It is, of course, poor people – and especially those in marginalised social groups like women, children, the elderly and disabled – who will suffer most from [climate] changes. This is because the impact of humanitarian disasters is as much a result of people’s vulnerability as their exposure to hazards. – CARE International (2008), Humanitarian Implications of Climate Change: Mapping Emerging Trends and Risk Hotspots.
What is a climate hotspot?
A climate hotspot is an area that is facing particularly high impact from global warming and climate change and is most vulnerable to its deleterious (or injurious) effects. With regard specifically to environmental factors and global warming, a hotspot can be assessed using the indicators below (from http://www.climatehotmap.org/). It’s important to keep in mind that the impacts from climate change reach well beyond the natural world, affecting social, political, and economic arenas as well.
Indicators of a widespread and long-term trend toward warmer global temperatures, including:
Heat waves and periods of unusually warm weather, which can lead to increases in heat-related illness and death, particularly in urban areas and among the elderly, young, ill, or poor.
Ocean warming, sea-level rise, and coastal flooding. “A continuing rise in average global sea level would inundate parts of many heavily populated river deltas and the cities on them, making them uninhabitable, and would destroy many beaches around the world,” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 2,000 scientists which advises the United Nations (Tacio, 2009).
Glaciers melting. As glaciers continue to shrink, summer water flows will drop sharply, disrupting an important source of water for irrigation and power in many areas that rely on mountain watersheds.
Arctic and Antarctic warming. Melting permafrost is forcing the reconstruction of roads, airports, and buildings and is increasing erosion and the frequency of landslides. Reduced sea ice and ice shelves, changes in snowfall, and pest infestations affect native plants and animals that provide food and resources to many people.
Events that foreshadow the types of impacts likely to become more frequent and widespread with continued warming.
Spreading disease. Warmer temperatures allow mosquitoes that transmit diseases such as malaria and dengue fever to extend their ranges and increase both their biting rate and their ability to infect humans.
Earlier spring arrival. An earlier spring may disrupt animal migrations, alter competitive balances among species, and cause other unforeseen problems.
Plant and animal range shifts and population changes, in some cases leading to extinction where warming occurs faster than they can respond or if human development presents barriers to their migration.
Coral reef bleaching, which results from the loss of microscopic algae that both color and nourish living corals. Other factors that contribute to coral reef bleaching include nutrient and sediment runoff, pollution, coastal development, dynamiting of reefs, and natural storm damage.
Downpours, heavy snowfalls, and flooding
Droughts and fires. Along with the human toll, sustained drought makes wildfires more likely, and crops and trees more vulnerable to pest infestations and disease.
The case of Burkina Faso
What makes Burkina Faso a hotspot? Along with heat waves and prolonged periods of unusually warm weather, Burkina Faso has been increasingly facing a number of the harbingers listed above, including extended droughts, downpours, and flooding, along with unpredictable planting seasons.
Jan Egeland, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on conflict, has called the Sahel region of West Africa, which includes northern Burkina Faso, “ground zero” for vulnerabilities to climate change (IRIN, 2008, “Sahel: Region is “ground zero” for climate change – Egeland”). He further observed, “Climate change in Burkina Faso does not mean there is less rain, it means that rainfall has got less predictable. And weather overall has become much more extreme. . . . [in 2007] in Burkina Faso, there were eight rainfalls over 150mm – that means eight major floods in one four month period. The alternative to floods is basically no rainfall – it’s all or nothing, and either way is a crisis for some of the poorest people on earth” (IRIN, 2008, “Sahel: Climate Change Diary Day 1”).
A report on the The Humanitarian Implications of Climate Change (2008) commissioned by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and CARE International identifies the Sahel region of Africa as facing “high overall human vulnerability” to climate change in the coming decades. Burkina Faso is identified as one of the hotspots at risk from climate change in another recent study as well, which focuses on countries in sub-Saharan Africa most vulnerable to climate change (Thornton et al., 2008). Both studies looked at a combination of environmental, social, and economic factors in assessing vulnerability.
Burkina Faso has one of the highest poverty rates in the world, and the majority of the population relies on subsistence agriculture, making the Burkinabe particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. These factors combined with a high rate of illiteracy, a poor communications and technology infrastructure, and a struggling education system combine to make Burkina Faso an important country of focus for a study not only of climate hotspots.
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