Extreme Climate Conditions: How Africa Can Adapt

Africa’s climate already poses grave risks to the continent’s people and economies, and global warming promises to intensify the problem. A risk-management solution can help.

October 2015 | by Robert Harris

Even before global warming became an issue, many African countries were unusually vulnerable to floods, droughts, and heat waves. Indeed, if there were to be no further change in Africa’s climate, its current state already presents grave risks to the continent’s people and economies. Global warming could trigger more frequent and severe weather disasters, shifts in rainfall patterns and climate zones, and rising sea levels.

For African nations, adapting to these possibilities is an urgent necessity. To do so, their leaders must answer some difficult questions. What climate-related losses could these economies sustain over the coming decades? How much can be averted and through what measures? Which investments will be required to finance them? Will the benefits outweigh the costs? We believe that such questions can be answered systematically through a factual risk-management approach that African leaders can use to assess climate’s impact on their countries and to find ways of minimizing it at the lowest cost to society.

Knowledge about future climate trends—particularly their local impact—is incomplete, so policy and investment choices must be made under uncertainty. Yet enough is known to build plausible climate change scenarios as a basis for these decisions, even in developing countries. Such scenarios can help decision makers to identify adaptation measures useful against a range of climate change outcomes. Cost-effective responses can address much of the identified risk: depending on the country studied, 40 to 70 percent of the losses expected by 2030 could be averted—even under severe climate change scenarios—through adaptation measures whose economic benefits outweigh their costs. In almost all cases, however, at least some risk cannot be averted through known measures.

Many adaptation measures would strengthen economic growth in developing countries; in Mali, for instance, climate-resilient agricultural development could generate millions of dollars annually in additional revenues. Measures with demonstrated net economic benefits could also attract investments and trigger valuable new innovations and partnerships. Indeed, well-targeted, early investments to improve climate resilience—through infrastructure development, technological advances, capacity improvements, new systems and behavior, and risk transfer measures—will probably be cheaper and more effective for the world community than complex disaster relief efforts after the event.

A fact-based approach can provide valuable input into the overall decision-making process. Among other things, it recognizes the importance of cost–benefit considerations, makes it possible to put “price tags” on current and future climate risks, and lets decision makers develop plans to help businesses adapt to them.


We do not know how much or how soon the global climate will change because of rising greenhouse gas emissions, but we do know that a country’s ability to cope with climate change will depend on its socioeconomic position. The poorest developing economies face especially difficult challenges both in addressing their current climate risks and adapting to new ones. For them, linking climate responses with economic-development strategies will be vital. A fact-based approach that considers costs can help.


Executive Editor

Ms Anna Sullivan

Ms Anna Sullivan