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The heat is on for Africa - botanic gardens, education and climate change

Volume 5 Number 1 - April 2008
Nopasika Malta Qwathekana and G. Midgley

French title: La chaleur monte en Afrique – jardins botaniques, éducation et changement climatique

Spanish title: Se calienta la cosa en África – los jardines botánicos, la educación, y el cambio climático


The human impact on the composition of the atmosphere has resulted in an alarming increase of greenhouse gases, causing an increase of heat trapped and kept in the atmosphere and the penetration of the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun due to the deterioration of the ozone layer. The consequence of all these atmospheric processes has resulted in an increase of global temperature which is commonly known as global warming which is resulting in global climate change (Gates, 1993). As Bargagli (2004) also indicated, there is a global notable change in rainfall patterns, a shift in seasons, and a change in average temperatures to a point where life forms in all trophic levels (from vegetation, insects, animals, to human beings) are being threatened. Scorching heat is resulting in the destruction of vegetation; shifting seasons are confusing the agricultural sector and impacting on food production with subsistence farmers in developing and underdeveloped countries suffering the most.

Millions of people in Africa live below subsistence levels. They are heavily reliant on natural resources for their livelihoods yet their actions are causing deforestation and desertification. Botanic gardens in South Africa are at the forefront of biodiversity conservation and their work is directly relevant to the future sustainability of the country. This article will look at the effect of climate change on food security in developing and underdeveloped countries and examine the contribution botanic gardens are making, through education, lobbying and policy development, to averting the catastrophic effects of global climate change.

Why has climate change become such a widely discussed issue?

Evidence suggests that both poor and rich people in developed and underdeveloped countries are responsible for the deterioration of the environment... As a consequence we are witnessing an increase in temperatures, a major shift in seasons ( and a global change in climatic conditions.

For many of us, climate change has only recently emerged as a topic of discussion on the world stage. However, concerns about global warming have been voiced by scientists for many years, leading in 1988 to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international panel of scientists and policy makers. In 1990, the IPCC produced its first report on the potential risks of climate change. This same panel has now produced three further reports, one roughly every six to seven years, the latest of which has established a high level of confidence (>90% chance) that there is a link between human activities, global warming and climate change (IPCC, 2007).

To understand why climate change is a threat to human society it is necessary to understand our distant history. Human society only developed to our current levels of sophistication once the earth’s temperature warmed (about 9,000 years ago) to the levels we have today. For a hundred thousand years before this, the earth was very cold. People survived as hunter-gatherers and often as migrants. Life was very tough for our forebears. About 15,000 years ago the world began to warm. We know enough, however, to understand that changes in the amount of energy received from the sun, combined with changes here on earth (such as changing responses of living ecosystems) probably caused the earth to warm and then stabilise about 9,000 years ago (IPCC, 2007). The insight from this knowledge is that we live on a planet that is already warm in relation to the past, and that the relative stability of climate sustains complex societies, in comparison to the conditions of the past several million years!

Why are we worried about the future of climate change?

Firstly, we now know that the luxury of getting energy from coal and oil, and thus reducing the need for our own physical work, has a definite downside. In the process of burning coal and oil, we release thousands of tons of an invisible and odourless gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), into the atmosphere (IPCC, 2007 WG1 chapter 7). The more we add, the more the world warms, but it takes several decades for the warming effect to show up in the atmosphere. This is a significant problem to manage, and very relevant to our children and grand-children. The warming that may occur will take the earth to temperatures not seen in many thousands of years (IPCC, 2007 Summary for Policy Makers), with consequences that are very difficult to predict. What is obvious, though, is that this could be a dangerous practice, and it is probably irresponsible to continue with it until we understand the consequences more fully.

The consequences include a change in the earth’s rainfall patterns, such as increasing drought and floods, shifting patterns of where and when rain falls (IPCC, 2007 WG1 chapter 10), which will disrupt cropping and livelihoods, and rising temperatures that affect a host of human concerns, such as health (increasing numbers of insects and vector-borne diseases such as malaria), disaster management, sea level rise, land-use, agriculture, water supply, settlements, wild resources, wildfires and much more (IPCC, 2007 WG2).

What does this mean for Africa?

The impacts on Africa are generally expected to be worse on average than for the rest of the world, not only because of the changes projected, but also because of the generally low capacity for adaptive responses, coupled with the impacts of many other stresses on African societies (IPCC, 2007 WG2 Chapter 9). In South Africa, we have already seen many regions, especially the Western Cape, warming by roughly one degree centigrade over the past 30 years (Warburton et al. 2005). Regional projections of rainfall change suggest that the Western Cape may suffer a 20% or more reduction in winter rainfall by the end of this century. Indeed there is even evidence of damaging effects of a regional climate shift on one of our iconic desert tree species, the Kokerboom (Aloe dichotoma), with populations dying back in parts of Namibia and South Africa (Foden et al. 2007).

Unfortunately, there is no scientific consensus on projected changes in rainfall in the summer rainfall regions (IPCC, 2007 WG1 Chapter 11). Such a high degree of uncertainty is problematic for adaptation planning, making it essential to carry out risk assessments that include the possibility of both increases and decreases in rainfall! It is no small wonder then that the world has begun to sit up and take notice of this emerging threat that may be gradual, but may arrive unexpectedly with a vengeance.

