How Africa’s mathematicians can help solve the global climate crisis
Prof. Nana Ama Browne Klutse, a Ghanaian mathematical physicist with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), doesn’t have a crystal ball in her office, but she does look into the future for a living. Klutse makes climate models using mathematical equations to characterize how energy and matter interact in different parts of the ocean, atmosphere and land.
As a lead author of the sixth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), she has helped provide the world with some of the starkest evidence yet that Africa is negatively affected by climate change and that it is set to be even more severely impacted than other continents even though it contributes less greenhouse gas emissions.
“Hot extremes are going to increase almost everywhere in Africa,” Klutse said at a public briefing in November 2021 to discuss the findings of the IPCC report, with a focus on Africa. “Agricultural drought and ecological drought are also going to increase for most places in Africa,” she explained, adding that Africa is highly dependent on rainfall for agriculture, which accounts for a significant portion of the continent’s economic activity.
The professor, who was part of IPCC's Working Group 1 on the physical science basis, also stated that it was “likely to virtually certain” that sea levels would continue to rise in Africa. “This is a concern especially for coastal communities.”
Klutse is a Resident AIMS-Canada Researcher in Climate Change Science at AIMS Rwanda and a Research Chair of the Climate Change Science Program at AIMS Ghana. The AIMS-Canada research is supported by IDRC and Global Affairs Canada as part of a joint effort to build a critical mass of mathematical scientists to contribute to climate change solutions for Africa.
The project, called Mathematical sciences for climate change resilience (MS4CR), provides training, internship placements and research grants, with an emphasis on women mathematical scientists.
Strengthening capacities for climate research in Africa
Despite some progress, the number of African scientists remains relatively small. Efforts such as MS4CR are therefore vital to develop the region’s scientific talent and to retain scientists in Africa.
The goal is to support the work of African scientists in studying the scale and scope of climate change impacts so they can make important contributions to this field. Contributions like those found in Prof. Klutse’s research. Her work has covered such topics as the projected change in temperature and rainfall over Africa and the identification of potential drought areas in West Africa as a result of climate change.
But her contribution to the IPCC report is arguably the most far-reaching of her research accomplishments thus far.
“As Africans, we should be concerned with what’s happening globally,” she said, referring to climate change. “Our continent is more vulnerable to these changes.”
Speaking on an episode of the 267Sustain podcast last August, she noted that the IPCC had become bolder in making explicit the link between human behaviour and climate change.
“We didn’t have enough confidence in our climate models in our earlier reports. But today, we are so confident in our climate models, which are giving us the past, the present and the future of our climate,” she said, explaining that the models are now able to distinguish between natural climate processes and human-induced climate effects.
“So it is clear that human beings are contributing massively to the changes that we are experiencing in the climate system,” said Klutse, an associate professor in the department of physics at the University of Ghana.
Prof. Klutse, who actively advocates for girls in Ghana to consider science careers, has also worked as a senior research scientist at Ghana’s space science institute and was among the first cohort of AIMS’s Women in Climate Change Science fellowship.
She stresses the need to increase the capacity for climate research in Africa, which is plagued by insufficient data, among other challenges. “The contributions of Africans on this important subject, on climate, is very minimal,” said Klutse, who was one of only 19 African lead authors of the sixth IPCC report, out of a total of 234.
“We need to up our game in terms of research and in terms of data collection,” she said.