OPINION | Dhesigen Naidoo: Climate change – the human security dimension

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A recent report has indicated that we are on the precipice of a climate change disaster. Dhesigen Naidoo examines just how deep into the crisis are we and whether our systems will hold.

The editors-in-chief of some of the most critical medical and health journals from around the world published a joint editorial in the prestigious Lancet this month, in which they "call for urgent action to keep average global temperature increases below 1.5oC, halt the destruction of nature, and protect health".

This is one of the many reactions to the 2021 IPCC report titled "Climate Change 2021, the physical science basis – a guide for policymakers".

Using the latest scientific evidence, the report tells us that we may be at the precipice of a climate change disaster. This is a point further emphasised by UN Secretary-General Guterres when he referred to the report as 'Code Red for Humanity'. He went on to add that "the alarm bells are deafening and the evidence irrefutable".

How deep into the climate crisis are we?

The IPCC report spells this out dramatically. It begins by stating one positive – that we no longer have significant discord – the global science community is now completely aligned that global warming is real, and anthropogenic GHG emissions, in particular carbon dioxide, remain the principal contributor. It then takes us away from the reverie that we still have time on our hands.

A sober report 

While we engage in the theoretical debates of a 1.5oC or 2oC by 2100, the report soberly reminds us that we are already at 1.2oC above pre-industrial levels. Further, at the current rate of emissions increases, we will, in all likelihood, be at the magic 1.5oC mark before 2040. 

Very important trend statistics back up the public health warnings.

In the past twenty years, heat-related mortality in the over 60 year age group has increased by 50%. Higher average temperatures mean an increased dehydration risk which stresses the renal system – fatally for the most vulnerable. There is an increase in dermatological malignancies and other skin conditions. The editors-in-chief remind us that higher temperatures also increase pregnancy complications, higher allergies, and increased cardiovascular and pulmonary disease risk.

Tropical infections like malaria and dengue have much higher prevalence rates as increasingly more parts of the world become better habitats for the vectors that carry them like mosquitoes in higher temperature conditions. We know this intimately as the boundaries of the Malaria risk areas move further South into our country each year.

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If this trend continues, will our health systems hold? The picture that emerged when we were stress-tested by the Covid-19 Pandemic provides an unfortunately definitive answer – globally and locally, health systems capacity is generally in dire straits with very few exceptions. 

The weather changes do not happen in blocks but incrementally.

Every 0.1oC clearly makes a difference as we see, with alarming regularity, the very negative impacts of marginal temperature increases. Almost no region of the world is unaffected by either heatwaves or droughts or floods or wildfires. This has precipitated the loss of life, damage to property and further destruction of the environment. As an example, when tropical cyclone Idai hit Mozambique in 2019, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that 1.85 million people were affected and 146 000 people displaced.

ISS Africa reports that in that year, Africa recorded 89 natural disasters. This included 11 storm events that affected 45 million people and resulted in 1300 deaths. 

Extension of Day Zero 

An ongoing financial crisis greatly exacerbates the South African picture, high levels of energy insecurity, a weak health care system, food price inflation driven food insecurity and an ongoing water challenge.

Importantly, in a +2oC world, the severe five-year drought that we have recently been through may become the new environmental normal. Day Zero will extend throughout the country as more severely impactful El Nino events increase in frequency. This picture is shared in the Southern African region.

Many neighbouring countries have the potential for more extreme weather events based on their geography. The Eastern coastal states with higher vulnerabilities to cyclones and higher energy storm systems. Countries to the north of us have more severe drought vulnerabilities. Then there is the question of low levels of infrastructure, inadequate early warning systems, and generally the lack of capacity and resources to manage climate change-induced hardship.

READ | Opinion: Beyond austerity: Water as part of an economic and jobs recovery in the Covid-19 era

This is one of the most pressing human security issues in Africa.

Extreme weather events, in particular droughts and floods, have created climate change refugees as farmers literally seek greener pastures, but with many abandoning the agricultural enterprise to seek livelihoods in the already crowded, poorly serviced peri-urban fringe of Africa cities. This climate changed induced migration has produced a new class of African refugees. Biodiversity loss has further exacerbated this challenge as the options for food security and options to stave off hunger becomes more limited.

Low levels of storage and limited infrastructure means water vulnerability increases exponentially. Water availability for basic needs and as an essential building block for any economy becomes more scarce both in terms of quantity and quality. These challenges lay fertile ground for potential conflict and insecurity.

In 2018 the world back estimated that in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, there would be 146 million climate migrants by 2050, the lion's share being intra-Africa migration at 89 million. 

The risk has another opposing dimension associated with the much-needed decarbonisation. The fossil fuel-based economic model has failed to deal with poverty, unemployment and inequality. Some argue that this model, steeped in a colonial hangover capitalist ideology, has been responsible for Africa's slow development momentum. But we also recognise that many African economies depend significantly on the fossil fuel value chain for their economic survival. Some only at the level of extraction and export, but others at the value-added levels of refinery and beneficiation. Like South Africa.

Deep examination needed 

This risk is fundamentally economic as the global demand for fossil fuels is set to diminish rapidly, if the current climate change response plans are implemented. Some models predict a short term continued increased fossil fuel use, but there is a growing aspiration that the road to 2100 will be beyond coal, oil and gas. Further, we expect a concomitant increase in new trade conditions associated with the carbon footprint of produce and other goods.

African exporters have already had the experience of the challenges of Phytosanitary barriers, which pale in comparison to the potential new 'green barriers". A further economic challenge on the back of a global decarbonisation will seriously affect the continent's political stability and social cohesion, raising such threats as a growing demographic burden.

Fortunately, the risk coin also has an opportunity side. It is entirely possible for Africa to have a massive development boost and become the global icon for a Low Carbon Economic trajectory.

A deep examination of human security threats and opportunities is vital. If the upcoming UNFCCC COP 26 in Glasgow pledges on the appropriate support measures, we can work with its partners to make this a reality – for Africa and the world. 

- Dhesigen Naidoo is a member of the Presidential Climate Commission and Research Associate at ISS Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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