Burning Planet: Interview: South Africa Climate Change ‘Hotspot’

Article written by Kevin Bloom and originally published in Daily Maverick on 7 November 2018

In a world that’s warmed 1°C against pre-industrial levels, bringing wildfires, droughts and heatwaves to vast regions of the planet, South Africa has warmed at twice the global average. What’s the science behind this? What are the implications for our farmlands and cities? Most important, will our country survive if trends remain where they are? Professor Francois Engelbrecht, among the world’s leading specialists on African climate change, takes the largest questions facing humanity to where we rarely see them — back home.

I. Hot

The question for Professor Francois Engelbrecht, during the lunchtime rush in the most popular canteen at Pretoria’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, was about the one thing that climate scientists are supposed to avoid — emotion.

For the past 45 minutes, Engelbrecht had been charting a course through the safe terrain of his own data. As one of the lead authors on the world-shaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, endorsed by 195 countries and released in South Korea in early October, he knew better than most that the only effective weapons against climate denialists were the facts.

How, then, did he reconcile the fact that human beings have at best a dozen years to shift the planet’s political and economic trajectory (or face an apocalypse of heat, thirst, famine, floods and runaway ecological collapse) with the fact that he, too, is a human being?

In other words, did Professor Engelbrecht ever succumb to anomie and despair?

“I can tell you that the official message the IPCC tried to convey was one of hope,” he told Daily Maverick, “they really tried not to come in with a negative message. They said, the science tells us that with political will it’s still possibleto avoid global warming exceeding 1.5°C. Somewhere between 1.5°C and 2°C, the report says, we have a high likelihood of initiating an irreversible melt of the Greenland icecap and triggering the instability of the Antarctic ice-shelf.

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