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Abstract

This paper reviews research on African climate from the major Sahel droughts in the early 1970s to current interest in improving the use of climate science within societal decision-making processes. During the last decade, and particularly since the mid-2000s, the development community has begun to engage seriously with the issue of climate change and its implications for the world's poor. This has led to a growing interaction with the climate research community.

Recent climate literature is used to explore four research themes and identify knowledge gaps and areas with potential to adapt climate research for development needs. The first theme considers the development and use of seasonal forecasts and their portrayal by some as a relative success story, but with important skill limitations and need for much greater interaction with users. Forecast use is set within a wider context of generally low scientific understanding of the drivers of Africa's high climate variability and low research capacity. The second theme addresses the main influences on African climate variability and their response to climate change; high levels of uncertainty for future rainfall in some regions where remote influences are poorly resolved in global climate models. The third theme summarizes key elements of climate impacts research and shows a situation of rather ad hoc case studies and little engagement with decision-makers. Recent studies reveal an important move to couple more effectively impacts research with adaptation by focusing on the near future and drawing on current climate–society relationships. The fourth theme looks at the emerging evidence of anthropogenic climate change and secondary effects on African environments and, apart from widespread warming, shows an equivocal situation with evidence for anthropogenic ocean warming affecting regional rainfall. Detection is hampered by data availability and high levels of background variability.

Finally, three emergent issues are discussed: (1) reflection on African climate research capacity and international collaboration suggests it is timely to review experiences from recent climate programs in Africa; (2) attempts to untangle climate signals from within complex livelihood systems face significant methodological challenges. These include the need to reconcile scientific observations and local perceptions and to clarify views that may over-simplify climate–society interactions, to avoid construction of a crisis narrative on Africa and climate change; (3) the challenge of linking climate science with decision-making to inform adaptation. Demand for information and confidence often exceeds what climate science can realistically achieve in many parts of Africa. WIREs Clim Change 2011 2 428–450 DOI: 10.1002/wcc.115

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