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Climate Change: Heated Debates and Cold Facts

In 2018 whilst Ghanaian farmers lamented over inadequate rainfall, European weather stations recorded unusually high temperatures. In the same year, although Ghana experienced relatively mild temperatures, there were reports of casualties in the EU – notably the elderly who died from or succumbed to a heatwave. This year, EU weather stations again record sizzling temperatures.

Earth's climate system interaction of its components. Source: ResearchGate.
Earth’s climate system interaction of its components. Source: ResearchGate.

Many of the climate change impacts and threats are operating through water: characterised by rising sea levels, heavier floods, shifting rainfall patterns and drought with dwindling crop yields – particularly in Africa. For many Least Developed Countries, LDCs, with the populations most vulnerable to climate change impacts or threats, near-term assistance to adapt is as high a priority as mitigating long-term climate change impacts.

The Stern Review was published in 2006. Not only did the incisive review – including other scientific reports – show that human activities are changing Earth’s climate, the Review suggested steps for tackling global warming and climate change. Aspects of the Review were corroborated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, which warned that the variable and extreme weather patterns recorded locally and globally are part of a trend caused by global warming that is marked to continue.

Earth’s climate system is complex and interactive, consisting of the atmosphere, land, vegetation, oceans and other bodies of water including snow and ice. At the most basic level, changes in these components over time are analysed in terms of cause and effect, or in the words used by climate scientists, forcing and response. Figure 2 shows changes in solar output, the Earth’s orbit, and in the atmospheric content of greenhouse gases, GHGs, are factors capable of influencing the Earth’s climate system.

Carbon dioxide, CO2, constitutes a small amount of the atmosphere, but even in diminutive quantities, its influence is huge. Figure 3 depicts CO2 data (red curve) started by C. David Keeling in March 1958 at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facility. It is the longest record of CO2 measurements in the atmosphere.

How can the marked increase be explained and what are the implications? Initially, coal was the main fuel but over the decades oil and natural gas became the major energy sources of choice. As the decades rolled on, carbon released through fossil fuels surpassed levels recorded through land clearing activities.

Mauna Loa CO2 record. Source: NOAA
Mauna Loa CO2 record. Source: NOAA

Today, industrial carbon emissions – mostly in the northern hemisphere – account for most of the fossil fuel total, while cutting and burning of tropical rainforests are the largest land-clearance contribution. The increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration is the result of human activities: primarily burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. Cement production and other changes in land use and management such as biomass burning, crop production and conversion of grasslands to croplands are also contributing factors.

About 40% of the population of West Africa live in coastal cities. The region’s highly productive ecosystems: mangrove swamps, estuaries, deltas, and coral reefs are situated mostly in coastal zones, which form the basis for important economic activities such as fisheries, and tourism. Numerous African countries are already vulnerable to extreme climate events such as tropical cyclones, droughts, and floods. The less developed regions are particularly more vulnerable than the developed regions because a large share of their economies are in climate-sensitive sectors. In 2000, Africa produced about 25% of the world fish captures in inland waters. Over the last three or more decades, fish per capita availability along West Africa’s coast has declined significantly. Whilst excessive fishing by indigenous peoples, as well as foreign interests, contribute to the decline, changes in climate are likely to result in drastic changes in the abundance of some marine species, particularly small pelagics.

Adaptation and mitigation are two important terms in the climate change adaptation debate. Adaptation is chiefly concerned with a system’s ability to adjust to climate variability, and extreme to moderate potential damage: take advantage of opportunities, or cope with the consequences. The IPCC defines adaptation as an adjustment in natural or human systems to a new or changing environment. The IPCC makes further reference to response to actual or anticipated climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.

Mitigation entails anthropogenic interventions to reduce the sources or enhance GHG sinks. Interventions include action(s) taken to permanently eliminate or reduce long-term risks and hazards of climate change to human life, and, or property. Clean energy or Clean Development Mechanism, CDM, and carbon sinks are some mitigation tools.

If the industrialised nations – reportedly responsible for unprecedented GHG levels – provide the much-needed funds [which should be closely monitored] to assist LDCs adapt to climate change and vulnerability, arguably the LDCs are likely to be more responsive to adaptation measures. LDCs are yet to reach development levels to seriously consider mitigation. Besides, mitigation as a strategy focuses on long-term risks and given the urgency of the crisis, arguably mitigation does not address the immediate needs of the LDCs.

Adaptation strategies depend on the kind of change taking place, the vulnerability of human and natural systems. The bulk of adaptation work is a function of governance and national orientation. Hence well-grounded science should inform policy formulation, which in turn ought to facilitate adequate short and long-term national planning.

Considering LDC adaptation costs, the question of who will pay remains central in climate change negotiations. LDC delegates have argued that their nations are not responsible for the unprecedented levels of greenhouse gas emissions. With their arguments based on historical responsibility, the question of who pays is remains sensitive; particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis that began in 2007 and has now culminated in austerity.

Previously science and policy were considered distinct disciplines set apart by communication gaps and diverging interests. Lately, the importance of scientific knowledge in policy processes is virtually undisputed. This has come in the wake of science underpinning climate policy, wherein the consensus is that the nexus between science and policy is more complex than previously recognised.

Protesters in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia on a march, call for action on climate change. Photo by Eteobong Ita.
Protesters in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia on a march, call for action on climate change. Photo by Eteobong Ita.

In Nigeria, a significant portion of the population and economy are linked to climate-sensitive activities such as rain-fed agriculture, fisheries, livestock rearing, and forest products extraction. Whilst effective communication at the science-policy interface could help to raise greater awareness over how to integrate climate change adaptation and mitigation into national planning, advances in interdisciplinary research in areas such as biodiversity, environmental pollution, and waste management, renewable and non-renewable natural resources. Sustainability and the interactions between these aspects would augment the science-policy nexus.

Lack of quality long-term data across much of Africa is hindering climate change analysis. Hence the inability to link human development with climate change response efforts through adaptation remains a challenge and recurring issue. Moreover, hitherto policy development approaches reflected a top-down approach with grey areas over how strategies address the role of communities in planning processes. Planning should be inclusive and convey a sense of ownership. Often intervention programmes fail to draw down the much-needed resources. In some instances, this failure could be linked to power imbalances, which ultimately gives rise to exclusion from benefit sharing. Subsequently, a framework wherein all stakeholders can work in a coordinated manner to achieve meaningful results is needed. This would in the short and long-term motivate collective action and knowledge integration.

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