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The future that climate change will bring- Africa- South Africa

Over the past 100 years the global temperature has increased by about 1 °C on average globally. Since 2014 record increases in average temperatures have been reached, supporting the idea that climate change is very real and it is happening to the world right now. But climate change does not just affect the global climate - it affects everything about human society and civilisation as we know it. According to King, we are now entering a new geological era, with a climate we have never experienced before as an organised global society, and new experiences can be expected.

'Many of the impacts of climate change, such as species extinctions, will be irreversible. These changes will be permanent and we will not be able to 'fix' them, nor return the climate to more desirable levels,' King said. At the current rate at which the climate is changing through emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, we are heading towards an increase of between 4 and 6 °C on average for the globe in less than 100 years. Ideally we need to stay below a maximum 2 °C rise, but this can only be done by decreasing the human impact on the environment, by changing our global energy sources from fossil fuels to renewables. This aspirational 2 °C limit, however, is still 'too high to be safe, and too low to be achievable'.

Geological time scale changes
According to King, with climate change we are seeing 'geological time scale changes within a single human generational time'.

Between 1979 and 2012 the artic sea ice decreased by almost half, and everywhere with record high temperatures we are globally experiencing the worst fires in some 10 000 years. Not only has the size and intensity of fires increased, but also the frequency thereof and the fire season is extending.

So-called 'droughts', periods of below average rainfall, are being experienced more frequently and severely. While South Africa is experiencing its worst drought in 30 years, the state of California in the US is experiencing the worst drought in 1 200 years. 'These 'droughts' that we are experiencing are not the cyclical droughts that we are used to where we experience dry years that are followed by wet years. As everywhere gets hotter with global warming, the 'droughts' we are experiencing now, are the new normal,' King said.

The agricultural sector depends on workers and farmers working outside in the fields, but due to the increase in temperature that can lead to heat stress, this is becoming more difficult. It is becoming too hot to work outside and deaths due to heat stress are increasing globally.

From an evolutionary perspective, it has been estimated that it takes species around one million years to adapt to an increase of 1 °C, but this is the temperature increase we have already experienced over the past 100 years or so, and the projected temperature increase is more than 4 °C in the next century. Climate change is thus affecting natural ecosystems, as the changes are happening too quickly for species to adapt. According to King this could lead to almost half of all known species dying out by the end of this century.

Climate projections for South Africa
It is getting hotter all over the globe, and southern Africa has already experienced an average increase of 1 °C in the 20th century. Even without taking global warming into account, South Africa already only receives about half of the global annual average rainfall, which is very unevenly distributed across the country, and the country also experiences higher than average temperatures. These higher temperatures mean that South Africa experiences more evaporation of soil moisture, reducing its availability to plants.

According to King the eastern parts of South Africa, which is a wet region, will get wetter, while the western part, which is already hot and dry, will get hotter and dryer. As this happens, the rain-fed agriculture in this region will suffer, and water for irrigation will also be more difficult to come by. With less water available for irrigation, the remaining accessible water will need to be used much more efficiently and King believes that 'spray irrigation will be a thing of the past'.

The far west and north-west parts are already the hottest and most arid regions in the country, and with the increasing temperatures these parts will become even more desert-like.

But all is not lost
'To counter the effects of climate change we need to embrace change, become active and abandon stasis. We cannot continue as we did in the past,' said King. 'The end of the fossil fuel era has arrived and we must turn to other sources for energy. The good news is that we already have all the knowledge that we need to combat climate change. All we need is the right policies to incentivise investment in the needed changes. Renewable energy is a technology, and not a fuel, which becomes cheaper over time and rapidly increases in capacity and efficiency, just like for example cell-phones. We do not need to prospect for, mine and burn fossil fuels any longer. Our ability to provide cost effective and clean energy is growing rapidly.'

'The world is getting hotter, and we are seeing the geological time scale change before our eyes. Within the next hundred years the climate in South Africa will be changed, and we will need to get used to these new conditions. We need to embrace the change and make the necessary changes to deal with this dilemma and a solution that we already have knowledge about is clean energy,' King concluded.


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