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If you can’t take the heat …

By Dr Anthony Turton

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If you can’t take the heat …

By Dr Anthony Turton

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6 min read

The world is facing a climate crisis. A young Swedish schoolgirl is now leading a global campaign of defiance driven by school children. The world has just experienced the hottest July ever recorded, even while a vocal segment of the chattering masses in leading economies like the USA believes that the science underpinning global warming is a massive hoax perpetuated by scientists who are – somehow – conspiring to make money.


First, let’s separate fact and fantasy

As a scientist, I embrace facts as my friends, so let me share a few. In the recent past the USA has been hit by a series of massive hurricanes, driven by warm waters over the Atlantic Ocean, slamming into the islands of the Caribbean and cities along mainland America with unprecedented ferocity. One hurricane struck California, coming off the cold Pacific Ocean, which is something very rare, because it entered via the back door, so to speak. Last summer saw tropical depressions bring masses of rain onto the coast of South Africa and Mozambique, wreaking havoc and causing significant loss of life in KZN. The Western Cape has just narrowly avoided what would have been a disastrous Day Zero. As you read this, the polyphagous shot hole borer beetle is marching relentlessly across large parts of the world, including Cape Town and Johannesburg, slowly and relentlessly destroying vast swathes of forest tree by tree, and primitive nematodes and ancient species of viruses and bacteria are being released as the permafrost melts in places like Siberia and Alaska.

All of these are facts, and they collectively speak of two things – uncertainty, and challenges to our adaptability as a species. Let me unpack these two elements by highlighting three implications of the global climate crisis.


The first implication is that climate change is not what you think it will be from an impact perspective. I no longer talk of climate change, because we are faced with global warming as a key driver. Of this there is no doubt within credible scientific circles. But, in order to get our heads around this, we need to understand the difference between complexity as a concept and things that are complicated.

We are increasingly confronted with complicated things. A passenger jet is a complicated thing consisting of hundreds of thousands of integrated parts working together to give a predictable outcome – safe flight. It’s complicated, but it is entirely predictable by virtue of technical manuals and high-level training of professional crew. This is fundamentally different from complex systems such as the global climate.

Complex systems have multiple variables, each of which is linked in ways that are almost impossible to predict. This is the so-called butterfly effect, in which the flapping of a butterfly wing in a tropical rainforest will set up minute wind patterns that affect other wind patterns until – ultimately – it could unleash a hurricane halfway across the world. This body of science is known as deterministic chaos theory.

The recent tragic loss of life in two plane accidents illustrates this perfectly. The fuel-efficient Boeing 737 Max 8 featured a revolutionary piece of software called a Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which was designed to take over automatically if sensors detected that the plane was about to stall. Unfortunately, once the system took over in response to a faulty stall signal, the plane (a complicated machine) suddenly took on the properties of a complex system, rendering the outcome unpredictable by the pilots.

Even predicting tomorrow’s weather is not an exact science because there are so many factors, so predicting how global warming will pan out is even trickier but the mechanisms are understood.

An increase in greenhouse gases like carbon monoxide and methane prevents heat from leaving the earth and radiating back to space, resulting in increased ocean surface temperature, and consequently faster evaporation of water into the atmosphere. This increases the moisture content in clouds, so more energy is needed to keep that water in the sky defying gravity, but at the same time greater cloud cover reduces the amount of energy coming into the earth’s atmosphere from the sun. With thousands of variables, each related to one another at different levels of scale, it is impossible to predict a specific outcome. This is why climate change scientists speak of an envelope of probability with an upper and lower threshold. Just like weather forecasters will talk about the percentage probability of rain tomorrow.

While scientists are unable to predict exact outcomes, what is known with great certainty is that all existing climate-related events will become more extreme. We can clearly see this in our rainfall patterns. A high-confidence study conducted by the University of Cape Town, funded by the Water Research Commission (WRC Project 2317/1/18), showed that 1982 was a threshold year in South Africa. Before 1982 rainfall across the country was greater than average (shown as shades of blue to indicate the extent of deviation from the norm) but, after 1982, rainfall was clearly less than average (shown as shades of brown). More importantly, we also see a distinct shift in winter rainfall. This speaks to a core issue that residential estate owners and managers will need to deal with in future – extreme events: droughts that are deeper and more protracted, and rainfall that is more intense over shorter periods, and possibly out of the seasonal norm.


