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Like many young climate scientists around the world, WWF intern Nokwethaba Makhanya has been weighing up the implications of the latest ‘Code red for humanity’ report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which was released on 9 August 2021.
My nature beginnings
Growing up in the bushy Newlands West neighbourhood of Durban, I was constantly surrounded by nature. My childhood home was near a riverbank, so we had it all: snakes, monkeys, moles, grasshoppers, fireflies, butterflies, frogs, a variety of trees to climb or snack on (mango, paw-paw, and banana), and a warm humid subtropical climate with thunderstorms
So, I chose geography as a subject in high school because I was interested in the ecosystem I was a part of, and I wanted to understand thunderstorms so I wouldn't be afraid of them.
I could already see worrying changes to the environment during my time in high school. As the weather got hotter, grasshoppers, fireflies, and butterflies vanished, to be replaced by moths and bugs. The thunderstorms became more intense, and I was still terrified of them.
I needed to find out why the climate was changing and what else was going to vanish. I enrolled at the University of Cape Town for my undergraduate studies to pursue a degree in Environmental and Geographical Science.
In my second year, I took a course called "The Physical Environment," which included a section on "The Climate System," and it hit me like a ton of bricks: this was what I wanted to do with my life. I then switched all my social geography courses to physical and atmospheric science – the best decision I've ever made! I went on to earn an Honours degree in Atmospheric Sciences and am currently working on my Master's.
The latest IPCC 2021 report deals with the most recent physical understanding of climate change. It brings together the most recent advances in climate science and combines multiple lines of evidence from paleoclimate, observations, process understanding, and global and regional climate. Its publication comes less than three months before the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference (COP26).
And here is the verdict: For first-degree climate crimes, the IPCC finds humanity guilty.
It’s late – but not too late
Despite warning signs and scientific evidence, humanity has continually ignored (or chosen to deny) the planet's undeniable overheating. There is no escaping the rising temperatures and sea levels.
Furthermore, the global water cycle is intensifying, with heavy rains becoming more intense and severe droughts having a greater impact on parched landscapes. Carbon sinks and biodiversity are also dwindling.
The future appears bleak; a warmer climate is expected to exacerbate extreme hot and cold weather unprecedented in human history. Wildfires, heat waves, tropical cyclones, drought, and flooding are all expected to worsen, resulting in a kind of hell on Earth.
This is the sentence humanity faces for these climate crimes, but it has yet to be imposed. It is not too late for us to try to reduce this sentence through rapid, sustained, and large-scale reductions of carbon emissions to achieve the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels.
We are already impacted
The call to limit global warming to 1.5°C is more urgent for the African continent as it is disproportionately affected by climate change. High climate variability, high dependence on rain-fed agriculture, and poverty make us here in southern Africa particularly vulnerable to climate change.
The warning signs were there 30 years ago. The 1992/1993 drought had damaging effects on all four riparian countries of the Limpopo River Basin (LRB). Drought ravaged vast areas of cropland, resulting in massive agricultural and economic losses.
In South Africa, nearly 70 000 people lost their jobs and the national GDP fell by 1.8%. In Zimbabwe, the agricultural production fell by 45%, manufacturing output fell by 9.3% and the national GDP fell by 11%. In Mozambique, more than 1,3 million people faced starvation and about US$200 million was spent on food aid (Davis and Vincent, 2017).
More recently (2015–2017), the below-normal rainfall over the Western Cape (South Africa) induced a severe drought that reduced the dam levels to about 20% and stressed the socio-economic activities of about 3.5 million people living in Cape Town (Botai et al., 2017).
In 2008 in the South African provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, a total of 61 700 hectares of plantation forest were burned. Forestry SA estimated the value of standing timber burned to be R1.33 billion (at 2007 prices), with 40% of this being unsalvageable.
Heavy rains in March 2009 caused widespread flooding in Angola and Namibia, affecting 120 000 people. In Angola, nearly 30 000 people were isolated due to washed-away roads and bridges, and displaced families after 4 720 homes were destroyed. 130 000 people in Namibia were in danger. Crops were flooded, and small livestock died. Following the flood, a cholera outbreak infected 143 people, killing seven.
What happens if we fail?
During my studies at the University of Cape Town, I co-authored a research paper that examined how drought would affect major river basins in Southern Africa if global temperatures rose above 1.5°C. What would the landscape look like if the world warmed by 2°C, 2.5°C, or 3°C? For my Master’s research, I ran projections over the Limpopo River Basin (LRB) to see how rising global temperatures affect local hydrology and streamflow.
According to these studies, the subcontinent will have a warmer and drier climate in the future.
Drought intensity and frequency are expected to increase over the LRB under the four global warming levels (GWLs). Drought intensifies and occurs more frequently with each additional 0.5°C increase. We will go from dry to drier, then hellish conditions. And, according to the IPCC, 2021 report, we're on a fast track to hell.
As temperatures rise, we will see increasing water loss from water resources such as rivers, dams, and wetlands. It could also have major consequences for agriculture, industrial water supply, and tourism. The growing and urbanising population places additional strain on already-stressed river basins.
South Africa is in desperate need for all levels of government to educate and raise awareness about the climate crisis in our schools, workplaces and in the media.
It should not just be an issue a select few are privy to, as it affects us all. All levels of government need to formulate practical climate change policy and improve water management. Young people must get more involved in climate initiatives and interventions.
The Climate Ambition to Accountability Project (CAAP) provides an opportunity for youth to participate. CAAP is a concerted effort to mobilise and coordinate climate ambition, action, and accountability.
As young people, we may not be responsible for the mayhem before us, but we are going to be the ones living in it. There is no time to waste. We need to act now before things get too hot to handle.
Learn more about our Climate Ambition to Accountability Project.