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6.0: Prelude to Our Warming World

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    Life-threatening heatwaves, drowning coastal towns, tens of thousands of displaced refugees… These words may very well describe a scene from the latest horror movie. But they also describe the nightmare scenario facing us humans in just a few decades if we continue to leave the threat of climate change under-addressed. This term, climate change (which is shorthand for anthropogenic climate change), refers to the complete set of climate characteristics—temperature; precipitation; pressure systems; wind patterns; and oceanic currents—that are changing both locally and regionally due to human influences. It is closely related to global warming, also called global heating, which describes the general trend of increasing global temperatures we see under climate change.

    UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon introduces the Momentum for Change initiative at the UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP17, held in Durban, South Africa in 2011. Photograph by UNFCCC,, CC BY 2.0.

    Climate change has the potential to render Earth unrecognisable from what any human has ever experienced. These changes will have an immense impact on ecosystem services, global economies, and our own quality of life. Yet, while there is much talk about these risks, there is too little action addressing its main causes. Some of the lack of action may be attributed to “climate change” and “future” often being used in the same sentence, giving politicians and industries a false impression that we can deal with climate change once we achieved sufficient economic growth. The reality could however not be further from the truth, as we already see signs of the changes to come here today (Table 6.1), including near-annual crop-failures, record-high temperatures, and record-strength coastal storms.

    Table 6.1 Some examples illustrating how climate change is already impacting Africa.



    Increased temperatures and incidence of heat waves

    Global temperatures in 2016 were the warmest since modern recordkeeping began in 1880; the two previous records were set in 2015 and 2014 (Gillis, 2017). Heat waves are also hotter, longer, and over a larger area than before (Russo et al., 2016).

    Widespread droughts

    East Africa saw its worst drought in 60 years from mid-2011 to mid-2012. Over 250,000 people died; nearly 10 million more needed humanitarian assistance (Maxwell et al., 2014). The increased intensity of similar droughts in 2016 are directly attributable to climate change (Uhe et al., 2017).

    Rising sea levels

    Coastal floods disrupt lives and local economies in Ghana, Nigeria, and Benin almost every year. Coastal erosion has damaged commercial properties in The Gambia and Senegal, while the coastline retreated 35 m in some areas of Togo (Fagotto and Gattoni, 2016).

    Earlier spring activity

    Bloom dates for several plants, including commercially grown apple and pear trees in South Africa, are now between 1.6 and 4.2 days earlier per decade than 35 years ago (Grab and Craparo, 2011).

    Shifts in species ranges

    Malaria recently appeared in the highlands of Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, and Burundi, in areas where it did not occur before (Siraj et al., 2014).

    Wildlife population declines

    Reporting rates for some bird species endemic to the Cape Floristic region declined by over 30% over the past 15 years (Milne et al., 2015).

    Thankfully, with the increase in understanding that our activities are creating a global crisis of epic proportions, the impacts of climate change are now being actively debated in the corridors of governments and major corporations. Politicians, the media, and others are also increasingly replacing “climate change” with more vivid language, like “climate crisis” and “climate emergency” (e.g. Carrington, 2019). This will hopefully encourage even more governments and industries to come to the table and cooperate like never before to address the fundamental drivers of climate change. Solving this global crisis requires an international multi-pronged approach that should include ecosystem protection and restoration (Chapter 10), direct species management (Chapter 11), and legislative action (Chapter 12). But before we consider the solutions, we will first investigate why climate change is happening, and how it will impact biodiversity over the coming decades.

    6.0: Prelude to Our Warming World is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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