Guest Post by Professor Will Alexander*
Poverty reduction vs climate change
‘Shadow of hunger’ June 2008. Member of Doctors Without Frontiers carrying a child to the intensive care unit for starving members of the population of southern Ethiopia where more than four million people were starving. Beeld 13 June 2008. How can I remain silent?
You might have noticed that the phrase poverty reduction is in the process of overtaking climate change as the issue of major international concern. The phrase sustainable development is also losing ground. It never was implementable and now the UN organisers of Rio+20 are struggling to get an international agreement on its objectives.
All of this is because climate change was used as a weapon by the affluent nations of the West to maintain their supremacy over the world’s rapidly developing nations. The Kyoto Protocol was one of the mechanisms to achieve this objective. Another was promises of substantial economic aid (with conditions attached) to enable the developing nations to abandon the use of cheap coal to more expensive electricity generating methods such as wind turbines, solar panels and biofuels. Nuclear energy was the only economically viable large scale alternative but the public were worried because of its linkage with nuclear weapons and the consequences of nuclear fuel leakages and destruction of the power stations such as happened in Japan.
Despite these pressures, the use of coal continues to expand worldwide including here in South Africa. Now the world sees the almost universal use of shale gas as the alternative source of energy for the future. Here in South Africa the authorities have just given the go ahead for shale gas exploration after a long hesitation based on environmental considerations.
Unfulfilled promises of economic aid have been a characteristic of meetings of high-level wealthy nations under the leadership of the G8 nations. The establishment of the notorious and grossly misleading Stern Review was an outcome of the G8 meeting at Gleneagles in 2005.
The African countries have repeatedly stated that they require trade not aid. This fell on deaf ears in the Western countries but there has been a rapid growth of bilateral trade between the African and the developing Eastern countries, particularly China, India and South Korea.
As I write, the EU nations are in economic turmoil. Any thought of large scale financial assistance to the developing countries to control their emissions into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other undesirable gases is out of the question.
As a consequence, we now see the IPCC changing its tactics from mitigation (prevention) to adaptation. This is described in the IPCC’s recent special report. Note that they are in deep water because accommodating climatic extremes — mainly floods and droughts — has been a function of the civil engineering profession since the beginning of civilisation thousands of years ago.
In passing, the first civilian use of mainframe computers was for the electronic storage and processing of hydro-meteorological data. Appreciating this, IBM allocated two senior mathematicians (Mandelbrot and Wallis) to become involved in advanced hydrological analyses. They published many reports that are still valid today.
I have had the unusual privilege of being directly involved in the transition from mainframe computers that occupied several adjacent rooms in the Department of Water Affairs; to desktop microcomputers; to personal computers; to laptops and now to handheld tablet computers that are far more powerful than the mainframe computers of old. My first personal computer was a Sinclair ZX 81, followed by BBC microcomputers with their excellent version of BASIC. The IBM compatible PCs were late on the scene but soon dominated the markets. I wrote all my own computer programs. Initially the outputs were to Epson dot matrix printers. I still have my Sinclair and BBC computers in my garage. I am uncertain what to do with them.
Global warmers are babes in the wood when it comes to developing computer programs to model natural processes. They fail to appreciate that the greater the number of variables in the model, the greater the level of uncertainty in the output. They believe the opposite. I discussed this issue in my invited Stander Memorial lecture that I titled The case of the multidimensional watermelon. I discuss alternative forms of process modelling in my handbook on analytical methods.
Today there are half a dozen or so huge computer systems that we are told are capable of analysing climate on a global scale. There are two problems. The first is that the alarmist predictions produced by the models have failed to eventuate. The second and more important is that their outputs are not in a format that can be used for practical applications such as two-dimensional flood magnitude/ frequency relationships and three-dimensional drought magnitude/ frequency/ duration relationships. The next step is the determination of human and structural vulnerability to floods and droughts. The final step is the development of measures to reduce the impact of these events.
All of this is far beyond the knowledge and experience of climate change scientists. So why should we take any notice of them? The reason is that they have infiltrated the South African authorities by linking climate change with postulated environmental damage which has popular and consequently political interest. They have diverted attention away from the very real water resource management problems that lie ahead.
Chickens coming home
Now the chickens are coming home to roost. Last week our Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs addressed the media ahead of the budget vote in parliament. The following is a summary.
South Africa needs to spend R573bn over the next decade on water covering everything from maintenance and new infrastructures to operations. To do this it will need the private sector’s help. Quite independently, there were television news items showing riots in parts of South Africa arising from lack of potable water supplies and deteriorating water infrastructures.
I shudder when I consider how the South African authorities will cope with widespread droughts such as those of the 1980s and widespread floods such as those of the 1970s. There is nobody in authority with this experience. There will be chaos in this part of the world when (not if) the next round of widespread, severe droughts occurs. The authorities and even our research institutions are totally unprepared for this. The news media will not have difficulty in identifying the culprits for our unpreparedness.
The following is what I propose doing to help in the decision making process DV.
I will place four comprehensive reports on my website as soon as we can get it going. These are:
Handbook on analytical methods for water resource development and management (2012). This extensive document covers the whole field.
Climate change and its consequences — an African perspective. (2006). I deal with and dismiss all the major claims made by South African global warmers.
Risk and Society (1999). My detailed United Nations commissioned study on natural disasters.
Structural and non-structural aspects of flood risk reduction. This is a detailed report on this subject.
Climate change nonsense (submitted).
Unverified hypotheses (abstract submitted).
Drought management (abstract submitted).
Drought risk reduction
Flood risk reduction
Natural disaster reduction
This is an ambitious programme. I will do my best to accomplish it. The lives and livelihoods of millions of people on the African continent and elsewhere are at stake.
*Will Alexander is Professor Emeritus, Department of Civil and Biosystems Engineering, University of Pretoria; Fellow, South African Institution of Civil Engineering; Member, United Nations Scientific and Technical Committee on Natural Disasters, 1994 – 2000