Global warming isn't just a matter of melting icebergs and polar bears chasing after them. It's also Lake Chad drying up, the glaciers of Mt Kilimanjaro disappearing, increasing extreme weather, conflict, and hungry people throughout Africa.
According to a landmark effort to assess the risks of global warming, Africa, by far the lowest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, is projected to be among the regions hardest hit by environmental change.
By reviewing four years of research on projected climate change in Africa, scientists with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change got a nuanced view of possible scenarios and assessed how these scenarios could play themselves out in a continent already stressed by water and food insecurity, infectious diseases, conflict, poverty.
"There's a whole suite of indicators which with climate change would undoubtedly make Africa one of the most stressed regions," said Coleen Vogel, an environmental expert at South Africa's University of Witwatersrand and lead author of a chapter on Africa being released this month by the Intergovernmental Panel.
An orbiting satellite over Africa in 2050 might see, according to the scientists' models, a drier north-northwest and south-southwest and wetter eastern and central regions.
"You have to temper these statements with a lot of caution," Vogel said. "But in general, those would be the patches that stand out."
If that satellite were to zoom in, the picture would be much more complex, influenced by a number of effects. The scientists speak of possibilities, not certainties.
The greatest possible risks of climate change in Africa include rising sea-levels, droughts, famine, floods, the spread of diseases, loss of species, increased conflict, and more extreme weather.
"Temperature increases (of up to 6 C) will lead to massive ecological disruption, vast changes in water availability and probably devastating effects on agriculture," said Peter Glieck, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, who reviewed the report's water section.
Many plant species could die. Others will migrate, but can only go so far either up a mountain or into the ocean toward the cooler, but still warming, higher latitudes in both northern and southern Africa. Animals will likely follow that path.
"Basically, they're trying to track their optimum climate," said Guy Midgely from the South African National Biodiversity Institute and a coordinating lead author for a chapter on ecosystems in the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel report. "It's what we call the finger print of climate change."
Globally, sea levels are projected to possibly rise one meter by the end of the 21st century. Three of the five coastal areas in the world projected to be most at risk of flooding are in Africa.
In addition, as temperatures rise and enlarge already arid regions, resources are likely to decrease and human conflict could increase.
Source: China Daily/agencies