What can be done?

Two main things are being done at the international level – firstly, there are negotiations underway under the United Nations (the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, see that attempt to implement reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases, such as CO2, in the developed countries of the world. Reducing emissions is referred to as mitigation of climate change. But the developing world is starting to play catch-up, and nations such as China will soon become the biggest emitters of these gases worldwide. The negotiations around this topic are now attempting to find a way for all nations to contribute to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in some way. For example, some countries with tropical forests contribute large emissions by cutting virgin forest, and it would help enormously if this practice could stop around the world, as it would eliminate roughly 20% of the greenhouse gas problem.

This is a very complex and difficult negotiation process, and we can only hope that nations can place individual priorities to some extent beneath the global good. South Africa for example, which stands to suffer some damages from climate change, has committed to following a positive path, and aims to address its greenhouse gas emissions patterns in a way that will not impact economic development.

The other strategy now being actively investigated is adaptation to climate change. If we accept that climate change will occur before we get the problem under control, then we need to prepare ourselves for the possible impacts that will result. For example, we can improve investment in disaster management plans and infrastructure if we believe that more disasters may occur. We can look at how human settlements are positioned in relation to rivers and streams to prevent flooding, or we can develop crops and agriculture practices that can cope with a warmer world.

Botanic gardens and their role in averting the catastrophic effects of global climate change

The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) manages a network of nine botanic gardens. These botanic gardens are used as displays for plant collections as well as education facilities. Education programmes for target audiences from all walks of life are developed and offered by environmental education personnel stationed in each of the botanic gardens. These education programmes are either garden based or outreach greening programmes.

Garden based environmental education programmes

Learning programmes are designed around issues of concern such as global warming and the resultant global climate change, biodiversity conservation, and other general environmental management related issues. Target audiences are taught about the role of vegetation in absorbing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, as well as how human activities (such as deforestation and the clearing of vegetation as well as the use of fridges and motor cars) adversely affect our lives by contributing to global climate change.

Outreach greening programme

SANBI environmental educators go out to schools and communities and assist them in developing water-wise gardens using indigenous trees and plants. These low maintenance gardens are also used to educate target audiences and beneficiaries about:

  • threatened, endangered, rare, and extinct tree and plant species
  • the importance of trees in the neighbourhood and how to reintroduce and protect them
  • the importance of groundcover and how it can be used for reclaiming bare land patches
  • the effects of deforestation on weather conditions and global climate change
  • The connection between climate change and vegetation and how deforestation, overgrazing and uncontrolled fires on the veld (high plains of South Africa) indirectly lead to desertification.

Greening of the Nation

Over one hundred million rands (approximately six and a half million pounds) have been secured to expand outreach greening programmes in schools and communities throughout all nine provinces of South Africa, including those that do not have botanic gardens. This programme, Greening of the Nation (GoN), aims to green school yards and other public places such as churches, hospitals, clinics, police stations and municipal offices through planting. It also aims to develop community nurseries for people to gain easy access to trees and plants. Local people are trained in various life skills to help them obtain employment and this, in turn, helps minimise their impact on the forest and other natural resources. Target groups are also trained and encouraged through GoN to practice aforestation and claim bare patches, by planting ground cover vegetation. Thousands of schools and community projects have now been greened and this contributes to carbon sequestration and minimisation of global warming. Hundreds of thousands of trees have been planted in schools, houses, streets and other public spaces by people trained and employed in the programme.

Integration with the school curriculum and teacher professional development

The programmes run by SANBI’s Environmental Education Unit in the botanic gardens are integrated within the national school curriculum, ensuring that environmental issues are incorporated in daily school programmes. This also helps nurture a pool of environmental champions that will think globally and act locally in combating global climate change (Yeld, 1997). SANBI encourages schools to set up ‘mini botanic gardens’ in their school yards and supports teachers to use them as outdoor classrooms by running workshops with and for them, visiting schools and providing onsite support and raising funds to sponsor them for studying environmental education in recognised tertiary institutions.

Policy contribution

SANBI plays a leading role in global climate change debates in South Africa. It also provides advice on development and implementation of environmental policies and advice on biodiversity conservation and management issues to the minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. The National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (10 of 2004) details the role of SANBI and the botanic gardens as a lead agent in biodiversity management and conservation policy development for the country.


There is much to be done, the future is uncertain. It will be crucial for South Africa to develop the inventive minds and skills to tackle this and similar changes into the future, for the benefit of present and future generations. Global warming and the resultant global climate change is a threat that can be combated if we adopt sustainable living lifestyles (Yeld, 1997) and avoid activities that result in the environmental degradation. Although the National Botanical Gardens in South Africa contribute in various ways to combating global climate change - by reintroducing the green canopy through GoN and outreach greening programmes, educating target audiences in all walks of life on principles for a sustainable living, contributing to policy formulation and inspiring and empowering people on how to care for their environments in general - a lot of collective actions by various stakeholders from various parts of the world is required if global positive results are to be achieved.


