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EVENT: CoP-17 side-event – ‘New paradigm’ for using climate information in Africa

1 December, CoP-17, Durban – CORDEX-Africa programme presented at CoP-17 side event as a potential new paradigm for analysing and using climate change information in Africa. The programme involves African climate and meteorology scientists analysing regional climate data that provides finer spatial detail about future climate change impacts in a particular area, available for the first time for the continent.

Through the Coordinated Regional Downscaling Experiment (CORDEX) of the World Climate Research program (WCRP), downscaled global climate data is now available: ‘It presents a unique and new set of information to draw upon; that sort of information does not exist at the moment for Africa. At the most we have custom downscaling projects and the global GCMs (Global Circulation Models). And the global GCMs are not informative at the local scale. So this is a new paradigm for Africa. Part of the project is to see what we can do with it, but it holds huge potential for informing in ways that we haven’t been able to do before,’ said Professor Bruce Hewitson of the Climate Systems Analysis Group (CSAG) at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Hewitson also explained in an interview with CDKN that the programme is advancing a new way to work with climate data. Rather than simply delivering the data to the ‘end user’, CORDEX-Africa is bringing African scientists together to explore the data and interrogate the results in light of the local context. The programme is creating a community of scientists focussed on producing relevant and useful climate science for policy. Through this process and as scientists work with the data, their capacity is further developed for using and applying the data.

CORDEX-Africa is supported by multiple partners including CDKN, START, the International Centre for Theoretical Physics and the Swedish Meteorological-Hydrological Institute.

The side event was interactive and set up for participants to understand the complex nature of making decisions based on uncertain information. We had to imagine we were all overworked government officials in a regional district of southern Zambia, faced with a range of difficult and urgent decisions – many not related to the climate. We had to vote whether to build a dam in an area experiencing serious water stress and frequent drought. The dam is a huge investment. It appears it will provide water for dry spells in the short term, but the long-term impact of its construction is uncertain, including in the context of a changing climate. We were given new opportunities to vote to build the dam, as more information on its impact and future climate change predictions came to light – and often without knowing the accuracy and credibility of climate data presented. In this exercise it was interesting that often better information on future precipitation changes was not a significant factor in participants deciding to build the dam. Rather, dealing with current drought and livelihood issues carried more weight.

In the session, Dr Neil Leary of the Centre for Sustainability Education emphasised that communication of climate information is a conversation, rather than a one-way transmission of information from researcher or scientists to decision-maker. In many cases, decisions are made without consideration of climate information, where socioeconomic and political factors are more important. Dr Leary cautioned not to assume more refined and detailed climate data will automatically result in better decisions. He argued, however, that CORDEX-Africa will allow us to test this proposition, while offering a unique opportunity to bring together diverse partners to explore how to create useable and credible climate information for making real and practical decisions on the ground.

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