The climate change topic, is a well-known conversation-killer. Most people just don’t want to think about it, either because it seems irrelevant or because it is a frightening concept. Some are in denial; others are sceptical that it is a real phenomenon or actually caused by human activities. Like it or not, it is something which we are going to have to talk more and more about and talking has got to lead on to urgent action.
So what do Zimbabweans think about climate change? Last year Research and Advocacy Group (RAU) conducted a rapid study to try to find out. The results showed that while many have heard of climate change few understand exactly what it means or what causes it. Even less could say how climate change was going to affect Zimbabwe in the future or what they could do about it.
RAU consulted the experts and developed a book to give Zimbabweans some information to help them plan for the future. This book will be distributed to planners and decision-makers in government and civic society and is available online. RAU hopes that the book will be taken by others, translated, summarised and made useful for people at many different levels of society. The following is adapted from the book.
What is climate change?
Climate change is caused by the exaggeration of a natural process termed the greenhouse effect. A greenhouse is a building which keeps plants warm in cold countries so that they can keep growing in winter. The gases in the Earth’s atmosphere act like a greenhouse, forming a layer to keep the planet warm. Without the natural greenhouse effect, the Earth would be too cold for life. However, human activities have caused excessive greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) to build up in the atmosphere, causing the planet to heat up too much, an effect known as global warming.
The heating of the atmosphere leads to many other changes, including the melting of ice and snow on mountains and at the north and south poles. As the ice melts, the extra water causes sea levels to rise. Global warming also affects ocean and wind currents, leading to changes in seasons and weather patterns and increases in storms, floods, fires and droughts.
What causes it?
Human activities, particularly energy production, industry, transport, largescale commercial agriculture and forest clearing cause the release of excess greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As countries have developed and economies and populations have expanded, more and more greenhouse gases have been released into the atmosphere.
The famous graph below explains how CO2 (in red) has risen as global average temperatures (in orange) have increased. The graph does not prove that greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change, but there is a very strong correlation between the two sets of data. Most scientists use this as a foundation for their evidence that climate change is caused by human activities.
It is a cruel irony that the poorest developing countries in the tropics and sub tropics, which have contributed least to greenhouse gas emissions and have least financial capacity to adapt, will bear the brunt of the effects of climate change.
How will it affect us?
Across the Earth atmospheric and ocean, temperatures are already rising due to climate change. This is causing widespread melting of snow and ice; rising sea levels and changed weather patterns across the planet. Extreme events including storms, droughts and floods are more frequent, intense and numerous and will become increasingly so. Last year was the hottest year on record and it already seems likely that this year will overtake it.
By the middle of this century, everyone on the planet will be affected but people in developing countries will be hardest-hit.
Effects on Zimbabwe
Climate change has already caused temperatures to rise, rainfall to decrease and the occurrence of storms, droughts and floods to increase across Zimbabwe. Scientists believe that average temperatures in Zimbabwe will rise by about 3°C before the end of this century. This is higher than the global average.
Annual rainfall could decline by between 5_18% especially in the south of the country. Rainfall will become more variable and the amount of water available in rivers, dams and underground will decline. There will be an increase in droughts, floods and storms.
These changes are likely to lead to
• Reduced water supply for domestic, agriculture and industry
• The expansion of Natural Region V and the shrinking of Natural Region I and shifts in the areas covered by natural regions III and IV
• Degradation of natural resources, especially soil, water, natural vegetation, crop, livestock and wildlife species
• Reduced food security and possibly increased under-nutrition in children
• Increased incidence of diseases such as diarrhoea, malaria and cholera due to reduced water quality, increased temperatures and flooding.
What can we do about it?
Every nation on earth (whether developing or developed) must work together to decrease the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This should prevent the most devastating impacts of future climate change and will help us to repair some of the damage which has already been done. However even if greenhouse gas emissions are stopped or reduced, many of the impacts of climate change will still affect us for decades. We must therefore develop strategies now to adapt to climate change.
Our best defence against climate change impacts is to protect our natural resources (especially soils, wetlands, underground water resources, rivers and forests) by introducing better land management practices, energy sources and increasing biodiversity. This will not only help us to survive the worst effects of climate change it will also reduce future impacts.
Is climate change a threat or an opportunity?
There is no doubt that climate change will impact on the lives of every person on this planet no matter who they are or where they live. It will reshape societies and will change the natural world as we know it. By degrading and depleting the very resources on which life depends, climate change could reverse many of the development gains made by African countries during recent decades and could hamper future development efforts.
However, many citizens, activists, scientists and policy makers believe that if we rise to the challenge of climate change it could become our best chance to make the world a better place. The world is already suffering from many problems including environmental degradation, water shortages, poverty, hunger and massive inequality. The threat of climate change could be what humanity needs to bring us together and tackle the problems of today in order to protect us from a very precarious future.