Monday, March 30, 2009

Deforestation on a 'J' curve

The New York Times' DotEarth blog reports that Madagascar's forests are being endangered by the political instability of the country, caused by a recent coup. A group of eleven conservation organizations have put out a letter expressing deep concern about the state of conservation efforts now that the coup has brought about a degradation of law and order. They specifically decry:

"– Open and organized plundering, sometimes using firearms, of precious wood from several natural forests, including national parks such as Marojejy and Masoala, which have been declared World Heritage Sites.

– Intensified smuggling of wild species, especially reptiles such as tortoises, to the national and international markets.

– Proliferation, due to the current impunity, of destructive practices such as illegal mining and slash-and-burn agriculture within protected areas and environmentally sensitive areas."

This event and tragedy illustrate an interesting and disturbing phenomenon: as security in Madagascar falls, poaching and deforestation should be expected to rise, but only to a point. If political instability continues to degrade, and an open civil war begins, we should probably expect less deforestation, as people and companies flee the area. Currently, lawless bands see instability as a way to make quick money, but if open warfare breaks out, they will focus their efforts on survival. I will explain.

The J Curve was a book by Ian Bremmer, published in 2006 that made the assertion that very repressive, closed states (like Cuba or North Korea) are relatively stable, and very open, democratic states (like Western Europe and the U.S.) are extraordinarily stable. However, nations that are transitioning from closed societies to open societies are inherently unstable, and are at great risk of either backsliding towards repression (like Russia over the last decade) or of collapsing into anarchy (like the collapse of Mobutu's Zaire or Milosevic's Yugoslavia). This phenomenon is best shown by the accompanying graph, shaped like a 'J.'

I would propose a corollary to Bremmer's 'J' curve, with regards to political stability and the sustainability and management practices of local forests. On the X axis I would substitute 'political stability' for openness, and on the Y axis, I would put 'forest sustainability' instead of stability. I have reproduced the graph. You can see that I'm stating that countries which are very politically unstable -- characterized by civil wars, falling populations, mass refugees, or localized famines -- will have relatively healthy forests: environmental management by a sort of 'benign neglect.' On the other hand, countries with more stable, but not necessarily effective, governments would have extremely unhealthy forests and high rates of deforestation. These governments would be characterized by corruption, the lack of a rule of law, and little environmental protection. Finally, the most stable countries would also tend to be the most able to devote scarce resources to creating national parks, policing poachers, and valuing the natural environment.

I will illustrate with examples. Returning to my introduction, we see that Madagascar's unique wildlife and rich forests are under severe threat from poaching, logging, and clearing, since a coup two weeks ago. The eleven signatories of the letter say: "During the last 20 years, Madagascar has undertaken significant and exemplary efforts to stop environmental degradation, effectively manage natural resources and preserve its unique biodiversity in the pursuit of sustainable development." This statement implies that Madagascar's relatively stable government of the last two decades was very strong in conserving its forests. Now, lawlessness is causing it to backslide down the curve, as illustrated at right.

On the other hand, a country that would be as close to 'zero' on the political stability curve is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since 1998, the Congo has suffered through a long, intractable, and deadly civil war. One of the unexpected consequences of this civil war, however, has been that the Congo has some of the largest tracts of unspoiled natural rainforest in the world. A few weeks ago, I was doing research on rates of deforestation in tropical forests, and I was surprised to see that, according to a new report from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the Congo's rate of deforestation was only .2% per annum during the 2000-2005 period. For comparison, the same report states that the Brazilian rainforest was deforested at three times that rate, and Indonesian forests were cleared at 10 times that rate. However, during that same time period, the IISS's Armed Conflict Database reports that over 30,000 people were killed directly in armed conflict during the 2000-2005 period in a war that some estimates claim caused the death of 5.4 million people.

This evidence, therefore, shows that the Congo has been a very bad place to be a commercial logger. Most of the deforestation in the Congo has been localized around population centers as part of slash and burn subsistence agriculture. However, this is changing. reports that "Logging in the Congo Basin has increased significantly as peace has returned to the region." With peace and increased political stability, the great forests of the Congo will be opened to logging. However, in a country with great corruption, little culture of conservation, few legal limits on logging, and no ability to enforce those laws deep in the jungles, we should expect loggers to quickly move in. This can be illustrated graphically at left. It is paradoxical, therefore, that with increased stability in the Congo we should expect greater deforestation.
The implications of this for the Congo are several: to help alleviate and mitigate that period of transition, aid agencies and foreign governments should help to improve political stability, as well as to implement institutions capable of protecting tropical forests. For Madagascar, however, the implications are that the country should seek a return to political stability and openness. In the meantime, donors should remain vigilant in their efforts to protect forests as much as possible.

