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Global Warming on our Doorstep

Date: 31 August 2006

Most of the higher temperatures, skewed rainfall, violent storms and sea level surges projected for the coming decades due to climate change, can no longer be avoided. That‘s the sombre message from World Bank environment director Warren Evans, who was addressing media at the 3rd Assembly of the Global Environment Facility (Gef) in Cape Town this week. The bank says the first way to tackle the climate change hydra, widely recognised now as the greatest threat to both nature and sustainable development, is to cut the emission of greenhouse gases. These gases are being generated primarily by human activity, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels like coal to drive power stations.

Greenhouse gases absorb the infra-red radiation which is generated when sunlight strikes the Earth‘s surface. They trap heat in the atmosphere, which is the catalyst for climate change. But the bank is now stressing that we must also deal with the climate change that we have already signed up to and shape how we are going to react when it kicks in. The hope is that this adaptation action may, furthermore, catalyse action against the greater threat in the distance, which the world cannot seem to get serious about.

Evans says that projects worth up to R2, 4-billion funded by the bank out of its R120-billion lending portfolio are right now at risk from climate change. Infrastructure is at risk. Possible increased drought and flooding is reducing the predictability and production of farming projects. Irrigation and hydro-power projects are at risk because it is becoming impossible to predict rainfall patterns.

To try to eliminate the risk and, at the same time, help nations most vulnerable to its bite, the bank launched and has now completed a preliminary study. The report emanating from the study and unveiled at the Gef assembly on Tuesday argues that climate change needs to be treated as “a major economic and social risk to national economies, not just as a long-term environment problem”. Over the last century, the average global temperature rose 0, 7°C, it noted. The projection is that it will rise a further 1, 4°C to 5, 8°C in the next 100 years.

If vulnerable countries cannot adapt to this and the cocktail of other climate change effects (severe storms, sea level rise and topsy-turvy precipitation), the poor will be hit the hardest. Why? Because poor people live, typically, on the land which will be most dramatically affected: low-lying former swamps (like the Chatty River communities), dry-lands that are already marginal (like in West Africa‘s Sahel but also in many inland areas of the Eastern Cape and South Africa generally). Poor people also do not have money to buy back-up supplies.

These changes will likely include reduction in the capacity of the globe‘s two great retainers of water, snow-caps and glaciers. The availability and quality of fresh water will decrease in many arid regions. There will be an increased risk of floods, on the one hand, and droughts on the other. There will be an increased incidence of vector-borne and waterborne diseases like malaria, dengue and cholera.

If adaptation is not achieved, there will be increased deaths from heat stress, increased damages and deaths caused by storms, decreased farming activity (especially in the tropics, but even in temperate regions like the Western Cape with its vineyards which rely on a very specific climate), and adverse impacts on fisheries and on many ecological systems. Having finalised its preliminary report, the bank will now be spending some R60- to R90-million on further research and then up to R24-billion on implementing mechanisms to help countries to adapt and create a resilience against the further climate change onslaught in the long term.

Evans told me that these mechanisms could include a range of water management initiatives to promote drainage, on the one hand, and irrigation on the other, as well as flood walls to protect infrastructure. Some work has been done and much more is needed on identifying drought-resistant seed and seed that can stand up to increased soil salinity, for instance. Up until now, small island states and places like the Sahel have been identified as spots likely to feel the worst effects and which to some degree are already feeling the most immediate brunt of climate change.

But a new report by a team of scientists from the universities of Toronto and New England, the US Forest Service, the World Wide Fund for Nature and Conservation International has identified our own fynbos wonderland, the Cape floristic region (CFR) – which stretches between the Eastern and Western Cape – as one of the zones in the world most vulnerable to climate change. The handful of others is the tropical Andes, south-western Australia, and the Atlantic forests of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. In each of these hotspots, the species have “restricted migration options due to geographical limitations”. In our CFR where the wealth lies in the plant life, these limitations relate to altitude and temperature.

The report endorses a 2004 global study that found that there will be a catastrophic species loss if global warming continues unabated, with up to a quarter of all species being lost. The new report goes further, however, in that it seeks to examine the potential effects on a broader scale, rather than just on individual species. To do this it focuses on 25 of the world‘s outstanding “biodiversity hotspots”, areas which contain a particularly high species count unique to these zones alone. Conservation International‘s Lee Hannah says the new report shows that “it isn‘t just polar bears and penguins that we must worry about anymore. The hotspots studied in this paper are essentially refugee camps for many of our planet‘s most unique plants and animals. If these areas are no longer habitable due to global warming, then we will quite literally be destroying the last sanctuaries many of these species have left.”

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