South Africa

OUR BURNING PLANET: Interview: South Africa, climate change ‘hot spot’

In a world that’s warmed 1°C against pre-industrial levels, bringing wildfires, droughts and heatwaves to vast regions of the planet, South Africa has warmed at twice the global average. What’s the science behind this? What are the implications for our farmlands and cities? Most important, will our country survive if trends remain where they are? Professor Francois Engelbrecht, among the world’s leading specialists on African climate change, takes the largest questions facing humanity to where we rarely see them — back home.

I. Hot

The question for Professor Francois Engelbrecht, during the lunchtime rush in the most popular canteen at Pretoria’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, was about the one thing that climate scientists are supposed to avoid — emotion.

For the past 45 minutes, Engelbrecht had been charting a course through the safe terrain of his own data. As one of the lead authors on the world-shaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, endorsed by 195 countries and released in South Korea in early October, he knew better than most that the only effective weapons against climate denialists were the facts. How, then, did he reconcile the fact that human beings have at best a dozen years to shift the planet’s political and economic trajectory (or face an apocalypse of heat, thirst, famine, floods and runaway ecological collapse) with the fact that he, too, is a human being?

In other words, did Professor Engelbrecht ever succumb to anomie and despair?

I can tell you that the official message the IPCC tried to convey was one of hope,” he told Daily Maverick, “they really tried not to come in with a negative message. They said, the science tells us that with political will it’s still possibleto avoid global warming exceeding 1.5°C. Somewhere between 1.5°C and 2°C, the report says, we have a high likelihood of initiating an irreversible melt of the Greenland icecap and triggering the instability of the Antarctic ice-shelf.

So we can still avoid all of this if we mitigate now. Again, the IPCC was trying to frame the message as one of hope. But of course, you know, most media houses and the public weren’t fooled by that positive take on the report.”

Which, aside from being an understandable evasion of the personal aspects of the question, was also a tacit admission that there may be very little reason for hope. Here was a top-tier climate scientist, a man who at the age of 42 had published 40 papers in the world’s most esteemed peer-reviewed journals, talking about how people could no longer be “fooled” into believing that it was all going to be okay.

It was unclear whether Engelbrecht had read William T. Vollmann’s two-volume opus Carbon Ideologies, and it didn’t seem like the time to ask, but the analogy seemed apt. A compendium of our current global energy use back-dropped against natural landscapes ravaged by the extraction of oil, gas and coal, the text is addressed to a future reader whose world is defined by boiling oceans, methane fireballs and radioactive soil. Vollmann, according to almost all of his reviewers, had written the most honest and unflinching book yet on the largest question facing humanity—not because he had offered a path to hope, but because, in an effort to explain to our descendants how we never really stood a chance, he had outlined the problem in its hopeless complexity. And yet Engelbrecht, at his own insistence and per the entries in his impressive CV—with a PhD in meteorology, has led the development of the first African-based Earth system modelmade no claim to philosophy or social commentary. It would therefore be unfair, not to mention unethical, to misrepresent the tenor of his work. The IPCC doesn’t say things that are not defensible,” he informedDaily Maverick, “it has been criticised over the years for being too conservative.” (He must have had in mind, among other items, a 2012 article in Scientific American that showed how the IPCC had consistently underestimated the pace and impacts of global warming.) But I think rather that than be alarmist. As you know, thereare always denialists looking for weak points in the reports. So we just don’t say things for which there is no evidence.”

Counterintuitively, among the things for which there is not yet hard evidence, according to Engelbrecht, is a rise in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones. There isdata to support the hypothesis, he noted, but the “statistical rigour” is still lacking. What did he mean by statistical rigour?

In this science,” he explained, “you must always be very, very careful to distinguish between what we call natural variability on the one hand and anthropogenic-induced change on the other.”

Implying that, in tropical cyclone occurrences across the globe, where there is a natural “multi-decadal variability,” one swallow doesn’t a summer make.

And neither do we get there with 20 summers, which is the time—give or take a few years—that science has been gathering reliable data on the phenomenon.

We must decide whether what we are seeing right now is a systemic increase in the frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones or whether it is just the upward curve in a cycle.”

