New’s new foresight on climate change, forsooth!
UCT professor is the closest to a soothsayer we've got
University of Cape Town climate change scientist Professor Mark New is not a soothsayer but he’s as close as it gets, a world authority on detecting and predicting shifts in climate.
He was awarded the Piers Sellers Prize this year for a “world-leading contribution to solution-focused climate research” by the Priestley International Centre for Climate. New’s lifelong contribution in this field earned him the honour.
New has contributed significant data to current United Nations Development Programme climate change profiles (link bit.ly/1ONHPVb) which set out scenarios for 52 developing countries, including South Africa. He has worked in more than a dozen countries in Africa, South America and Asia.
Gazing at Cape Town from his office high on campus, New said cities were the most at risk of climate change because of their concentrated populations and assets.New looks for the opportunities which arise when confronting climate risks, such as Cape Town running out of water.
“This crisis has driven more sensitive water-use behaviour. The trick is to make this permanent so we can reduce stress on the system on an ongoing basis,” he said.
Appointed to UCT in 2011, New holds a joint appointment with the University of East Anglia in the UK, whose climate research institute is at the forefront of the field.
Under his leadership the African Climate and Development Initiative has become the biggest intellectual resource on climate and development in Africa.
Saliem Fakir, head of WWF South Africa’s Policy and Futures Unit said: “New is a pioneering thinker, educator and scholar. He has a long-standing relationship with WWF and we have had the privilege of working with him and his team at the ACDI. The ACDI does groundbreaking research and this award is not only a recognition to him but to the contribution of the team to this important work.”
New serves on a range of influential climate bodies in South Africa and abroad, including the Africa Future Earth Science Committee and the steering committee of the UN’s ClimWarn Programme, which is identifying ways to improve communication of climate warnings to the vulnerable, and ensure they can act on warnings.His research on the effects and adaptations for climate change includes decision-making and policy “under uncertainty”, given the limits to climate data and modelling.
The UNDP’s South Africa profile, for example, states: “Model simulations show wide disagreements in projected changes in the amplitude and frequency of future El Niño events, contributing to uncertainty in future climate variability in projections for this region.”
New will analyse Cape Town’s water crisis when he delivers the Piers Sellers Prize lecture in Leeds on Monday night.
“I’ll discuss the physical nature of the drought, and the possible influence of climate change on drought risk, assessing whether the last three years are indeed the ‘new normal’ the city is talking about,” he said.
He will also discuss the city council’s interventions to postpone Day Zero and the longer-term economic effects — including cutbacks to water allocations for agriculture.
And he will examine how the political crisis within Cape Town’s executive and poor management in the national Department of Water and Sanitation undermined governance and “most likely exacerbated the severity of the impact of the drought”.
“A drought like the current one has been a nightmare at the back of the mind of many water managers, but it has been hard to get political attention until there is a crisis,” said New.