Nationality South African
Year of selection 2016
Institution University of Cape Town
Country South Africa
African countries are among the most vulnerable to climate change. Existing developmental challenges, such as high levels of poverty, underinvestment in infrastructure and technology, increasing ecosystem degradation, and weak governance systems aggravate the burden of climate variability and change. Adverse impacts of global warming in southern Africa have already been detected. They include decreases in water availability, reduced agricultural production and food insecurity, and increased social and economic costs of extreme weather events. The societal consequences of these impacts are likely to accelerate in the future, especially considering the African population of 1.1 billion is expected to more than double by mid-century.
Assessing the impacts of climate change in southern Africa is of the utmost importance to economic and social development. However, the task is complicated by the disparity of climate model projections and the complexity of natural and societal systems. Much more expertise is needed across a wide range of areas, but the community of professionals and researchers working on climate change is relatively small throughout Africa. In the context of these challenges, the creation of the AXA Chair in African Climate Risk within the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town aims to make a significant change in the research field of African climate risk. The succession of three to four Research Chairs over the next 15 years aims to produce scientifically innovative and cutting-edge research related to the intersection of climate change risks with African development issues.
The objectives of the long-term research programme include improving our understanding of past, present and future climate risks, both in terms of climate phenomena and exposure and vulnerability. It will also help identify and assess possible ways to reduce this exposure and vulnerability, and diagnose mechanisms that will enable the widespread implementation of risk reduction and adaptation measures through collaboration with relevant implementing bodies. Additionally, the AXA Chair in Climate Risk is aligned with the long-term research strategy of the University in that it will help attract the best African talent to return to or remain in Africa, working on African issues. A new generation of researchers will be trained.
Prof. Mark New, the first to chair holder, is focusing on quantifying and understanding the changing risk of climate on water and food security in southern Africa.
Each successional Chair will be expected to propose and undertake research in their own domain of expertise, building upon the achievements of their predecessor. Professor Mark New will be the first to hold the position. The focus of his research programme is to determine how extreme events like floods, droughts and heat waves are changing with global warming. “There have always been extreme weather events. But global warming is changing the frequency and the intensity of those events,” Prof New explains. His purpose is to understand and quantify how human activity is changing the risk related to extreme events and how this in turn affects water and food security.
To achieve his objectives, Mark is using a multidisciplinary approach that brings together expertise in climate and weather risk attribution, statistical sciences, hydrological and agricultural sciences, and economics. “There are two parts to the story in my research programme,” Prof. New specifies. “On one hand, we aim to figure out what proportion of the impact related to extreme events is due to global warming and what proportion is due to natural variability.” To find out, Prof. New will compare climate models of the planet with or without global warming. By adding greenhouse gas effects and ocean warming separately, he will be able to estimate the difference in the intensity and frequency of extreme events in both scenarios. “The other part of the story is trying to determine how the severity of the impact depends on human activity on the ground.” Is the way that people are managing the land affecting its vulnerability to droughts or floods, for instance?
Both approaches are very innovative in his field of research. The overall goal is to evaluate where investment to mitigate climate change risks should be allocated in order to maximize efficiency. For example, Prof. New’s results will help governments make decisions on how to build more resilience in the local systems. In this sense, his results will have crucial implications for public, private sector and civil society organizations. Close interactions with these actors will insure maximum societal impact of the research.