Historic discussions of climate often suggested that it caused societies to have certain qualities. In the 19th-century, imperial representations of the world environment frequently “determined” the fate of peoples and places, a practice that has frequently been used to explain the largest patterns of political rivalry and the fates of empires and their struggles for dominance in world politics. In the 21st century, climate change has mostly reversed the causal logic in the reasoning about human–nature relationships and their geographies. The new thinking suggests that human decisions, at least those made by the rich and powerful with respect to the forms of energy that are used to power the global economy, are influencing future climate changes. Humans are now shaping the environment on a global scale, not the other way around. Despite the widespread acceptance of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate-change action, numerous arguments about who should act and how they should do so to deal with climate change shape international negotiations. Differing viewpoints are in part a matter of geographical location and whether an economy is dependent on fossil-fuels revenue or subject to increasingly severe storms, droughts, or rising sea levels. These differences have made climate negotiations very difficult in the last couple of decades. Partly in response to these differences, the Paris Agreement devolves primary responsibility for climate policy to individual states rather than establish any other geopolitical arrangement. Apart from the outright denial that humanity is a factor in climate change, arguments about whether climate change causes conflict and how security policies should engage climate change also partly shape contemporary geopolitical agendas. Despite climate-change deniers, in the Trump administration in particular, in the aftermath of the Paris Agreement, climate change is understood increasingly as part of a planetary transformation that has been set in motion by industrial activity and the rise of a global fossil-fuel-powered economy. But this is about more than just climate change. The larger earth-system science discussion of transformation, which can be encapsulated in the use of the term “Anthropocene” for the new geological circumstances of the biosphere, is starting to shape the geopolitics of climate change just as new political actors are beginning to have an influence on climate politics.
Benjamin F. Zaitchik
Humans have understood the importance of climate to human health since ancient times. In some cases, the connections appear to be obvious: a flood can cause drownings, a drought can lead to crop failure and hunger, and temperature extremes pose a risk of exposure. In other cases, the connections are veiled by complex or unobserved processes, such that the influence of climate on a disease epidemic or a conflict can be difficult to diagnose. In reality, however, all climate impacts on health are mediated by some combination of natural and human dynamics that cause individuals or populations to be vulnerable to the effects of a variable or changing climate. Understanding and managing negative health impacts of climate is a global challenge. The challenge is greater in regions with high poverty and weak institutions, however, and Africa is a continent where the health burden of climate is particularly acute. Observed climate variability in the modern era has been associated with widespread food insecurity, significant epidemics of infectious disease, and loss of life and livelihoods to climate extremes. Anthropogenic climate change is a further stress that has the potential to increase malnutrition, alter the distribution of diseases, and bring more frequent hydrological and temperature extremes to many regions across the continent. Skillful early warning systems and informed climate change adaptation strategies have the potential to enhance resilience to short-term climate variability and to buffer against negative impacts of climate change. But effective warnings and projections require both scientific and institutional capacity to address complex processes that are mediated by physical, ecological, and societal systems. Here the state of understanding climate impacts on health in Africa is summarized through a selective review that focuses on food security, infectious disease, and extreme events. The potential to apply scientific understanding to early warning and climate change projection is also considered.