II. Hotter

So here are a few of the things that the IPCC special report doeshave hard evidence for: the earth is on average between 0.75°C and 0.99°C warmer than it was during pre-industrial times; estimated anthropogenic global warming is currently increasing at 0.2°C per decade “due to past and ongoing emissions”; “warming greater than the global annual average is being experienced in many land regions and seasons, including two to three times higher in the Arctic”.

From the local perspective, then, once we get past the unfortunate diversions of our own ersatz science kaffeeklatsch, lies the following (somewhat urgent) question: where does South Africa stand on this last point?

Professor Engelbrecht, whose speciality is African climate change, is one of the few scientists on the planet with an answer endorsed by the majority of his PHD’d peers.

According to him — and according therefore to the IPCC special report itself, which assessed and collated the data from 6,000 peer-reviewed papers — temperatures in the interior of our country are increasing attwice the global average. A 1.5°C rise in mean global temperatures by 2030, which is the ceiling that the IPCC suggests humanity aims for in order to avert global catastrophe, is thus a 3°C rise for most of us.

To help that sink in, consider the impact of the fires that have raged across the statistically cooler southern Cape coast over the last few weeks, destroying 16,000ha of vegetation and 2,500 informal houses in the George area alone. Is it true, as some contest, that South Africa’s recent spate of wildfires have nothing to do with climate change?

What I can tell you for a fact,” said Engelbrecht, “is that the number of days with a high fire danger — so the number of days that are associated with high temperature, low humidity and high wind speeds — those days have clearly increased, specifically over the last 50 years. And it’s particularly over the last 50 years that we see the accelerated effects of global warming.”

According to the professor, the increase in these high fire danger days against the first half of the last century amounts to “almost a doubling”. Where there were once 15 to 20 such days a year in South Africa, now there are 30 to 40. But again holding fast to the scientific method, Engelbrecht was at pains to point out that not all of these days would result in a wildfire outbreak — he was talking, he stressed, about the potential.

That said, given that the 1°C rise in average global temperatures has already translated into a 2°C rise for the South African interior, it’s not just in the category of wildfires that this potential has now become a devastatingly apparent reality. The IPCC special report, as Engelbrecht reminded Daily Maverick, predicts with high confidence that even under1.5°C of global warming we will continue to witness an increase in heatwave events and droughts in our own corner of the world.

This of course is not a comforting message at all,” he said, “because the thing about southern Africa is that we are already a region that is climatologically very hot and dry. And now we’ve become hotter and drier. That leaves very little room for adaptation. Let’s say you are a wet region that becomes hotter and drier, you can still cope. If you’re a cool region that becomes wetter and hotter, you can still do something. But if you are dry and hot and you just get drier and hotter, your options are very limited. For this reason, southern Africa was formally recognised as a climate change hot spot within the IPCC special report.”

It bears repeating: climate change hot spot. A unique status that won us a unique set of mentions in the report, particularly in section B5, which looked at climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth.

This report makes a very, very important statement,” explained Engelbrecht.

It says that at 3°C of global warming, there is the potential for the total collapse of the maize crop in southern Africa. Remember, 3°C of global warming is 6°C regionally. At that number, there will also be a total collapse of the livestock industry.”

III. Hottest

Now for some truly sobering news: most climate models show that at current rates we will hit 3°C by 2070. We learned in late October that Mpumalanga has the highest levels of air pollution in the world, a fact attributed by Greenpeace to the province’s coal mines, coal transport networks and coal-fired power stations. Meanwhile, the oil and gas exploration that’s happening off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, aside from provoking the ire of local communities, has been cited as a probable cause for the decimation of marine life, including whales and dolphins.

And so, when it comes to the most important issue facing life on earth at the moment, the South African government is running blindfolded and at speed in the wrong direction.

There is, however, a way through. What we’ve always had in this country is an appetite for protest. On the back of the IPCC special report, the Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre and the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign sent an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, demanding an emergency sitting of Parliament to debate the findings. As yet, there has been no response to the demand — what’s more, the letter was inexplicably ignored by the vast majority of local media outlets — but it’s a start.

Time, of course, is not on our side.

The frontal systems have already been displaced pole-ward,” said the professor, “and as a consequence of that, the potential for drought over the Cape Town region has already increased. In Gauteng, we already have statistical evidence of an increase in intense thunderstorms.”

Our farmlands, our coasts, our major cities — barring an act of collective will comparable in scope and power to the fight against apartheid, none will be spared. DM