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Climate change: Breaking new ground

Many of the real challenges of the 21st century aren”t always in traditional state-to-state interactions, but are transnational in nature and require new ways of dealing with. With climate change devastating African communities through droughts, floods and other disasters, researchers have developed an online mapping tool that analyses how climate and other forces interact to threaten populations

The online mapping tool has been developed by the Climate Change and African Political Stability (CCAPS) programme to integrate its various lines of climate, conflict and aid research. The CCAPS programme was piloted by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at The University of Texas at Austin in 2009 after receiving a USD 7.6 million fiveyear grant from the Minerva Initiative with the Department of Defense. Their current mapping tool is based on a prototype they developed to assess conflict patterns in Africa with the help of researchers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC).

CCAPS comprises nine research teams focusing on various aspects of climate change, their relationship to different types of conflict, the government structures that exist to mitigate them and the effectiveness of international aid in intervening. The mapping tool is a key part of the programme to produce new research that could support policy making and the work of practitioners and governments in Africa.

Climate simulations
The initial prototype of the mapping tool used the ArcGIS platform”s geographic information systems to project data onto maps. Working with its partner Development Gateway, CCAPS expanded the system to incorporate conflict, vulnerability, governance and aid research data. Later this year the maps will also incorporate data on future climate vulnerability, derived from regional climate model simulations designed by Edward Vizy and Kerry Cook, both members of the CCAPS team from the Jackson School of Geosciences at The University of Texas at Austin.

Vizy and Cook ran three, 20-year nested simulations of the African continent”s climate at the regional scales of 90 and 30 kilometers, using a derivation of the Weather Research and Forecasting Model of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. One was a control simulation representative of the years 1989-2008 and the others represented the climate as it may exist in 2041-2060 and 2081-2100.

The researchers ran regional future simulations by adjusting the control simulation”s parameters to match expected warmer conditions with increased greenhouse gas forcing derived from atmosphere-ocean global climate models. Each simulation took two months to complete on TACC”s Ranger supercomputer.

Africa is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to its reliance on rain-fed agriculture and the inability of many of its governments to help communities in times of need.

“Africa is a region of increasing importance for U.S. national security. On the positive side, it is a place with a growing population, growing economic strengths and growing resource importance; on the negative side, people are worried about non-state actors, weak states and humanitarian disasters,” says Francis J. Gavin, professor of international affairs and director of the Strauss Center.


The composite picture highlights areas of chronic insecurity where the four sources of vulnerability coalesce. Image courtesy Joshua Busby et al.

Data sources
The vulnerability mapping programme within CCAPS is led by Joshua Busby, assistant professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. To determine the vulnerability of a given location based on changing climate conditions, Busby and his team looked at four different sources: the degree of physical exposure to climate hazards; population size; household or community resilience and the quality of governance or presence of political violence.

The first source records the different types of climate hazards which could occur in the area, including droughts, floods, wildfires, storms and coastal inundation. However, their presence alone is not enough to qualify a region as vulnerable. The second source – population size – determines the number of people who will be impacted by these climate hazards. More people create more demand for resources, potentially making the entire population more vulnerable.


Climate security vulnerability in Somalia is the greatest in and around the capital of Mogadishu and the far north. Image courtesy: Joshua Busby et al.

The third source looks at how resilient a community is to adverse effects, analysing the quality of their education and health, as well as whether they have easy access to food, water and health care. “If exposure is really bad, it may exceed the capacity of local communities to protect themselves,” Busby said, “and then it comes down to whether or not the governments are going to be willing or able to help them.” The final source accounts for the effectiveness of a given government, the amount of accountability present, how integrated it is with the international community, how politically stable it is and whether there is any political violence present. Busby and his team created composite maps by combining the four equal weight sources of vulnerability and dividing regional scores into five rankings going from the 20 per cent with lowest vulnerability to the 20 per cent with the highest.

The researchers gathered data from a variety of places, including the historic models of physical exposure from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), population estimates from LandScan, as well as household surveys and governance assessments from the World Bank”s World Development and Worldwide Governance Indicators. After completing the first version of their model, Busby and his team carried out the process of ground truthing their maps by visiting local officials and experts in several African countries, such as Kenya and South Africa. “The experience of talking with local experts was tremendously gratifying,” Busby says. “They gave us the confidence that the things we are doing in a computer lab setting in Austin do pick up on some of the ground-level expert opinions.”

Busby and his team complemented their maps with local perspectives on the kind of impact climate was already having, leading to new insights that could help perfect the model. Some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change include Somalia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Sudan. Having this information allows local policymakers to develop security strategies for the future, such as early warning systems against floods and investments in drought-resistant agriculture.

“What this project has showed us is that many of the real challenges of the 21st century aren”t always in traditional state-to-state interactions, but are transnational in nature and require new ways of dealing with,” says Gavin.