Will Climate Change Destroy the Earth?

By Cookie Mona, Commissioning Editor, SABC Education - It's nearly impossible to overstate the threat of climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions are rising more rapidly than predicted and the world is warming more quickly in response.

But what is climate change exactly, and how will it impact South Africans?

Rising global temperatures have been accompanied by significant changes in weather and climate. Even in Southern Africa many places have seen drastic changes in rainfall, resulting in more floods, droughts, or intense rain, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves. The planet's oceans and glaciers have also experienced some big changes - oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising. As these and other changes become more pronounced in the coming decades, they will likely present challenges to our society and our environment.

Of course, climate change is a grim threat to Southern Africa’s primary objectives of food security, sustainable agricultural production, rural development and economic growth. The adverse impacts of climate change are now being experienced through decreased agricultural production and productivity, with severe consequences to food security and people’s livelihoods.

The impacts of climate change in an unconstrained greenhouse gas emissions scenario, are projected to be generally adverse for a wide range of agricultural activities. Adverse impacts are projected for key grain crops production, high value export agricultural production and intensive animal husbandry practices. Researchers have developed worst- and best-case climate change scenarios for selected crops growing in climate-sensitive parts of Southern Africa. These projections form the basis of climate-smart risk management, agricultural planning and production, and future food security. Southern African agriculture is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as the country is already a high-risk climatic environment, sensitive and vulnerable to geographical shifts in climates.

Without doubt, our lives are connected to the climate. Human societies have adapted to the relatively stable climate we have enjoyed since the last ice age which ended several thousand years ago. A warming climate will bring changes that can affect our water supplies, agriculture, power and transportation systems, the natural environment, and even our own health and safety.

Some changes to the climate are unavoidable. Carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for nearly a century, so Earth will continue to warm in the coming decades. The warmer it gets, the greater the risk for more severe changes to the climate and Earth's system. Although it's difficult to predict the exact impacts of climate change, what is clear is that the climate we are accustomed to is no longer a reliable guide for what to expect in the future.

So can we reduce the risks we face from climate change? Yes we can. By making choices that reduce greenhouse gas pollution, and preparing for the changes that are already underway, we can reduce risks from climate change. Our decisions today will shape the world our children live in tomorrow.

The question is: how will climate change affect Africa, and what are Africans doing to address this challenge?

Fortunately a growing number of sub-Saharan African countries are developing their own policy frameworks for responding to climate change. Dialogue and appropriate linkages between researchers and policymakers have now become crucial to effectively use research results to manage this threat.

South African scientists from local universities and agencies like the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) are joining forces with policymakers and researchers in government departments concerned with agriculture and environmental affairs, as well as NGOs and policy think tanks, to map the way forward. Numerous research studies are under way to find means to mitigate, adapt and even to exploit climate changes. These and other stakeholders, in cooperation with international counterparts, are pooling their resources and working together towards a unified strategy to find and implement viable solutions.

Apart from biophysical and economic impacts of climate change, it is also necessary to focus on the social aspects of climate change. It is important to observe that diversity is a constant in African families, which poses a challenge for targeting useful interventions. Understanding the vulnerability of households is crucial, especially the significance of separating general vulnerability from vulnerability that will arise due to climate change.

Experts say climate change and its impact in Africa is expected to affect between 75 and 250 million people by 2020, who may be exposed to increased water stress. In some countries yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by as much as 50%, with the result that food security will be compromised and malnutrition might become an even bigger threat.

Fortunately concerned Africans are actively addressing the climate change threat. They are well aware of the reality of poverty and vulnerability in the face of climate change and building a strong coalition of stakeholders to tackle the opportunities and challenges in achieving and sustaining Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA). To date, Africans have played a significant role on the international front to convince leaders to pay attention to this global threat.

CSA is a focused branch of science offering farmers practical solutions and timely interventions to mitigate and adapt to changing weather. Farmers will do well to stay abreast of the latest developments by requesting information from their local departments of agriculture and watching informative television programmes like Living Land on SABC2.

Right now, world leaders are stepping up the ongoing United Nation’s climate change negotiations, to remove roadblocks and ensure their negotiating teams can lay the groundwork for an agreement at a landmark conference in Paris in December.

A distinguished group of elders, including former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, Graca Machel, the Mozambican politician and widow of Nelson Mandela, and Mary Robinson, formerly president of Ireland and a UN high commissioner have recently also made a call to urge leaders to make telling decisions without further delay.

United States President Barak Obama has also warned that failure to act decisively on climate change at a global level will lead to catastrophic – even apocalyptic – results.

These leaders are meeting late in September in New York to discuss the United Nation’s proposed “sustainable development goals” aimed at lifting poor countries out of poverty and addressing social problems such as health and gender equity. But global warming is also likely to be high on their agenda, with time running out before the critical international climate conference in Paris this December.

It seems the world is finally realising that it needs to take responsibility for the very real threat of climate change. Be sure to watch SABC Education’s upcoming series of the popular weekly episodes of Living Land on SABC2 to stay abreast of all the crucial decisions that we expect will be announced in the coming weeks and months, and especially how they will affect us.

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