UNFCCC fast approaching

This week marks the first session of the UN-sponsored negotiating sessions this year. They are taking place at the UNFCCC’s headquarters in Bonn, Germany. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) executive secretary Yvo de Boer noted that “the clock is ticking down and countries still have much work to cover.” Although it appears as though there are 8 months left to the culminating international climate change deal to be signed in Copenhagen, Denmark in December, de Boer explained that only 6 weeks of negotiating time is left, including this session in Bonn. De Boer outlined the four points on which clarity is needed:

1) On what industrialized countries will do, through individual targets, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
2) On what developing countries will do to limit the growth of their emissions
3) On finance, since developing countries cannot be expected to act on this issue without financial support
4) On governance, since a governance structure is needed that gives an equal voice to developing countries in how the resources available for mitigation and adaptation are used.

The United States special envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern has been greeted both by applause and disapproval. Loud applause from the 2,600 delegates to the U.N. negotiations met Stern’s statement: "We are very glad to be back. We want to make up for lost time, and we are seized with the urgency of the task before us."

Although Obama has set aside $80 billion in his economic stimulus package for green energy, promised $150 billion for research over 10 years, and was tightening regulations on auto emissions, representatives from other nations are saying that this is not enough. There is need for a tight cap on GHG emissions and this will be dictated by whatever deal Obama can strike with Congress.

Germany's environment minister, Sigmar Gabriel, said “the US has insufficient climate protection goals, at least as far as the international community is concerned." The US must lead in its efforts to combat climate change by imposing strict self-regulation in order to negotiate effectively with other nations. The Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention will hopefully allow for this leadership to materialize.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Climate Change and Security Discussions in Africa

On March 25 to 26, parliamentarians and experts from across West Africa examined crucial questions of climate change and its impact on agriculture and food security at a regional parliamentary seminar in Dakar. AWEPA, the Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa, organized this ‘Regional Parliamentary Seminar on Climate Change and Food Security’ in co-operation with the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank, the National Assembly of Senegal and the African Parliamentarian’s Forum for NEPAD.

‘Climate change and the related issues of food security are huge challenges for us all,’ comments Pär Granstedt, Secretary General of AWEPA. “We fully recognize that industrialized countries are the main contributors to the crisis, while less developed regions, especially Africa, seem destined to suffer most. This regional seminar will take the dialogue among parliamentarians one step further and energize parliamentary action to deal with the issues and face up to the problems”.

An important topic of debate is how to use new technology, such a genetically modified food, to enhance agricultural production as well as better ensure food security. The overwhelming view of genetic modification in Africa is skepticism due to past failures of such technologies. While the United States openly promotes genetic modification, Europe remains adverse to the importation of such products and enforces the labeling of all foodstuffs that have been genetically modified. This leads many African countries to avoid potentially beneficial GM foods, for fear of losing access to the EU market.

Parliamentarians from nine West African countries, experts and NGOs, both European and African, will hopefully return to their home countries with more knowledge and tools to boost parliamentary action at national and regional levels as well as internationally. African nations have not been critically involved in climate change discussions up to now, partly because of capacity constraints. In the coming year, countries throughout Africa will need to work to find their own voice, beyond what large developing countries like China have to say.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

U.S. Arctic Policy

Warming in the Arctic continues to get a lot of press, so Sophia has put together a quick analysis of the new U.S. policy for the Arctic (released January 9, 2009).

The National Security/ Homeland Security Presidential Directive on Arctic Region Policy perceives “the effects of climate change and increasing human activity in the Arctic region” as one of the main developments that needs to be taken into account. The Directive proposes research and study as an important means of dealing with changing climate conditions:

“Such efforts shall include inventories and assessments of villages, indigenous communities, subsistence opportunities, public facilities, infrastructure, oil and gas development projects, alternative energy development opportunities, forestry, cultural and other sites, living marine resources, and other elements of the Arctic's socioeconomic composition.”

