March 19th, 2012

Future Climate Change in the Global South

By Kenneth Young


In this comprehensive review, Kenneth Young gives a robust and sweeping analysis of how global climate change might affect landscapes in the global South.  His unique emphasis on including the human element, within both a current societal and historical-political framework—provides a hefty morsal of food for thought regarding the multiple and complex ways in which real cultural and natural landccapes will respond to global warming.




Drivers of change may force land use systems over thresholds, with strong influences on migration, land tenure, public health, and sustainability goals. Global change tends to exacerbate existing inequalities and asymmetries. Some of these imbalances are due to historical and postcolonial legacies of previous extractive systems designed for the removal of natural resources. Some are due to innate asymmetries in how biological and ecological diversity is distributed in the world. As a result, there is much need for geographical research on the spatial consequences of how biophysical change is coupled to socioeconomic and political processes. Similarly, sustainable use requires sensitivity to environmental and social disparities and injustices.




Directional change in climate regimes may lead to tipping points, which would shift climate in particular places and their associated land use/land cover systems into new configurations. These regime shifts in turn could change the sustainability of land use, the vulnerabilities of families and communities, and the governance of natural resources. As a result, for many places and situations the criteria used to evaluate long-term sustainability, exposure to risk, and institutional structures must be reconsidered and recrafted. Knowledge of place-to-place differences in livelihood strategies, biophysical constraints, and landscape effects of global change will be crucial.

Land use systems that connect the forests, grasslands, farmlands, and water bodies of the world to agricultural and resource extraction systems are best evaluated from a coupled systems approach (Liu et al., 2007), which accommodates both independent and linked changes in biophysical and social factors. In relation to global environmental change and coupled systems, Adger et al. (2009) points out that couplings can be helpfully conceptualized as networks and in regards to their interconnectedness, and also as hierarchies and in relation to their nestedness. If so, then there are then implications for the ways that vulnerability can be transferred or experienced as their linkages and causal relationships will differ. Adger et al. (2009) also suggest that globalization acts through the integration of global markets that connect once separated places and economic sectors through what they label as “teleconnections”. The case studies they evaluate from this framework include emerging diseases (see also Jones et al., 2008) and commodities such as coffee (e.g., Ponette, 2007). This article continues this interrogation by examining implications of considering the directional shifts imposed by global climate change.

Humanized landscapes where many people live in the developing countries of the Global South are affected by global fluxes, but adaptive responses may be constrained by national and local pressures or resources (e.g., Greenough & Tsing, 2003; Silva et al., 2010). Geographers and researchers from cognate disciplines have pointed to the challenges that come from globalization (Dalby, 2007; Herod, 2009). The spatial and power asymmetries involved are discussed in this article in reference first to the biophysical template, then in relation to postcolonial structures and legacies, and finally focusing on implications for environmental governance.



Global Asymmetries: Now and in the Future


Williams et al. (2007) predicted massive changes in the location of biomes under likely future climate scenarios. The high and the low latitudes will have the largest qualitative and quantitative alterations. What was startling, however, was their demonstration that many future changes would move landscapes, ecosystems, and vegetation types into novel configurations, with non-analog biotic communities resulting that have no counterparts under current conditions and that in some cases have not existed on Earth for many millennia, if ever. Disturbance regimes will change, with consequences for landscapes shaped by fire or other perturbations (Krawchuk et al., 2009) and for possible feedbacks causing further climate change due to biomass burning by people.  The future distributions of species and particularly of invasive species will be hard to map; it will be particularly difficult to predict range shifts when climate change produces novel conditions, and when they are associated with disease (McClintock et al., 2010). Novel biophysical conditions in turn will create new land covers, with profound implications for land uses such as farming, gardening, and the raising of livestock (e.g., Figure 1), or the harvesting of timber and other fibers (e.g., Figure 2).

The atmosphere of the low latitudes receives the majority of the planet’s solar energy. The circulation systems of the Earth’s air and oceans act to move that energy through temperature and moisture towards higher latitudes. This fundamental physical asymmetry (e.g., Cruz et al., 2009; Garcia & Kayano, 2009) puts the bulk of the planet’s incoming solar energy to work in the tropics, setting up huge and shifting intertropical convergences of surface winds, lifting air parcels to more than 40 km heights, and creating some of the world’s wettest environments (Bush & Flenley, 2007). On the margins of the northerly and southerly extents of the Intertropical Convergence Zone are located dryland and arid landscapes, which are exposed to clear skies when air masses subside and seasonal rainfall at other times of the year. Future climate change will especially alter precipitation and seasonal anomalies (Tan et al., 2008), affecting the locations of the subtropical and tropical climate regimes and biomes.

