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An African perspective on climate change.

April 2, 2012

I meant to publish this post at the beginning of the year, but one thing has lead to another and I just didn’t find time to dedicate to it. Better later than never, here’s a post about some awesome things I did at the end of last year and what I learnt about how Africa sees climate change.

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Possibly the best thing about moving to South Africa has been a total re-awakening of my perspectives on society and social issues. Although I’m working on the most in-depth, technical science research I ever have, I find myself increasingly, on a day-to-day basis confronting many social issues and interactions between science, the environment and society. Many of these confrontations require gaining a totally different perspective which has often been provided from some of the amazing people on this continent.

Two “recent” events have inspired me to write this piece: Attendence at the COP17 in Durban and teaching on another Habitable Planet workshop in Cape Town. First, the Conference of the parties (COP17) for the UN framework Convention on Climate Change. As a young academic, still overwhelmingly passionate about your subject, opportunities to attend international science/environmental events are viewed comparably to a trip to Disney World when you were 8 years old – the sort of thing you’d dream about doing but realistically seemed out of reach. But life has a funny way of providing these opportunities when you least expect. My mum won our trip to Disney World when I was younger and my move to South Africa opened up the chance to attend COP17 in Durban last year.

As part of ACCESS (Applied (hopefully soon to be African) Centre for Climate and Earth System Science) we helped run a stand in the public exhibition hall. ACCESS aims to help build a greater, and more representative, capacity for Earth System science in South Africa. So we spent a lot of our time engaging with people from all around Southern Africa to explain how they could access (sorry but it’s appropriate!) the various opportunities that ACCESS offers to students to study in Earth System sciences. We met a lot of great students, hopefully future scientists! A central theme of ACCESS and the Habitable Planet workshops it runs is that we are in a “special place at a special time”. South Africans will be familiar with the “Rainbow Nation” concept – referring to the the vibrant diversity of people and cultures that is South Africas strength. In the workshop it was proposed that we extend this concept to include the amazing diversity South Africa has in its natural environment…but more about that later – what did I learn from COP17?

Many have questioned the justification of the COP events, both before and increasingly after the international governments failed to reach a meaniningful agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Despite our connections to the science we probably knew less about the negotiations that those with a decent connection to Twitter. We couldn’t access even the internal exhibition, let alone the politicians. This lack of transparency was a concern. If this was a scientifically influenced processed – why couldn’t the scientists listen in? If this is a political process, could the politicians hear what their citizens- outside in their droves – were protesting about? Based on this I should have felt COP17 was a waste of time/money/emissions, but I didn’t. Why? Firstly because I think international dialogue on environmental issues needs to be pursued regardless of the outcome – merely getting the countries of the world together to talk about the environment has been a challenge and if we give that up, we can’t hope to achieve anything. But my second point relates directly to what I observed in Durban, and largely relates to Africa. These events provide an immense stage for grassroots movements. For people doing important things here and now, and often with an interdisciplinary approach involving the environment/economics and social issues that many scientists would be envious of. Africa already has problems to deal with, there’s already a need for innovation to cope with existing issues and COP17 was a great opportunity for the brightest and best here to show that not only are they rising to existing challenges, but they’re preparing to meet future ones too.

The showy technology and international exhibits, while awesome, really served to highlight that there’s a different sort of opportunity here. Electric bikes and twitter trends are far outside of the concern of the vast majority of South Africans and chatting to local folk about schemes aimed at not only grassland preservation but which also addressed job creation and localised organic food production reaffirmed my opinion that this vibrant country is a great melting pot in which to brew bottom up change.

The ecosphere using Twitter - super cool.

Environmentally friendly toys!

This view was fully concreted by my experiences teaching on another Habitable Planet Workshop in Cape Town. I’ve posted about these workshops before, but this one really was particularly special. I was more involved in this one that previous workshops, with Emily and Lauren ridiculously busy, I got to spend much more time with the students. Growing up in the UK it was pretty easy to be drawn in to the compelling arguments for saving the environment, although immensely frustrating as I got older, wondering why wasn’t more being done for this cause. I’ve met a lot of environmental “crusaders” but as a scientist have tried to maintain an objective view about how we should prioritise the environment. But teaching on the recent Habitable Planet course really helped me learn to think about how this is done in practice.

I enjoy teaching the science lectures, it’s immensely fulfilling to share your passions and interests with students, especially those like the ones at CPUT who are eager to ask questions and continue discussions long after the lectures have finished. However the best part, is probably towards the end of the course, when the lectures turn more towards human-environment interactions and talk of politics, economics and social responsibility. The students are always environmentally minded, otherwise they wouldn’t attend the course, but they’re equally concerned that environmental protection not be to the disadvantage of the often highly impoverished communities in South Africa that many of them can provide unique insights in to. The debates can get a little heated but seeing the concern and enthusiasm raised for solving often seemingly overwhelming issues, is invigorating. If these are the people who will be my future colleagues, I’m excited 🙂

Communication seems to be the central theme of my experiences in South Africa. Science now seems less valuable to me if you can’t communicate it to people. And through these experiences I’ve been introduced to new ways of communicating. For the Habitable Planet at CPUT we had Red Zebra come and do an ice breaker and later a performance piece with the students. The students in groups came up with some amazing short pieces – often related to precisely the human-environment conflicts we’d been discussing. With the expert guidance of Peter and colleagues from Red Zebra these were amalgamated into an African samba performance. It was a great end to the course and you can see some of the performance here and here.

Thanks to ACCESS for the opportunity to be involved in such cool projects and to the students/future colleagues/new friends for being inspiring and great fun!

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