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Last Updated: 08/25/2003Climate and ecocide
Climate change has been topping the headlines throughout Europe and the US this summer as northern hemisphere temperatures have reached unprecedented seasonal highs and lows. Nicholas Reader, in our guest ediorial, finds that the brouhaha has hidden some important truths about global warming. Africa and tropical and sub-tropical regions have been hit far worse.
Believe what you read and the problems associated with climate change are limited strictly to Europe and North America. 3000 pensioners reportedly succumbed to the heat in Paris this summer. Hurricanes and floods in the US and rampant forest fires in Canada.
Scratch the surface however and hard data shows Africa is being affected the most by climate change, a long-standing suspicion confirmed on 4 August by the release of a British Meteorological Office Hadley Research Centre report (www.met-office.gov.uk/research/hadleycentre).
According to researchers the excess of carbon monoxide produced in post-industrial countries is effectively acting as a shield, providing localized protection from global warming. In Africa and other pre- and semi-industrial regions in the tropical and sub-tropical zones this layer does not exist. The effects are devastating and unlike much of the scientific uncertainty surrounding environmental matters, all too palpable.
Over the last decade patterns of rainfall have consistently shown themselves to be shifting away from land over oceans. The resultant droughts and floods have multifaceted environmental consequences. Increased pressure on already fragile land, leading to the displacement of people and wildlife, increased soil erosion and the silting up of rivers, dams and coastal waters.
Physical changes in Africa thus far include the rapid melting of the Ruwenzori glacial mountain range (between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo). Scientists at Bristol University (UK) and University of Innsbruck (Austria) estimate the entire glacial range could disappear by 2025. Likewise Mount Kilimanjaro’s glacier has eroded 82% since it was first mapped in 1912. According to Ohio State University geological scientists that too will have completely disappeared by 2020. Lake Tanganyika in Central Africa, the second largest and second most biologically diverse in the world, has warmed over the last 30 years. Its fish stocks have declined by 30-50% since 1980.
In human terms the effects have included drought and massive famine in Southern Africa and the signs of onsetting drought in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. One million people in Eritrea and three million in Sudan are in the same position after rains failed there too. There are also food shortages in Kenya and Somalia. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates up to 14m people face famine, on top of the 14m already experiencing famine in Africa. A spokesman has said the two famines are “essentially the result of shifting weather patterns that in recent years have been wreaking havoc on a global scale”.
Although the symptoms of climate change are most pronounced in Africa they are far from confined to that continent. According to the World Disasters Report published annually by the Red Cross 2000 natural disasters are increasing in number and intensity. More than 360 natural disasters occurred in 2002.
Notably China has experienced heavy flooding affecting more than 100m people, partially as a result of excessive snow melt on the Tibetan Plateau caused by rising temperatures. Excessive rainfall has caused flooding throughout Central Europe and India. Droughts have been recorded in Mongolia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
The greatest paradox is that the countries most affected by climate change are least able to meaningfully respond. Climate change in Europe heralded little but discomfort. The only commodity in short supply was beer in the notoriously thirsty UK. In the developing world natural disaster spells serious upheaval.
Take for example the effects of hurricane damage in the Americas. When Hurricane Andrew hit parts of the United States in 1992 it killed 52 people and caused damage estimated at US$22bn. Over 70% of the losses were covered by insurance. Six years later, Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras and Nicaragua. The death toll was 11,000 and less than 3% of the US$7bn of damage was insured (www.newinternationalist.org, December 1999).
In the developing world changing patterns of consumption and subsistence in the face of increasingly adverse climatic conditions is almost impossible. So long as Africa and the developing world remains pre- or semi-industrial and overly dependent on subsistence agriculture human suffering and insecurity can only rise.
For most of the world’s population living in natural river deltas (prone to flooding) including the Nile, Indus, Ganges, Mekong and Yangtze, and areas of currently high natural rainfall (prone to drought) across Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia the future is bleak, and getting bleaker.
Nicholas Reader is a freelance journalist. He can be contacted by email directlyat email@example.com or via the Peace and Conflict Monitor.