Contextualizing Debates within Climate Change Science: Implications for Africa
By Dr Clever Gomba
This article attempts to outline the historical phases in the development of climate change science.
It will systematically outline several key scientists that played seminal roles and discoveries that later shaped climate change science.
Also the paper focuses on the development of the leading sceptics of global warming field, indicating how this small group of scientists have caused doubts and obscurantism about the certainty of global warming.
The paper highlights that the major argument for sceptics is that global warming is not man made though there is growing evidence from climate change scientists to show that climate change is anthropogenic.
In the process the article asserts that sceptics represent the interests of the private sector who are suspicious of any laws and regulations that may interfere with their investments and profits.
Furthermore, the discussion outlines that amidst the raging debates, Africa is at the receiving end due to effects of climate change. The article also explores the effects of climate change in the context of conflict due to environmental change, scarcities.
The conclusion emphasizes the need to strengthen governance, adaptation skills and mitigation to reduce the effects of climate change.
Background to Climate Change science
A plethora of studies from diverse sources indicates a consensus that climate change is a reality and it is due to man’s combustion of fossil fuel and changes in land use.
The first awareness of the possible impact of human activities on the climate dates back to the end of the nineteenth century when the Swedish scientist Svante Arrenhius calculated in 1896 that doubling the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would increase the average temperature on the earth by 5 to 6 degrees Celsius.
Some scholars date the climate change to 1824 when Joseph Fourier’s discovery of “greenhouse effect”, whereby gases in the atmosphere trap heat like the glass in conservatory.
In 1859, an Irish physicist John Tyndall, identified carbon dioxide as one of the main causes of global warming (Oreskes & Conway, 2010).
The greenhouse warming theory found a lone advocate in 1938, an English engineer, Guy Stewart Callendar, tried to revive the old idea.
Callendar’s publications attracted some attention, and climatology textbooks of the 1940s and 1950s routinely included a brief reference to his studies.
His claims rescued the idea of global warming from obscurity and thrust it into the marketplace of scientific ideas. Not everyone dismissed his claims.
Their very uncertainty attracted scientific curiosity. These claims and discoveries led to intense research in the 1950s and 1960s on global warming.
The theoretical physicist Lewis D. Kaplan decided to focus more on extensive numerical computations (Kolbert, 2006).
In 1952, he showed that in the upper atmosphere, adding more carbon dioxide must change the balance of radiation.
In 1938, G.S. Callendar argued that the level of carbon dioxide was climbing and raising global temperature, but most scientists found his arguments implausible.
It was almost by chance that a few researchers in the 1950s discovered that global warming truly was possible.
In the early 1960s, C.D. Keeling measured the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: it was rising fast (Oreskes & Conway, 2010).
This was followed by, the chemist Hans Suess who reported an analysis of wood from trees grown over the past century, finding that the newer the wood, the higher its ratio of plain carbon to carbon-14 in 1955. He had detected an increase of fossil carbon in the atmosphere.
Suess took up the problem in collaboration with Roger Revelle at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.
By 1956, such computations could be carried out thanks to the increasing power of digital computers. The physicist Gilbert N. Plass took up the challenge of calculating the transmission of radiation through the atmosphere (he too did it out of sheer curiosity, as a diversion from his regular work making calculations for weapon engineers) (Oreskes & Conway, 2010: 15-27).
Charles Kneeling spent two years taking measurements in Antarctica and above the Mauna Loa Volcano in Hawaii but reported that even in this short period, Carbon Dioxide level had arisen.
In 1960 he concluded that the oceans were not absorbing greenhouse gases being pumped out by industry. Instead, emissions were driving level of carbon dioxide higher. It was a seminal discovery, for the first time scientists knew that the oceans were not absorbing all this carbon dioxide (Diamond, 2005).
By 1981 a couple of experienced climate scientists reviewed the predictions of the best computer models, and compared them with the natural fluctuations of climate observed in the past.
In the 1970s and 1980s a consensus developed in the scientific community that warming was taking place and that urgent international action was necessary.
Despite the current scientific consensus on the certainty of climate change, there has been a raging debate about the causes, trends and effects of global warming (Kolbert, 2006:34).