The couplings of these global-scale atmospheric and energetic processes to terrestrial ecosystems appear to be behind the well-known high diversity of both species and ecological conditions at lower latitudes (Willig et al., 2003). There tend to be many plant and animal species where rainfall and/or available energy are high (Hawkins et al., 2003). In addition, the dry-to-wet environmental

Figure 1. Andean agricultural landscape in north-central Peru. Visible are plantings of wheat, broad bean, and alfalfa, plus fallowed fields and eucalypt stands amid small settlements. Farmers can adapt to changing biophysical conditions in such landscapes by altering their farming practices through the use of different crop mixtures and varieties, by shifting the locations of actively farmed fields, by raising livestock, or by increased wage labor or out-migration.



Figure 2. Local people harvesting grasses from the margins of the Okavango Delta (Botswana) for roof thatch and other building and handicraft needs. The sustainability of the extraction depends on environmental fluctuations (e.g., timing and height of floods) and access rules for other community members who also need to collect thatch, all of which will likely change in the future due to climatic and economic drivers.



Gradients that stretch from the tropics to the subtropics permit many different ecosystem types and species to be present over relatively short horizontal distances. Tropical mountains in turn pack much biological change into short vertical distances with changes in elevation on steep slopes. Frequently, additional asymmetry in biodiversity has been noted, arising from the northern hemisphere’s steeper declines in biological diversity with increasing latitude than is true for lands in the southern hemisphere (Chown et al., 2004). The islands of the tropics are highly altered by people and have the most unique, endemic species, many threatened by extinction (Fordham & Brook, 2010).

The tropics of the Global South are hence biologically diverse (Young, 2011), with a propensity for special vulnerabilities to the effects of global change (e.g., Sommer et al., 2010). Global climate change will alter plant growth, biome locations, carbon storage, and available energy (Field et al., 2007), often with an increase in the dominance of woody plants (Asner et al., 2004) and more asymmetry in precipitation (Chou and Tu, 2008).

In recent research, Zhao & Running (2010) examined worldwide terrestrial net primary productivity (NPP) for the time period from 2000 to 2009, showing a slight global decline in productivity, with substantial inter-hemispheric asymmetry. The southern hemisphere, especially as controlled by the tropics and subtropics of South America, southern Africa, southeast Asia, and Australia, had important declines in NPP, triggered by droughts in 2002, 2005, and 2007. In turn, the northern hemisphere actually showed an increase in NPP. One of the expectations for future global change is an increase in plant photosynthesis, given sufficient available soil moisture; this study suggests that based on trends seen now since 1982 (cf. Nemani et al., 2003), planetary-scale change is already occurring and differentially increasing stresses in the Global South.  In turn, the humanized landscapes used for settlements and agriculture will operate under novel ecological settings.


Postcolonial Landscapes: Legacy Effects

There are also important fundamental asymmetries in the social, economic, and political couplings that connect humans and land use to the biophysical systems of the Global South. Many of those areas were colonized by European nations, and their infrastructure systems and settlements show historical legacies of previous extractive systems for natural resources (Grove, 1985; Sluyter, 1999; Howe, 2010).

For example, Bush & Silman (2007) suggested that current data show land use intensity and associated deforestation and alterations to soil chemistry (e.g., Lehmann et al., 2003) were concentrated in places in the New World tropics that could support relatively large and dense populations before European contact. These tended to be sites adjacent to large rivers (Denevan, 1996), in seasonally dry forests (Whitmore and Turner, 2001), and in the highlands (Denevan, 2001). Most other neotropical sites would have had sparse human populations, a condition exacerbated by widespread demographic crashes after exposure to Old World diseases (Crosby, 1972) and only recently reversing with planned infrastructure development and planned and spontaneous colonization and deforestation of humid tropical forests (Rudel, 2005).

World history can be rethought in relation to the spatial implications of colonization, exploitation of natural resources, poor health conditions, and economic development (e.g., Klepeis & Turner, 2001; Harvey, 2003; Coatsworth, 2008; Butlin, 2009; Majumder, 2010). Forward looking analyses may overlook these complexities, overly simplifying the history of globalization (Heine & Thakur, 2011). Redclift (2006) uses a more complete approach, tracing through implications of European settlement, economic integration, and land cover changes with case examples from landscapes in Canada, Ecuador, Mexico, and Spain.

Liverman (2009) elucidated another structural asymmetry, in this case socioeconomic and political in character, with historical precedents of “southern” countries being exploited for the benefit of “northern” countries. She suggested that carbon markets in a world affected by climate change would reinforce those historical and current disparities, with developing countries penalized both for carbon dioxide release during the production of goods for export to developed countries and by greenhouse gases created by land cover changes occurring with the conversion of lands for agriculture and for settlements.

Saul et al. (2003) summarized land cover change in Burkina Faso in relation to colonial policies and postcolonial shifts in development goals. More intensive land use is shown to be due to an expansion of commercial agriculture rather than to population growth. Because much land use change has increased size of areas in tree crops, deforestation as such is not a primary environmental concern. The human dimensions of these kinds of landscape transitions are still not included in conceptual models of how regimes shifts take place, however. For example, this oversight can be seen in the recent study of Hirota et al. (2011) that only uses rainfall as the underlying driver of change for forest/savanna/grassland shifts, ignoring the role(s) of humans.

