After many years of speculation about climate change, it is a reality and something we cannot ignore any longer. It is wreaking havoc, as evidenced by the heatwave that has been experienced in parts of South Africa in the past month. Predicted years ago by scientists, climate change has set in in earnest and we have little option but to adapt to the ever-changing weather patterns.
Two years ago, with El Niño, there were unprecedented dry conditions in eight provinces, which destroyed crops and led to the loss of livestock, severely affecting the economy.
The drought left many South Africans wondering whether we were not heading for the doomsday prediction of a semi-desert.
Around the globe, hot days are getting hotter and more frequent and we’re experiencing fewer cold days. Over the past decade, daily record high temperatures have occurred twice as often as record lows, up from a near 1:1 ratio in the 1950s. Heat waves are becoming more common, especially in the United States, although in many parts of that country, the 1930s still holds the record for number of heat waves.
By mid-century, if greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly curtailed, scientists expect 20 record highs for every record low. In parts of the southern hemisphere, the frequency of days above 40°C could triple to more than 75 days a year.
Although Chad is considered to be one of the countries worst affected by climate change in Africa, it is by no means alone. A study by the Brookings Institute found that the continent is home to seven out of 10 countries projected to be hardest hit: Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Nigeria, Chad, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic and Eritrea. People around the world look forward to warm temperatures and outdoor activity, but the summer heat can turn deadly when those temperatures soar well above the norm and stay high for days on end.
Blistering temperatures, coupled with high humidity, can stress people’s systems to the limit and cause death. Drinking plenty of water and avoiding outdoor activities during the hottest part of the day are two simple ways to keep safe during a heat wave.
High humidity and elevated night temperatures appear to be key ingredients in causing heat-related illness and mortality. Heat stress occurs when the body is unable to cool itself effectively. Normally, the body can cool itself by sweating but, when the humidity is high, sweat does not evaporate quickly, potentially leading to heat stroke. When there’s no break from the heat at night, it can cause discomfort and lead to health problems, especially for the poor and elderly.
Hotter temperatures and heavier rainfall mean malaria, one of the continent’s biggest killers, will also spread to new areas, including the Lowveld in South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi.
The true economic effect of climate change is hard to predict, save to say that many key economic sectors, from fishing to energy and water utilities, will feel the long-term effects. From warming seas, which encourages the proliferation of non-native species that affect fishing industries, to rising temperatures, which affects energy usage around the world, our shifting global climate will force many industries to move quickly to adapt to change.
Even recreation and tourism industries are weather-dependent, with planning based on historical weather patterns, which climate change will disrupt. As we move into an era in which the effects of climate are all around us, adapting to these changes quickly will be crucial for all sectors of the global economy.
Climate change and global warming are already beginning to transform life on Earth. Without action, climate change threatens to damage our world. But by rallying people around the world to be a part of the solution, together we have the power to limit the effects of climate change.
The author is content producer for the SA department of water and sanitation.