Climate Change as an Integration Issue

14Jun2013
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By Ed Carr

Contemporary conversations about climate change and development in Africa suffer from a scale problem. Generally speaking, these conversations go one of two ways. Some talk about “African climate change”, speaking in sweeping terms about such impacts as lost agricultural production or increased disease burden. Others focus on potential local impacts, sometimes scaling to national impacts. Neither of these foci facilitates thinking about climate change as an integration issue for Africa.

Discussions of “African climate change” fail to characterize the different ways in which the climate is expected to change in different parts of the continent, and therefore the different challenges and opportunities that will arise in different places. Nationally or locally focused discussions, while bringing nuance to the African climate change conversation, tend not to illuminate the differences between the places under consideration and other places in the country or region. In both cases, these conversations miss the regional scale, where opportunities for integration abound.

Take, for example, food security and agricultural development. In a given year and a given region of Africa, there are areas producing food surpluses, and other areas experiencing food deficits. A variable and changing climate often plays a role in both outcomes. Critically, however, weather and climate do not cause food insecurity. Weather and climate can serve as a trigger for food insecurity, but an extensive literature has demonstrated that markets and institutions have much more do with food outcomes than the weather. Integration provides an opportunity to address both, by building the infrastructure, food production capacity, and international agreements necessary to allow for the movement of food from sites of food surplus to sites of food deficit in the course of normal trade, instead of the exigency of emergency.

If integration is a key means of addressing this climate change challenge, we must also recognize that climate change poses a critical challenge to integration itself. While building better infrastructure and agreements are necessary to address the current and future challenges presented by climate-related food insecurity, the future trajectories of climate change will also shape where roads will be most useful, where food production investments will yield the greatest returns, and between whom to create agreements. We should not presume that current subregions of food surplus and deficit will play the same roles over the next two or three decades. In most parts of Africa, when and were the rain falls will change and temperatures will shift unevenly, even within subregions. What farmers do to address these challenges will vary between subregions, countries, and even communities as the strength of extension services, the quality and accessibility of inputs, and the idiosyncrasies of local innovation generate differentiated indigenous adaptation pathways. In short, the future is one of changes that will be complex and difficult to predict.

When we connect climate change conversations that currently focus on the poles of the continental or subnational/national scale to more regional thinking, the information gaps that impede integration efforts become clear. We have only parts of the information that we need to plan integrated responses to climate change impacts. Most of this information exists in the form of climate models whose reliability decreases the further we move into the future, and whose spatial resolution is often too coarse to fully inform planning decisions. Policy studies tend to provide little predictive resolution with regard to what policies and budgets will exist in the future. And we know next to nothing about local community- and household-level livelihoods decision-making that will inform the sorts of innovations and adaptation pathways that emerge in different places as the changing climate stresses existing activities.

All we have the outlines of a changing future in Africa tied to climate change. This outline provides hints of what is to come, without any of the details needed to connect these hints into a reliable narrative of response. The missing details point us to the steps we need to take if we are to respond effectively.

  • There needs to be a concerted effort to create a transparent policy environment in which the potential impacts of climate change might be used as a lever to bring parties to the table in productive discussions about trade. While this will not resolve all of the uncertainties about the policy future with regard to climate change, it will create an environment in which the impacts of climate change, whatever they might be, can be productively addressed.
  • More serious attention needs to be paid to existing climate science in policy discussions. While the policymaker need not be an expert in climate science, the long-range future of nearly every development sector will be impacted by a changing climate. Policymakers need to understand the scope and nature of these impacts, as well as the uncertainties associated with the science.
  • A significant investment in basic research on indigenous livelihoods and adaptation decision-making is needed. The broad panel surveys of livelihoods activities that exist for much of the continent are often very unreliable. Further, the information they contain merely catalogues what people are doing, not why. Without a serious push to better understand why people do what they do, we cannot productively imagine what they will be doing under possible climate futures.

Getting the scale of discussion right is the first step in building adaptation strategies that can harness opportunities beyond the national, without resorting to the near-meaningless generalities of the continental. If African responses to climate change impacts are to be more than mere efforts to hang on to current activities, as opposed to efforts to harness the opportunities created by climate change, integration will be a key component of this effort.

Ed Carr is a tenured associate professor in the Department of Geography at the University of South Carolina. From September 2010 to August 2012, he was an AAAS fellow serving at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), first as the climate change coordinator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) and later as a climate change science advisor on the Climate Change Team in the Bureau for Economic Growth, Education and the Environment (E3).


Ed Carr is a tenured associate professor in the Department of Geography at the University of South Carolina. From September 2010 to August 2012, he was an AAAS fellow serving at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), first as the climate change coordinator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) and later as a climate change science advisor on the Climate Change Team in the Bureau for Economic Growth, Education and the Environment (E3).


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