This article will attempt to contextualize this debate by outlining the historical developments in this scientific debate and indicate how this has influenced policy positions of countries such as the United States of America on climate change in the context of Kyoto Protocol.
As early as 1964, scientist Gordon MacDonald highlighted weather modifications and warned of inadvertent weather modifications caused by CO2 from burning fossil fuel (Oreskes, 2010).
In a special message to the United States Congress in 1965, Lyndon Johnson said, this generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuel (Oreskes, 2010).
By the 1970s, there was a consensus among scientific experts that given the steady rise of CO2 that Keeling, had demonstrated earlier in the late 1950s, global warming would occur.
Scientists had consensus that global warming was detectable since the 1990s. Climate change scientists regard 1988 as a historic year in the acknowledgement of global warming when Intercontinental Panel on Climate Change was established by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 43/53.
Mounting evidence of climate change continued to be published by reputable think tanks and scientists in the 1990s, with the second report of Intercontinental Panel on Climate Change in 1995 indicating that climate change was detectable. (Kolbert, 2006).
Despite these conclusions by climate change scientists, there have been attacks from climate change deniers on the causes of climate change, although available evidence available suggests a discernable human impact on global climate (IPCC, 2007:2).
Climate Change Scepticism
Though climate change sceptics are in the minority, recent polling shows that they are enjoying some public opinion success (Roy Gordon Research, 2009). Climate change sceptics have emphasized scientific uncertainty (no proof) indicating that there is a ‘big scientific debate’ about climate change, arguing that global warming scientific findings are exaggerated. Climate change sceptics emphasize that, if climate change is happening, it is not anthropogenic (man-made), and controlling greenhouse emissions would lead to loss of jobs and harm economies.
For the past 20 years, the major source of such challenges has been George. C Marshall, a Washington based think tank. It is a politically conservative think tank established in 1984 in Washington DC. It was founded by Robert Jastrow, an Astrophysicist. He recruited two colleagues to join the board of directors, William Nierenberg & Fredrick Seitz.
Their initial task was to defend Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (Star Wars) which had come under attack from scientists. Physicists including Carl Sagan & Hans Bethe had argued publicly against Strategic Defensive Initiative on both scientific and political grounds. By May 1986, 6500 academic scientists had signed a pledge not to take funds from the missile defence research programmes. Marshall Institute would defend Strategic Defence Initiative, by showing that not all physicists were against it (Oreskes & Conway, 2010:19-21).
But by 1989, the cold war ended, Marshal Institute did not disband but turned into global warming. They began to develop position papers, issue reports, just as they did with Strategic Defence Initiative, developed positions contrary to the mainstream scientific views. In 1989, the Marshall Institute released a report arguing that ‘cynical variations in the intensity of the sun would affect any climate change associated with elevated greenhouse gases’.
According to Diamond (2005), by 1990 Marshall Institute’s main activity was attacking climate science.
Marshall Institute has since published numerous reports and articles attacking the Kyoto Protocol and undermining climate science.
The founders of this institute are pioneers in promoting the idea of doubt and scientific uncertainty on global warming
In 1990, Jastrow, Nierenberg & Seitz claimed little or no evidence that warming was occurring or would occur any time soon. They said even if it did, there was no greenhouse ‘problem’ because technology around the world enables adaptation; as long as the government would not interfere with the free market.
In 1992, a significant fraction of scientific community believed warming was beginning to be detectable in climate records.
Marshall Institute again challenged scientific evidence denying that climate records revealed current warming. When it appeared that they would lose the debate they focused on attacking the anthropogenic view of climate change.
They attacked climate change scientists and activists as ‘anti-industry’ and ‘anti-technology’, and refer to Intercontinental Panel of Climate Change as a ‘hot house’ of climate change alarmism building a conspiracy of the century (Kolbert, 2006).
Marshall Institute in every case insisted that science was too uncertain to justify government interference in market place. The major arguments of Marshall Institute were: science is uncertain on global warming and if scientists were uncertain, it was too early for governments ’interference.
