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Leaving a legacy for community

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON
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Our collective future on this planet is looking ominously hazardous, to say the least.

Across South Africa we have been - and still are - experiencing severe droughts, making life miserable and risky for urban and rural communities alike. Around our coast, harmful algal blooms resulting from warming ocean waters have devastating effects on fish populations and the fishing community.

Those are just some of the typical large-scale extreme events that science has been predicting to result from the exponential increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

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An increasingly drier and warmer climate will increase the frequency and severity of fires in the Western Cape

Occasional floods and strong winds are adding to our perils, making life miserable and risky for urban and rural communities alike

Francois Engelbrecht, who leads the climate studies, modelling and environmental health research group at the CSIR, recently posited that an increasingly drier and warmer climate will increase the frequency and severity of fires in the Western Cape. Not long thereafter fires raged around Knysna, destroying property and killing people.

Occasional floods and strong winds are adding to our perils, let alone the prospect of life-threatening diseases such as malaria becoming more prevalent. Woe to us, for Engelbrecht says the CSIR’s climate models predict that at current rates of climatic change our lives will become unbearable from around 2030.

Indeed, the World Economic Forum lists environmental forces as the major global threats.

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Countries are deeply concerned about the politics of climate change (Image: Star Tribune)

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“To be comprehensive, we at SAEON aim to offer insights spanning from the deep ocean to the high mountains. We also add value to our science by archiving and making our data openly available, and by developing decision-making tools and human capacity.” – Johan Pauw, SAEON MD

The politics of climate change

However, in local polemics heated South African politics features daily as headlines, while elsewhere on Earth, countries are deeply concerned about the politics of climate change. This is aptly illustrated by France’s same-day response to the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord by inviting American climate change scientists and workers to go work in France. The USA’s denialist stance on climate change also led to the withdrawal of the futuristic big-thinking entrepreneur and ex-South African Elon Musk as presidential advisor.

In the face of mounting scientific evidence and signals of extreme disequilibrium, dare we allow denialists to insinuate that climate change is fake news? Dare we remain gung-ho about our own daily use of energy from fossil fuels? Dare we - as the global community - not err on the side of caution? Dare we ignore the high probability of hardships that our children and theirs will inherit? Dare we invest only half-heartedly in finding technical solutions to curb our carbon emissions? Dare we drag our feet about making sense of how our ecosystems are rapidly changing and how to control the collateral damages?

SAEON’s role in the face of environmental change

In answering the latter, SAEON performs on its mandate to rapidly improve our understanding of environmental change at multiple scales and in multiple systems, and to inform effective ways to minimise the impacts thereof. Since climate change is not the only driver of environmental change and its local impacts depend on complex Earth system responses, a wide range of experimental designs and observation systems is required.

To be comprehensive, we aim to offer insights spanning from the deep ocean to the high mountains. We also add value to our science by archiving and making our data openly available, and by developing decision-making tools and human capacity.

Over the years and in collaboration with many self-funded partners, we at SAEON have been steadily growing our observation systems. The positive development of the recent awards of new funding by the Department of Science and Technology for observational research infrastructures (Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network – EFTEON; Shallow Marine and Coastal Research Infrastructure – SMCRI; Agulhas System Climate Array – ASCA) will fast forward SAEON’s production of knowledge about the interconnectedness of Earth systems, what the observed changes mean and how those might be controlled for minimum impacts. Partnerships with self-funded partners will continue to be obligatory and will include citizen scientists when appropriate.

While these developments around SAEON will leave a unique legacy for the South African and global community, it is also time that a responsible attitude towards climate change is overtly projected by all politicians, decision-makers, government officials, households and communities.

Our collective future is looking bleaker by the day.

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