'Global warming may leave millions destitute'
By John Yeld
As many as 50 million "environmental refugees" - many likely to be Africans - could be driven from their homes by 2010 through increased desertification, drought, flooding, storms and rising sea levels associated with global warming.
It is this kind of dire prediction by a United Nations think-tank, and related issues, that will be concentrating the minds of South African decision-makers and scientists and others.
Delegates from Africa and overseas will gather during the next four days at the Gallagher Estate in Midrand, Gauteng .
The National Conference on Climate Change, organised by the department of environmental affairs and tourism, will focus on the effects of climate change on African societies and livelihoods.
The warning about environmental refugees, and a plea for a recognition of their status to make them eligible for the same sort of benefits as political refugees fleeing war and persecution, is in a new study by the United Nations University's Institute for Environment and Human Security in Bonn, Germany .
Institute head Janos Bogardi said that an estimated 20-million people, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa , had already been displaced by problems linked to a damaged environment, ranging from eroded farmland to polluted water supplies.
In a briefing document to this week's conference, the environment department says climate change is now considered to be "the biggest threat to sustainable development" and is of such importance that it must be addressed urgently.
While there are still disagreements on how to combat the effects, there is no longer doubt that such change is occurring.
This has been confirmed by the latest report - the third - by the Intergovernment Panel of Experts on Climate Change, the influential UN body set up to investigate the issue.
"Impacts associated with this climate change include changes in weather patterns, rise of sea level and an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme events such as floods and droughts."
Such effects will have "important and costly implications" for developing countries, the department warns.
These include a loss of livelihoods, as well as "immense financial and economic setbacks".
"Also, these impacts will undermine global poverty alleviation efforts, including the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals."
The conference consists of two parallel and overlapping sessions. At "Science in Africa" from Monday until Wednesday, eminent scientists will discuss scientific methodologies and research findings relating to climate change in Africa .
From Tuesday to Thursday, politicians, decision-makers, some of the scientists, environmentalists and representatives of various non-government groups will meet for a consultative conference to analyse South Africa's policies and responses to climate change.
The keynote address at Monday's science event will be delivered by Science and Technology Minister Mosibudi Mangena, while Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka will be Tuesday's main speaker.
Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk will officially open both events.
The department says the event aims to ensure that "all South Africans are informed about all aspects of climate change and are empowered to consider climate change mitigation and adaptation in all their endeavours and spheres of influence".