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Africa actually has a few glaciers. But probably not for much longer

Herd of elephants walking
A herd of elephants walks in southern Kenya with Tanzania’s snow-topped Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background.
(Ben Curtis / Associated Press)

Africa’s rare glaciers will disappear in the next two decades because of climate change, a new report has warned, amid sweeping forecasts of pain for the inhabited continent that contributes least to global warming but that will likely suffer from it most.

The report Tuesday by the World Meteorological Organization and other agencies, released ahead of the United Nations climate conference in Scotland that starts Oct. 31, is a grim reminder that Africa’s 1.3 billion people remain “extremely vulnerable” as the continent warms more, and at a faster rate, than the global average. And yet Africa’s 54 countries are responsible for less than 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The new report seizes on the shrinking glaciers of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Kenya and the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda as symbols of the rapid and widespread changes to come.

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“Their current retreat rates are higher than the global average. If this continues, it will lead to total deglaciation by the 2040s,” the report says.

Massive displacement, hunger and increasing climate shocks such as droughts and flooding lie ahead, but the lack of climate data in parts of Africa “is having a major impact” on disaster warnings for millions of people, WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said at Tuesday’s report launch.

Estimates of the economic effects of climate change vary across the African continent, but “in sub-Saharan Africa, climate change could further lower gross domestic product by up to 3% by 2050,” Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko, of the African Union Commission, wrote in the report. “Not only are physical conditions getting worse, but also the number of people being affected is increasing.”

Climate change is making the world more prone to floods like those in China and Europe and to heat waves and fires like those in the U.S. and Russia.

By 2030, up to 118 million extremely poor people, or those living on less than $1.90 a day, “will be exposed to drought, floods and extreme heat in Africa if adequate response measures are not put in place,” Sacko wrote.

Already, the U.N. has warned that the Indian Ocean island nation of Madagascar is one where “famine-like conditions have been driven by climate change.” And it says parts of South Sudan are seeing the worst flooding in almost 60 years.

Despite the threats ahead to the African continent, the voices of Africans have been less-represented than those from richer regions at global climate meetings and among the authors of the crucial Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientific assessments. African participation in IPCC reports has been “extremely low,” according to Future Climate for Africa, a multi-country research program.

The costs ahead are huge.

“Overall, Africa will need investments of over $3 trillion in mitigation and adaptation by 2030 to implement its [national climate plans], requiring significant, accessible and predictable inflows of conditional finance,” the WMO’s Taalas said.

“The cost of adapting to climate change in Africa will rise to $50 billion per year by 2050, even assuming the international efforts to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius,” or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.


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