The second implication is that it will test our collective capacity to cope, eventually to the most extreme degree imaginable. The way that Cape Town dealt with Day Zero has now become an international case study in how decision-makers deal with complex situations in which predictability has been lost for a variety of reasons. In reality, Cape Town dodged the bullet, but only by imposing a draconian demand-management policy that prevented total system collapse, but also triggered a significant shock to the economy, eroding business confidence. In reality, the entire country is dealing with a Day Zero scenario, and that’s an important message because, with the recent good rains in the Western Cape, it’s easy to forget how close we came to disaster. But the underlying driver of the crisis has not changed. Just as quickly as the system flipped from near-total collapse to near-total restoration in a short period of time, so too can it flip back again. This is the essence of complex systems – they are impossible to predict, but they are also not steady-state. The only certainty is change, and the rate of change is accelerating.

It’s the rate of change that harms you!

Risk management

This raises the question of the relationship between homeowners associations (HOAs) and the municipalities in which they are embedded. It helps little if the HOA develops an adequate coping strategy, but the municipality that provides fundamental services doesn’t. This speaks to the issue of cooperation and partnership that will be dealt with later.
The third implication is that insurance companies are way ahead of the curve on this issue and they will be driving change long before government or scientific organisations can get their ducks in a row. The good news is that you don’t have to do all the heavy thinking about the future because risk owners have already taken this on board, and are thinking on your behalf. Anticipate big changes in policy requirements, most notably around coping strategies and due diligence that will need to be performed by people elected to act on behalf of others.

So, what can home owners, bodies corporate, estate managers and HOAs do about this?

Firstly, elect trustees or appoint directors and managing agents that are both competent and conversant with global warming as an issue. Denialists do not serve your best interest, and they undermine adaptive efforts by raising alternative debates using well-honed but false arguments. It’s not helpful if a person with fiduciary responsibility, elected to act in the best interests of others, spends their energy in propagating conspiracy theories about colluding scientists enriching themselves. Your best interests will be served by electing honest people, with an open mind, and the willingness to forge partnerships. Einstein said that the level of ingenuity needed to solve a problem exceeds the level of ingenuity that created the problem in the first place. What this means is that no single entity will be able to solve the problems arising from global warming. It will test our collective capacity to forge partnerships, so your elected leadership should promote this endeavour rather than undermine it.

Secondly, mandate the directors and trustees to forge partnerships. This implies that the directors and/or trustees have the skills needed to create working relationships that become stronger than the individuals, and transcend personal egos. Arguably the two most important partnerships will be with your insurance provider, and with the municipality that provides basic services. In this regard, engage actively with these people.

Ask the municipality to give you a written document stating the current and projected assurance of supply levels for basic services like potable water, sanitation and electricity. Ask them about the design limitations of current infrastructure such as flood control measures that will receive larger than average peak flows after extreme events. Ask them about water supply for fire management – a fire in Braamfontein on 17 April 2017 gutted an entire building simply because firefighters were confronted with dry hydrants.

Finally, generate internal conversations about coping strategies, as these will grow the support base needed for viable adaptive responses – and keep an open mind. It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole in one direction only – most people think of floods, droughts or raging fires when asked about the impact of climate change. But, in reality, none of these is the most significant risk to life and human wellbeing. Changes in climate affect every living thing, and it’s the changes in biology that pose the greatest threat. The spread of toxic blue-green algae, which is releasing potent toxins into two-thirds of our national water resource impoundments, the multi-drug-resistant pathogens being incubated in our sewerage-overloaded rivers, and the primitive microbes awakening from millennia of dormancy as the permafrost in the tundra melts are likely to have effects that will increasingly be felt across society in ways few people can currently comprehend.

Global warming is real, folks. We all know prevention is better than cure, but we missed that boat a few years back, so now we need to learn how to adapt because it’s too late to mitigate.

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