It is not difficult to identify other ongoing change processes that would increase inequality among pastoralists (Kristjanson et al., 2007; Mulder et al., 2010), and for other people faced by development for mining (Horowitz, 2009), by side effects from the control of poaching (Neumann, 2004) and the conservation of tropical biodiversity (Rodriguez et al., 2007), and in the aftermaths of natural disasters (Carey, 2005; Pelling & Dill, 2010) or as threatened by health concerns (Patz et al., 2005). Landscape change will often be both symptom and consequence of global drivers.


Environmental Governance under Directional Change

Dramatic changes in coupled socio-ecological systems may occur quickly, with systems flipping from one relatively stable regime to another (Hastings & Wysham, 2010; Staver et al., 2011). These kinds of changes are hard to predict, especially as they may result as a consequence of slow directional changes in biophysical conditions. This means that environmental perceptions and the capacity of people to respond are both critical considerations. For example, Schneider et al. (2000) pointed out that farmers exposed to the effects of climate change will adapt in quite heterogeneous ways, in part because of variation in how they were able to detect such influences and then alter farming practices. It is crucial to acquire additional information on this kind of individual variation in order to predict adaptive capacities of households, villages, and regions.

Schlenker & Roberts (2009) used crop models to suggest a likely nonlinear effect of temperature on future yields; that is, some harvests are predicted to increase with warming temperature, but would be followed by drastic declines in yields when critical temperature regimes are exceeded. Wang et al. (2009) used economic experiments and game models to show that heterogeneity of preferences in decision making about resource use collectively creates stable conditions interrupted by unpredictable shifts in regime mode. Simulation modeling suggests that massive reforestation projects in deforested areas of the tropics would be effective at mitigating warming feedbacks, while this would not be the case for the middle and high latitudes (Bala et al., 2007). All of these are examples of research approaches using different kinds of modeling to evaluate the ranges of social and ecological responses to directional change.

Espinosa (2009) used empirical observations and interviews to evaluate decision making in semi-arid coastal Peru by families without irrigation and hence dependent upon goat herding for their livelihoods. She showed that people with better access to formal education and/or experience as migrants had larger herds and more diverse income sources. These would be elements leading to better household economic and health conditions. However, the perverse influence of the market in this case was to keep low the values of the goats and their products, limiting the local development possible. Most families are “adapting,” not by increasing their use of these dry forest landscapes, but by the out-migration of their youth. This example also shows how external drivers are acting upon traditional land use systems in novel ways.

Chapin et al. (2006) used examples from high latitudes to show that directional climate change will affect coupled subsystems differentially, with for example soil nitrate levels, herbivore populations, and community incomes responding relatively quickly, but with soil properties, natural disturbance regimes, and land tenure, all much slower to change. The interactions will put land use systems under stress in complex ways, making human vulnerability, resilience, and transformability all issues of concern. Similar examples from the lower latitudes of the Global South would include the need for new institutions for dealing with river basin management (Engle & Lemos, 2010), land rights (Escobar, 2001), reforestation and deforestation (Betts et al., 2008), carbon politics (Lahsen, 2009), the new biogeographies of diseases (Peterson, 2008), and remaking agriculture (Foley et al., 2011). Environmental governance will require adaptive approaches cognizant of coupled shifts in socio-ecological systems (Chapin et al., 2009).



Global change causes disparate shifts in the coupled natural-human systems associated with land use in landscapes in the Global South. There are inherent asymmetries in the ways that alterations in atmospheric composition and dynamics affect biodiversity and biophysical constraints on farming, grazing, and resource extraction (Young, 2007, 2009).

In addition, the ways that land use decisions are shaped by the globalization of economic and information flows are also fundamentally asymmetrical. The land cover changes made by farmers and pastoralists of the Global South would have only a small additional contribution to environmental change at a planetary scale. In turn, the biophysical and socioeconomic drivers that force rural land use systems over thresholds will have severe contingent influences on millions of individuals and their families.        Globalization synergizes with some of the coupled natural-human linkages that increase inequalities in general (Darby, 2004; Leichenko & O’Brien, 2008; Parks & Roberts, 2010) and could further heighten asymmetrical power/economic relations in particular. Examples include uneven development and geopolitical conflict (Saull, 2005; Sioh, 2010), the degree of local control over water supplies (Bakker, 2007), activity of the biotechnology sector (Frew, 2009), and women’s health concerns (Jagger, 2002). At the same time, each of these sociopolitical issues can be addressed or resolved in ways that help and empower local people.

Livelihoods of rural smallholders may be adaptable to future changes if not unduly constrained by legal, economic, and practical limitations on shifting the location and mode of production. Continued future shifts in drivers of change, however, may well force land use systems over thresholds, with strong influences on migration, land tenure, and public health. The rural sites where small-scale agriculture will become more marginalized could act as sources of environmental refugees, with people moving to urban-fringe settlements.  As a result, global climate change will tend to exacerbate existing inequalities and asymmetries, at local, regional, and national levels, with multiple effects on livelihoods, health, and their interrelations.




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