Climate Change scientists argue that Marshall Institute represents the interests of the private sector which is heavily against any government laws and regulations on pollution that may interfere with their investments & profits
Initially, they dismissed the idea of climate change but gradually accepted that global warming was a reality but it was not linked to any human activity because cynical variations in the intensity of the sun would offset any climate change associated with elevated greenhouse gases, (Marshall Institute, 1989).
The George Marshall Institute has been described in 2007 report by the Union of Scientists as an ExxonMobil-funded ‘clearinghouse for warming contrarians’’ due to its funding from leading industrial organizations, (Oreskes& Conway, 2010).
Global warming denialists now emphasize that though global warming is happening, it is not caused by human activity and technology will permit adaptation, governments will be able to respond to climate change effects.
As a pejorative, other commentators among the sceptics have criticized the use of the term ‘denialism’ indicating that it’s an attempt to delegitimize sceptical views and for injecting morality into the discussion about climate change.
They suggest that the very word ‘denial’ in reference to climate change sceptics is intended to invoke images of the holocaust.
Despite the negative impact of sceptics to public opinion on climate change, the ratification of Kyoto Protocol was a milestone setting a framework of responding to global warming. The conference held in Cancun, Mexico in December 2010 put climate change negotiation back on track by formalizing mitigation pledges, ensuring increased accountability and taking concrete action to tackle deforestation.
Implications for Africa
As the academic debates on climate changes rages on, Climate change forecasts for Africa agree that Africa will experience a strong warming drift over the 21st century fluctuating roughly between +2.3 and 4.8C (IPCC, 2007).
Most climate representations agree on the spatial pattern of temperature change in Africa, with the strongest warming in the sub-Sahara region.
Prevailing water-related problems in Africa are likely to deteriorate as a result of climate change. Intense rainfall will increase the incidence of flooding in many areas, while reduced overall runoff will exacerbate current water stress, reducing the quality and quantity of water available for domestic and industrial use and hydro-power production.
Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said in 2007 that changes in our environment and the resulting upheavals – from droughts to inundated coastal areas to loss of arable lands – are expected to become a major driver of war and conflict (Ban, 2007).
Africa can easily be said to contribute the least to global warming. Each year Africa produces an average of just over 1 metric ton of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide per person, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s International Energy Annual 2002 (Beckett, 2007b).
The most industrialized African countries, such as South Africa, generate 8.44 metric tons per person, and the least developed countries, such as Mali, generate less than a tenth of a metric ton per person. By comparison, each American generates almost 16 metric tons per year. That adds up to the United States alone generating 5.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year (about 23% of the world total), while Africa as a whole contributes only 918.49 million metric tons (less than 4%), Beckett, 2007b).
It is a cruel irony that, in many experts’ opinion, the people living on the continent that has contributed the least to global warming are in line to be the hardest hit by the resulting climate changes.
Diamond (2005) posits that by 2050 sub-Saharan Africa is foreseen to have up to 10 per cent less annual rainfall in its interior. Less rain would have particularly serious impacts for sub-Saharan African agriculture, 75 per cent of which is rain-fed.
The areas suitable for agriculture, the length of growing seasons and crop harvests are all expected to decrease, with serious consequences for food security. One study estimates that yields from rain-fed agriculture could fall by up to 50 per cent between 2000 and 2020
While debates on climate change are progressing in western research institutions, Africa already vulnerable to climate variability has the least capacity to respond due to widespread underdevelopment, conflict, weak states and pervasive poverty.
Africa lacks the basic requirements to deal with the threat of this magnitude. Research indicates that climate change will have dramatic effects on the availability of scarce resources, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
Africa has historically been a victim not a voice. Though Africa as a developing continent is not responsible for excessive carbon emissions, it will be one of the worse affected continents.
For countries to counteract the impact of climate change, the Stern Reviews (2006:308-572) identifies three essential elements: Governance, Adaptation skills & Mitigation ability.
These are all skills that are relatively lacking in Africa. The developed countries have been responsible for most of the carbon emissions to date while the developing countries are more vulnerable to their effects (Miall, 2007:148).
