them. Thankfully, Micky Glantz of the University of Colorado has been making this point for a long time.
4) All of the negotiations and commitments of aid under the existing climate treaty — the Framework Convention on Climate Change — are expressed limited to impacts from greenhouse-driven climate change. That is bound to lead to fights over aid as recipient countries debate which can prove its risk (drought, flooding or otherwise) is related to climate change, as opposed to garden-variety climate extremes.
By only speaking of climate change, this statement leaves out the biggest drivers of climate vulnerability on the continent in the next few decades, and contributes to the murkiness that will create ever more problems if and when rich countries finally divvy up money to help poor ones adapt to climate change.
Here’s a video-taped statement by Ralph Cicerone and Harvey Fineberg, presidents of the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine. And here’s the report as a downloadable file: