Protesters at the 2005 National Climate Change Conference at Gallagher Estate in Midrand make the point that is still at the heart of international climate change negotiations: poor people, in particular poor Africans, will bear the brunt of the impacts of global warming.

IN HIS inimitable way, American comedian Groucho Marx posed the rhetorical question that exposes the inherent selfishness of so many humans: “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”

Fortunately, there are also many people who do care deeply about the planet in general and about the generations that will follow them in particular.

At the most basic level, such concern manifests itself in their moral and ethical decisions to try and leave Earth in at least as good a shape as it was in during their own lifetimes, thus ensuring the ability of these future generations also to meet their needs. This is the basis of the notion of sustainability that, in theory at least, now underpins most of the world’s socio-economic frameworks.

Clearly, bequeathing a world ravaged by the impacts of unchecked human-induced climate change – likely to include huge areas unfit for human habitation because of factors such as vastly increased flooding, more severe droughts, significantly increased temperatures and the spread of disease-bearing species – does not in any way support or enhance sustainability.

But even if the lot of future human generations and of the millions of other plant and animal species with which we share the Blue Planet is of no individual moral and ethical interest or concern, there are very good reasons for everyone to respond now to the threat of climate change, and hence to be concerned about what global mitigation and adaptation measures our political leaders manage to negotiate at the COP17 climate change summit in Durban between November 28 and December 9.

Increasingly, climate change impacts are being experienced much closer to home. International development organisation Oxfam stated this in blunt metaphoric terms during its recent presentation to Parliament’s water and environmental portfolio committee’s climate change hearings: “In the world we live in, the big bad wolf of climate change has already ransacked the straw house and the house made of sticks, and the inhabitants of both are now knocking on the door of the brick house where the people of the developed world live.”

It was actually part of a quote by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu in the foreword to a book published last year, Education and Climate Change: Living and Learning in Interesting Times: “Our friends there should think about this the next time they reach for the thermostat. They should realise that the problem of the Mozambican farmer might seem far away, it may not be long before their troubles wash up on our shores.”

Those troubles are, in fact, lapping at our collective feet.

South Africa’s recently published White Paper policy states that climate change is already a measurable reality, and that although Africa is least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming, this continent will be most deeply affected. South Africa itself is “extremely vulnerable and exposed”, and climate variability that includes an increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, will disproportionately affect the poor – like rural farmers – mainly because they have the fewest resources to adapt.

Of course, there have always been, and will continue to be, vagaries and variations in weather and climate. But there is already plenty of statistically significant evidence of climate change around the world – from melting glaciers and rising sea levels to more frequent extreme weather events that include prolonged heatwaves, severe droughts and floods, less snow to the north and increased drought to the south.

Such changes are accompanied by a number of economic, humanitarian and ecological challenges related to food security in particular, the international Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change reported last week. It said the current drought in the Horn of Africa had contributed significantly to one of Africa’s worst food-related humanitarian disasters, and elsewhere in the world there had been a sharp rise in food prices during the last year, attributable partly to extreme weather conditions in the major bread-baskets of Russia, Australia and China. After a rigorous 11-month process, the commission warned that changes had pushed millions of people into extreme poverty and contributed to political instability around the world.

Climate change is now being experienced at a regional level with direct impacts on individuals. In the Western Cape, for example, 12 “significant” disaster events between March 2003 and November 2008 cost the province more than R2.6 billion in damage and affected tens of thousands of people – directly in line with the prediction of climate change models.

The local deciduous fruit industry has already been impacted by the drop in the required number of chill hours (cold temperatures) trees need to set fruit,

affecting jobs, export earnings and the price of fruit.

While individual events cannot always be directly linked to climate change with certainty and while some impacts have not yet fully manifested themselves, current research is picking up very worrying signs and trends.

In southern Africa, for example, there is real concern that shifting rainfall patterns and temperature fluctuations might see increases in the number of life-threatening malaria cases. Biologists at Stellenbosch University’s DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology are conducting the Hope research project aimed at understanding how climate change influences the spread of insects that carry human and animal diseases, or that are used as biological control agents against invasive species. They include two mosquito species, Anopheles arabiensis and Anopheles funestus, the Argentine ant, the tsetse fly that causes sleeping sickness and nagana, and the Salvinia weevil, a significant biological control agent of Kariba weed, a major ecological problem.

The rich developed nations are not exempt from climate change effects. For example, the US has this year experienced 14 disasters each causing damage estimated at more than $1bn – more in a single year than since comprehensive record-taking started in 1980.

“This is a global problem and no country will be ‘safe’ from climate change,” says Tasneem Essop, WWF’s international climate policy advocate.

Coastal towns and cities are at real risk from rising sea levels, and individuals will be affected directly through property prices and – particularly – insurance costs. Even seemingly small rises in sea level translate into major damage during storm surges, for example.

Polar scientist Dr Emily Shuckburgh of the British Antarctic Survey

said sea ice in the Arctic region had been declining dramatically faster than anyone had predicted, and there had been observations of ice shelf collapse.

“We are particularly worried about the Greenland ice sheet because we believe that it will melt even if the temperature stays at a 2°C increase. This would ultimately give rise to a 5m sea level rise, and once it’s started to go it might be impossible to stop it,” Shuckburgh said.

“My research indicates that sea levels will increase by 10cm to 60cm in the absence of ice sheet collapse, although the exact projections are very uncertain. In Asia, about 150 million people will be exposed to coastal flooding; which could more than double with a 30cm rise. Tokyo, Shanghai, Rotterdam and London will all be at risk of flooding.”

The consequences and threat of climate change were exacerbated by the global population heading to nine billion by the year 2050, by water use growing at twice the rate of population, and by the increasing energy demand, especially in India and China, she added.

l John Yeld is the Cape Argus’ environment and science writer ([email protected])