• 04.18.12

U.S. Defense Department Maps Future Climate Turmoil in Africa

Not willing to sit on their heels and find out where disaster will strike on the continent, the U.S. army is attempting to project future weather so they know what’s coming.

Climate change is not (just) about prevention. Emissions from the past century guarantee climate change will continue far into the future, even if we stop them now. How its impacts play out around the world, however, are not well understood.


For the U.S. military, never fond of surprises, that means that studying how climate change may affect political stability around the world, particularly Africa, is part of the battle plan. The Department of Defense is funding Climate Change and African Political Stability (CCAPS), part of its university-based research program for national security issues known as the Minerva Initiative, to predict how climate upheaval might strike the African continent.

“The CCAPS program sought to identify which areas in Africa are most vulnerable to climate change–and why–at the most detailed scale possible,” according to the program’s researchers (PDF). “It is not enough to say ‘Ethiopia is vulnerable’ without explaining which parts of Ethiopia are particularly vulnerable and why.”

The program visualizes multiple dimensions of climate vulnerability and risks in a single map. Data about conflicts, aid, governance, and climate are overlaid to give a dynamic view of the continent’s risk factors, as well as development projects such as World Bank initiatives to buffer or adapt to climate change. Users can select and layer any combination of data to see how climate change intersects with risks over time. Local conflicts, for example, can be related to climate-induced food insecurity.

Another map may not sound very useful. Plenty exist already. But climate change is a so called wicked problem that resists any easy, one dimensional ways to solve it. Mapping tools, by placing information about multiple, interdependent factors in one place, allow policymakers to start thinking about how systematic solutions may address such systemic problems. That is, if they are interested.

“It’s a starting point for a conversation,” said Joshua Busby, an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas, in Scientific American. “These maps and this process of understanding climate vulnerability starts a conversation that gets people to start thinking about how we prioritize resources.”

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.