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Facing climate change head-on

- Shaun Smillie

Climate change took nearly a century to become mainstream science. Wits is taking the lead in facing up to the challenge.

Durban floods 2022 | Curiosity 14: #Wits100 ©

While climate change is now accepted as being humankind’s – and the planet’s – greatest threat, it took science nearly a century to come to this realisation and to convince the world of this fact.

Climate change started out as a theory in the early 1900s when scientists started to speculate that the burning of coal and oil could trigger a process of global warming.

The hard science to prove the theory would only come 50 years later when one scientist started seeing evidence of change in the atmosphere.

In 1958, Charles Keeling at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii started taking measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations. For the next 50 years, Keeling would continue his measurements, noting the continuing rise of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

It would be 30 years after that when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came into being, with the intention of providing governments at all levels with scientific information to inform climate policies.

World wakes up to climate change

Gradually climate change science came to be accepted into the mainstream.

“By the late 1990s, early 2000s, the majority of the world’s nations had accepted the evidence of human-induced global warming,” says Francois Engelbrecht, Professor of Climatology at Wits’ Global Change Institute (GCI).

In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol signed in Japan committed countries to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This was replaced by the Paris Agreement in 2015 that aimed to raise finances to assist countries in fighting the effects of climate change.

Now, 65 years after Keeling first began recording increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere, there is growing evidence of climate change happening around the world.

“The level of global warming that we’ve reached today in 2022, when compared to the pre-industrial temperature of the early 1800s, is about 1.2 degrees Celsius. If we look at different parts of the world, there are many regions that are warming up faster than this global average,” says Engelbrecht.

South Africa is one of these regions, with the Highveld experiencing a rise in temperature of two degrees Celsius when compared to pre-industrial times. With this rise will come extreme weather events, droughts and heat waves.

At Wits’ GCI, efforts are being made to predict the effects that climate change will have on the African continent.

At the forefront of this research is Lengau, a super computer that generates detailed projections of climate change in Africa. The name Lengau is a nod to the computer’s speed, as it means cheetah in Setswana. Lengau’s predictions for the near future makes for frightening reading.

South Africa’s ‘tipping points’ 

Four future climate events – or tipping points – have been identified and they are on a scale never seen before in the historic record. Alarmingly, they could happen in the next ten to 20 years.

The first of these is a day zero drought hitting Gauteng, devastating the economy and triggering an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

The second tipping point is the complete collapse of the South African maize crop and cattle industry, brought on by long-lasting droughts.

A third tipping point scenario is killer heat waves that we might even experience within the decade, which could kill thousands of people.

The fourth catastrophe could come from the sea in the form of category four or five tropical cyclones barrelling down the Mozambique Channel.

“What the Institute’s climate modelling tells us is that because of the warming of the waters in the Mozambique Channel, for the first time it is possible that a tropical cyclone of category four or five intensity can make landfall as far south as Maputo or maybe even as far south as Richards Bay,” says Engelbrecht.

A category four cyclone would make landfall with sustained winds of 200km an hour. It could dump 500mm to 1 000mm of rain in a day or two and be accompanied by a killer storm surge. 

To better understand these devastating weather events, work at the Institute continues to better define and understand the models.

“The problem is that many South Africans don't know what the future possibly holds. We need to talk about these risks because we are totally unprepared for any of these four tipping points,” says Engelbrecht.

Mainstreaming climate change

Wits University has put climate change and sustainability front and centre by appointing a Pro Vice-Chancellor: Climate, Sustainability and Inequality, to coordinate University-wide efforts to research, adapt and mitigate climate change at the University.

“We don’t see climate change as something that can just be focused on in one part of the University,” says Professor Imraan Valodia, the Pro Vice Chancellor: Climate, Sustainability and Inequality. “We wanted to mainstream it throughout the University, so the position was created to coordinate efforts and integrate different parts of the University and add value.”

The Office will focus on five task areas, including transdisciplinary research; teaching, with specialised training in climate change and sustainability in an integrated way; looking at the University’s internal operations and reducing its climate footprint; advocacy; and policy support.

“One example of how we are mainstreaming climate change in our teaching is through the course on climate that we teach all first years at University as part of the Gateway to Success Programme, initiated by my colleagues,” says Valodia. “We want our students to be key agents of change as they are the ones who are going to have to change the world and who have to confront tough economic issues in the process. We cannot have an energy and climate transition without dealing with the deep social issues around climate change at the same time.”

As part of its next strategic plan, the University is also actively looking at ways to reduce energy and water consumption, develop cleaner, more cost-effective and efficient energy systems, grow organic food gardens, make buildings greener, develop better waste management strategies, and make the campus greener.

  • Shaun Smillie is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office. Read more in the 14th issue, themed: #Wits100 where we celebrate a century of research excellence that has shaped today and look forward to how our next-generation researchers will impact the next 100 years.