  • Bargagli, R., 2004, Environmental Contamination, Climate Change and Human Impact, Ecological Studies, Vol. 175, Siena, Springer.
  • Foden, W, Midgley, G.F., Hughes, G., Bond, W.J., Thuiller, W., Hoffman, M.T., Kaleme, P., Rebelo, A.G., Hannah, L., 2007, Namibia desert trees feel the heat of climate change. Diversity and Distributions 13:645–653
  • Gates, D.M., Climate Change and its Biological consequences, Sunderland, Mass: Sinauer Associates.
  • Humphreys, D., 1996, Forest Politics: The Evaluation of International Cooperation, London: Earthscan Publications Ltd.
  • IPCC, 1990, IPCC First Assessment Report (1990): Scientific Assessment of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group I to the Intergovernmental Pane on Climate Change, J.T. Houghton, G.J. Jenkins and J.J. Ephraums, Eds., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 365 pp.
  • IPCC, 2007, Fourth Assessment Reports of Working groups 1, 2 and 3 (downloadable at
  • IPCC, 2007, WG1: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  • IPCC, 2007, WG2: Climate Change 2007: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group 2 to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Republic of South Africa, 2004, National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act No. 10 of 2004, Cape Town, South Africa.
  • Warburton, M, Schulze, R.E. & Maharaj, M., 2005, Is South Africa’s temperature changing? An analysis of trends from daily records, 1950-2000. Chapter 16 in Climate change and water resources in southern Africa. Studies on Scenarios, Impacts, Vulnerabilities and Adaptation. Ed. Schulze, R.E., Water Research Commission Report 1430/1/05
  • Yeld, J., 1997, Caring for the Earth, South Africa, A guide to a sustainable Living, WWF-SA, Stellenbosch, South Africa.


L’impact humain sur la composition de l’atmosphère s’est traduit par une augmentation alarmante des gaz à effet de serre, entraînant une augmentation de la chaleur piégée et conservée dans l’atmosphère ainsi que la pénétration des rayons ultraviolets néfastes du soleil due à la dégradation de la couche d’ozone. La conséquence de tous ces processus atmosphériques s’est manifestée par une élévation globale de la température, plus connue sous le nom de réchauffement planétaire et impliquant un changement climatique mondial. En Afrique du Sud, il se produit un net changement du cycle des précipitations, une altération des saisons, et une modification des températures moyennes à tel point que les formes de vie à tous les niveaux trophiques (depuis la végétation, les insectes, les animaux, jusqu’aux êtres humains) s’en trouvent menacées. La canicule provoque la destruction de la végétation ; le changement des saisons déroute le secteur agricole et affecte la production alimentaire, les petits paysans des pays sous-développés et en voie de développement étant les premiers à en souffrir.

Des millions de gens en Afrique vivent en-dessous du minimum vital. Ils dépendent fortement des ressources naturelles pour leur subsistance, toutefois leurs actions engendrent la déforestation et la désertification. Les jardins botaniques d’Afrique du Sud se trouvent au premier plan de la conservation de la biodiversité et leur travail est directement en lien avec la viabilité future du pays. Cet article étudie les effets du changement climatique sur la sécurité alimentaire dans les pays sous-développés et en voie de développement, et examine la contribution apportée par les jardins botaniques par le biais de l’éducation, du lobbying et de la mise en place de politiques, pour éviter les effets catastrophiques du changement climatique planétaire.


El impacto humano sobre la composición de la atmósfera ha resultado en un aumento alarmante de los gases de invernadero, a la vez causando un aumento en el calor atrapado en la atmósfera y de la penetración de los rayos ultravioletas dañinos como resultado del deterioro de la capa de ozono. El resultado de todos estos procesos atmosféricos ha sido el aumento de la temperatura global, lo cual está resultando en el cambio climático. En Sudáfrica, hay un notable cambio en la distribución de la lluvia, un desplazamiento estacional, y un cambio en las temperatures medias hasta el punto que las formas de vida en todos los niveles (desde la vegetación, los insectos y otros animales hasta el ser humano) están amenazados. El calor abrasador está quemando la vegetación; el deplazamiento estacional confunde al sector agrícola e impacta sobre la producción de alimentos de tal manera que son los agricultures de subsistencia en los paises en desarrollo o sub-desarrollados los que sufren más.

Millones de personas en África viven por debajo del nivel de subsistencia. Dependen sobre todo en los recursos naturales para sobrevivir, pero sus propias acciones están causando la deforestación y la desertificación. Los jardines botánicos en Sudáfrica estan al frente de la conservación de la biodiversidad y su trabajo es directamente relevante a la futura sostenibilidad del país. Este artículo estudia el efecto del cambio climático sobre la seguridad alimenticia el los paises en desarrollo o sub-desarrollados y examina la contribución de los jardines botánicos a través de tales aspectos como la educación, las representaciones y el desarrollo de tácticas, y el evitar los efectos catastróficos del cambio climático global.

Nopasika Malta Qwathekana
Director of Education
Dr G. Midgley
Specialist Scientist (Climate Change)
South African National Biodiversity Institute
Private Bag X101 Pretoria 0001
South Africa