U.S. Defense Department Develops Map of Future Climate Chaos
A new mapping tool shows where vulnerability to climate change and violent conflicts intersect throughout Africa
March 23, 2012 (Scientific American) – University of Texas researchers have developed a sophisticated new mapping tool showing where vulnerability to climate change and violent conflicts intersects throughout the African continent.
More than a year in the making and part of a $7.6 million, five-year Department of Defense grant, the Climate Change and African Political Stability project culls data on riots, civil unrest and other violent outbursts dating back to 1996. It overlaps with information about climate-change-induced vulnerabilities like drought, as well as the type of aid that is being delivered to various parts of Africa.
The end result, researchers said, is something they hope can be used to help policymakers understand vulnerability better, and eventually help the Pentagon decide where resources might be best placed in order to ensure regional stability.
“It’s a starting point for a conversation,” said Joshua Busby, an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas. “These maps and this process of understanding climate vulnerability starts a conversation that gets people to start thinking about how we prioritize resources.”
Though their efforts have been complicated by an absence of organized or publicly accessible details about the millions of dollars that flow to Africa in development aid each year, researchers who helped design the mapping system said they hope the project will be a first step. Even as countries make plans to tap into a multibillion-dollar Green Climate Fund, researchers said many organizations still have a hard time deciding what exactly climate change adaptation funding is, or how to ensure that it is really helping.
“There’s a great deal of debate about what constitutes climate change adaptation,” said Kate Weaver, an associate professor at the University of Texas’ Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law who led the aid portion of the mapping.
She noted that much development assistance for things like agriculture or even education has components that could help countries address climate vulnerabilities. Countries and agencies that dole out money, though, have a hard time coming up with ways to categorize the aid, which she said could lead to complications when trying to assess how much good the money has done.
Trying to match aid with results
“It’s absolutely imperative that aid organizations demonstrate persuasively how much they’re doing to address climate change in the developing world, and how much they’re spending on it,” she said.
Ashley Moran, program associate at the center, said researchers from the outset wanted to look at ways in which conflict, climate vulnerability and aid intervention intersect in Africa at very local levels. She noted that, through the project, it has become clear that several areas that are experiencing intense vulnerability also are home to violent conflicts, like Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“We have to have more localized data to pinpoint the impact of both climate change and intervention,” she said. “This mapping tool puts large amounts of data in the hands of people who really need it. They can see how climate change and conflict and aid projects will impact their communities of interest.”
While compiling information on conflicts was relatively easy — researchers in large part relied on public news clippings — compiling aid information proved much harder. Weaver noted that 95 percent of aid groups worldwide don’t publish basic project description documents online — or even make them available upon request. The World Bank, she said, is one of the few agencies that has a robust and transparent system. Most countries’ data come from there and the African Development Bank.
But her research team also linked with the government of Malawi, which, through a nonprofit called Development Gateway, was interested in mapping the development aid flowing into the country. Weaver described Malawi as having a uniquely progressive aid management platform, which requires donors to report on a monthly basis. Still, with only scattered Internet access and with most documents stored in closets at the Malawi finance ministry, student researchers spent weeks hunting down and using hand-held scanners to copy-capture the data.
Weaver said researchers are working to develop similar agreements with other countries as well, something she and others said could be used to coordinate and reduce redundancy in foreign aid, eliminate corruption and help nations plan their budgets.
“I think the big policy punch line is that these kinds of data visualization and analytical tools can be huge for transparency and accountability,” Weaver said.