06 September 2005

South Africa starts waking up to the threat of climate change

Tempting as it may be to attribute the ravages of Hurricane Katrina to President George Bush's reneging on his early election promise to support the Kyoto Protocol, it is neither scientifically justifiable nor fair.

But scientists have repeatedly warned that more extreme weather events - floods, droughts, hurricanes and storms - will accompany increased global warming being caused mainly by anthropogenic (human) greenhouse gas emissions, which the landmark protocol is designed to reverse.

So while a single event like Katrina can't be put down as a direct consequence of global warming, its devastating power does help confirm a trend - and that trend shows unequivocally that the phenomenon of global warming is under way.

Guy Midgley is a senior scientist at the SA National Biodiversity Institute who led the team responsible for producing South Africa's climate change response strategy, recently adopted by the government.

He points out that a paper published in one of the world's top scientific journals a couple of weeks ago proved that hurricane intensity had increased substantially over the past 30 years.

"So the chance of an event like Katrina happening goes up.

"You can't say this particular storm is a manifestation of climate change, but the probability of this happening has gone up.

"So you follow the trends over time, and then you can look back and say, yes, that's when it started happening."

The southern United States has long been identified as an area vulnerable to these events, as is India with monsoons, Midgley says.

"So this was not completely out of the blue, and you've got to wonder, should one's response not be much more conservative and more cognisant of the threat?"

Will Katrina concentrate Bush's mind and perhaps see his administration now supporting the Kyoto Protocol?

"There's a strong grassroots move in the States away from the Kyoto intransigence of the White House," answers Midgley.

"For example, we've seen (California governor Arnold) Schwarzenegger talk about introducing carbon caps, and the reason, I think, is related to their susceptibility to the melting of the snow on the Sierras, from which they get a huge amount of their water.
"And (California's) fruit and wine industry is very sensitive to warming, as is ours, and that's well recognised."

Also, about 130 other US cities are backing Seattle's plans to achieve a zero carbon emissions regime within a relatively short period, he adds.

"So there's certainly not a monolithic position (on global warming) in the United States.

"Of course, there are a lot of concerns that Kyoto is not going to do the trick. But certainly, at the moment, Kyoto is the only international way to go for now and we should support it."

South Africa's response is "quite visionary", says Midgley.

"Because this is not a short-term problem, it is not something that we in South Africa need to be getting in a lather over.

"Climate change is not an imminent threat that is going to crunch us, unlike the southern states in America which are very, very close to the edge.

"We're not that susceptible to sea-level rise, for example, but we are susceptible to droughts and we need to watch that very carefully.

"We need to watch climate trends much more carefully than we have in the past. We've been asleep at the wheel for a while."

Source: www.capeargus.co.za


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