/ 14 November 2020

A grim future of extreme weather

Sunrise In Lower Saxony
n 2020, temperatures globally were an average of 1.25 degrees Celsius higher than in pre-industrial times (Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images)

To help save the Congo rainforest — the world’s “second lung” — Rémy Zahiga plants trees in forest areas destroyed by mining and logging firms and teaches his fellow citizens about protecting the planet  from climate change.

The young climate activist’s efforts to safeguard the Earth’s second-largest tropical forest, threatened by rampant deforestation and wildfires, are low-key. 

“Our leaders are not taking climate action seriously but we can’t give up. As I live in the Congo where we don’t have peace, sometimes activists are targeted and I must go slowly.”

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges that African societies are facing and will continue to face this century and beyond.

It’s not a problem of Africa’s making, yet parts of the world’s poorest continent may be hard hit because of their geography, agricultural dependence and difficulties adapting to changing weather patterns, says a new report by Greenpeace Africa and the organisation’s science unit.

The frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme heat events are expected to increase, following trends already observed in southern, east and northern Africa, says the report, titled Weathering the Storm.

“In many parts of Africa, the impacts of climate change — heat waves with greater intensity, duration and frequency, together with droughts, more intense storms, more extreme rainfall events and crop failures — will be exacerbated by a combination of growing population, urbanisation and lack of access to information and resources (including money) to protect homes from extreme heat and floods.”

Rising temperatures

Temperatures across Africa are projected to be hotter than experienced in the recorded past, and to rise faster than the global average across most of the continent.

Rising temperatures are likely to lead to deaths, displacement, climate-related conflict, irregular rainfall, drinking water shortages, obstruction of agricultural production and the accelerated extinction of endemic African species, including 2 000 plant species from the Cape floral region. This area comprises 13 protected areas in the Western and Eastern Cape provinces and includes Table Mountain National Park, Boulders Beach, the Cape of Good Hope and Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

It’s clear that climate change “acts as a threat multiplier, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities such as poverty and inequality by driving extreme weather events”. 

In the century from 1900 to 2000, the continent warmed, on average, by 0.5C, says the report. Africa’s 10 hottest years have all been recorded since 2005. By the end of this century, the mean annual temperature increase for much of Africa will exceed 2°C — or fall within the range of 3°C to 6°C if high emissions continue.

Last month, in its first report on the state of the climate in Africa, the World Meteorological Association stated that extensive areas of the continent will exceed 2°C of warming above preindustrial levels by the last two decades of this century. Africa has already warmed by more than 1°C since 1901, with an increase in heat waves and hot days, it found.

Extreme weather on the rise

Attributing extreme weather events entirely to human-caused climate change is difficult because of natural climate variability but the general scientific consensus is that global climate change will lead to more extreme climate events, says the Greenpeace report. 

Evidence of recent extreme weather events includes severe floods in South Africa in 2019; floods in 2020 across east Africa that affected six-million people, destroying livelihoods and homes; and drought in 2015 to 2016 that affected more than 15-million people in east Africa and southern Africa. 

“Tropical Cyclone Idai, one of the most severe ever recorded, made landfall in southeast Africa and was followed the next month by Tropical Cyclone Kenneth, displacing thousands of people, ruining homes, causing a cholera outbreak and an estimated US$2.2-billion damage to infrastructure.” 

By 2050, says the report, northern and southern Africa will experience decreased rainfall while rainfall will increase across central and east Africa. Southern Africa will experience fewer but more intense tropical cyclones.

If emissions continue to climb, regions of the Sahel, southern Africa and east Africa could experience huge decreases in land suitable for human habitation by the last decades of this century. 

Mass migration could happen from regions that become “too hot for human habitation”, such as parts of northern and central Africa, which could lead to further cultural and political tensions within and beyond the worst-affected regions.

Extreme heat events in sub-Saharan Africa are not routinely reported, which can mean that many people are unaware of the dangers posed by extreme heat until such episodes occur, and may lead to excess deaths. 

“The emergency events database has recorded only two extreme heat events in sub-Saharan Africa between 1900 and 2019, yet has recorded 83 heat waves in Europe between 1980 and 2019. The failure to implement heat-detection systems in less developed sub-Saharan African countries has been attributed to poor governance frameworks and lack of expertise.”

Africa must lead on research

Globally, climate modelling has become more sophisticated, but for Africa there is, as yet, no robust evidence that improvements in the ­resolution of the models have led to significantly improved climate change predictions. 

“There is still a lack of reliable observational data for most regions across the continent and, therefore, projections, which are based on observational data, are questionable,” reads the report.

African countries, says climate scientist Ndoni Mchunu, the report’s co-author, need to be more involved in leading the development of new databases and models rather than being dependent on countries outside the continent. This will ensure better communication, planning and future projections of events. 

Indigenous knowledge, too, must be better incorporated into the scientific evidence on extreme weather events. “It needs to be a conversation about how we link the impacts of climate change to the actual lives of people,” she says. 

Ecologist professor Bob Scholes of the Global Change Institute at Wits University describes the report as “very sober, scientifically well-founded, and even conservative”. 

African governments, says the report, have an opportunity to collectively and individually “act in ways that will build resilience and avoid catastrophic climate change.”This involves transitioning to 100% renewable energy, avoiding energy pathways based on fossil fuel extraction and protecting the oceans, forests and food security.