In the context of conflict, since the 1980s, an increasing body of research has dealt with the connection between the environment, resource scarcity and conflict.
More precisely, evidence is mounting that the hostile effects of climate change can, particularly by interrelating with a number of other socio-economic factors, contribute to growing potential for conflict.
Climate Change acts as a threat multiplier, which makes existing causes of conflict more complex and intractable as well as introducing new conflicts.
Climate change will lead to resource scarcity, thereby creating competition for food, water, land and other resources leading to conflict of interests (Miall, 2007).
When the apocalyptic horsemen of famine and pestilence appear, war can’t be far behind. Decreasing pastoral lands, decreasing available tillable land, decreasing wild game, and decreasing available water all add up to more strife.
Subtropical dry, arid areas are going to be a huge source of conflict over the next half-century because we still have very high population growth rates in those areas, very low economic growth rates, and deteriorating environment, (Diamond, 2005)
There is now scientific consensus that anthropogenic emissions are contributing to global warming. The warming to date is already having a clear impact on human well-being and the survival of other species. It is also clear that that the issue has opened conflicts of interests between different groups within states, between states and across generations.
More generally, the North has historically contributed most to carbon emissions, while the South is most vulnerable to its effects. Constraining future emission will place the development paths of North and South in conflict, if they remain on a fossil fuel-intensive development path.
There are also divergent interests within the North and within the South. For example, EU member states are more dependent on imported energy and more willing to consider restriction based on agreed targets, while the United States and Australia are large fossil fuel producers who perceive the costs of switching to low fossil fuel economy as very high and currently reject agreed targets (Miall, 2007:146-147).
To stress north-south dimension of this emerging problem, Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda, called climate change an ‘act of aggression by the developed world against the developing world’ (UNSC:2007). This emphasis was in the context of the developed world contributing more than 90% of greenhouse emissions.
In the context of North-South dimension of climate change, there are growing calls by the developing world to developed world to be more engaged and cooperative in dealing with greenhouse emissions. Kaire Mbuende, the Namibian representative to the United Nations called the developed countries emissions of greenhouse tantamount to ‘low intensity biological and chemical warfare (UNSC, 2007).
The leading nations of the world have put Africa on most international agendas. Without urgent, appropriate intervention, climate change will undermine any efforts on poverty alleviation, as well as attempts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and a crippled African continent will be a threat to world security (Stern Review, 2006:1)
Most assertions associating climate change to issues of instability and conflict argue that, climate change will act as a ‘threat multiplier for instability’, by tallying stress to those countries and people who already suffer from difficulties of underdevelopment, repression, or conflict.
The critical challenge in terms of climate change in Africa is the way that multiple stressors—such as the spread of HIV/AIDS, the effects of economic globalization, the privatization of resources, and conflict, converge with climate change (Diamond, 2005). It is where several stressors reinforce each other that societies become vulnerable.
Homer-Dixon (1991, 1994, 1995a, 1996, 1999) extensively researched on the link between scarcity & conflict in the context of environmental change and he concluded the existence of this link.
Scientific debates within the climate change field have strengthened research efforts of scientists to discard the obscurantism that has been popularized by climate change deniers. The science of climate change is robust and the findings are conclusive that a ‘business as usual’ path for climate change presents serious global risks.
Because climate change is a global problem, it needs a unified global response. It represents the first event in the history of a globalized world that is dependent on global cooperation of human beings in each and every country. To effectively respond to climate change effects there is great need for investment in the three essential elements identified by Stern Review: Governance, Adaptation skills and
Mitigation ability. These are skills that are relatively lacking in Africa. The continent will be most vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change as it lacks the skills and resources to institute measures for successful adaptation and mitigation. The continent lacks strong governance for the successful implementation and management of policies aimed at preventing resource scarcity and managing potential conflicts.
(Dr C Gomba is a Lecturer at Zimbabwe Open University, supervised several Post Graduate dissertation on Development Studies; Climate Change, International Relations, Peace; Leadership and Governance; Religion and Human Rights issues; He is also the Campus Coordinator for Living Waters Theological Seminary; Azusa Campus: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.azusa.ac.zw)
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