Not only are energy resources and human development important that need to be dealt with properly in the context of climate change, but there is a growing array of military leaders, Arctic experts and lawmakers who say that the United States is losing its ability to patrol and safeguard Arctic waters, and that the thawing region has triggered a burst of shipping and oil and gas exploration by foreign nations, such as Russia and Canada.

Canada and US relations have been further intensified due to the recent occurrence of the Northwest Passage becoming navigable. A dispute resulting in an ‘Agreement to Disagree’ states that the US considers this Northern Sea Route open for international navigation, while Canada asserts the Northwest Passage as its territorial waters.

Rear Adm. Dave A. Gove, the oceanographer/navigator of the Navy said even the Chinese "have also expressed an interest because of the natural resources that are available." Gove also thinks that the melting and breaking of ice has potential to leave the US more vulnerable to terrorism and access to the country. He emphasizes the need for a strong American military presence in the region, meaning improvement is needed.

Up to now, the Obama administration said little about its polar policy, although Secretary Clinton did breifly address the issue under questioning during her confirmation hearing.

Ethanol Importation from Brazil

Two weeks ago, President Lula of Brazil visited the White House. What was most news-worthy from the climate-security perspective is their discussion of trading Brazilian sugar-based ethanol. It is no surprise that Lula favors an opening of the U.S. ethanol market to imports; Brazil has an established and productive ethanol industry. President Obama -- who supported ethanol during the campaign (particularly in Iowa) -- said:

"I know that the issue of Brazilian ethanol coming into the United States
has been a source of tension between the two countries. It's not going to
change overnight, but I do think that as we continue to build exchanges of
ideas, commerce, trade around the issue of biodiesel, that over time this source
of tension can get resolved."

Although this is a classic politician's dodge, he does seem to understand that our current policies are not economically, scientifically, or environmentally sustainable. Perhaps Obama can make some changes to undo the twisted problems that political interference has brought to this market.

Ethanol is one of the most fraught problems in the nexus of climate and energy security. Several years ago, when it was first starting to get ramped-up in the U.S., it was seen as one of the easiest win-wins around. Not only did you get to support 'family farmers' you also got to fight global warming and reduce the importation of foreign oil. Unfortunately, it hasn't turned out to be that simple. It turns out, that when you take land-use into account, corn-based ethanol may not actually be good for the climate. While it has been marginally beneficial in reducing dependence on foreign oil, it probably had the unforeseen problem of raising food prices.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"The Political Consequences of Climate Change"

The lates issue of Survival includes an article by Paul Herman, of the National Intelligence Council, and Greg Treverton, of RAND, about the political and strategic consequences of climate change. Here is a link to the article (subscription required).

On first read, this is a smart and cogent analysis of the issue, that doesn't go into the hyperbole that often comes on this issue. Here is a quote:

"Over the medium term, however, climate change is not likely to
involve simple causality and a stark, one-to-one correspondence. Climate
impacts may be all but imperceptible for states already beset with acute
ongoing problems, such as Afghanistan, North Korea and Zimbabwe."

I agree with their perception that those hyping the security implications of climate change can sometimes go over the top, but unfortunately it seems that's the only way to be heard. In our competetive media marketplace, it seems the only way a new study on climate change can be heard is if it predicts gloom and doom. Those that predict a slow, almost imperciptible erosion of living standards and a marginal, but important, effect on foreign policy will be inevitably ignored by the mainstream media.

So, we're in a 'catch-22.' You can't get noticed if you present a reasoned, scholarly view; but you can't present a reasoned view, if you want to bring attention and importance to this debate. How do we overcome this?

Report on Bangladesh's Environmental Security

It has come to my attention that the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPPS) authored a briefing last August on Environmental Security in their country. The report can be found here.

Among the findings of the briefing is that climate change will "negatively impact food security, health security, and economic security" in Bangladesh. It states that a one meter rise in sea level (above the IPCC's 2007 estimate, but within range of current estimates) would inundate 5,609 million acres of coastal land- about 15% of Bangladesh's total area (see image for detail).

The BIPPS concludes that the Government of Bangladesh has yet to produce an "integrated disaster management approach" to deal with climate change. The report recommends that Bangladesh needs to increase its diplomacy at international events, particularly in the UNFCCC, by seeking out alliances with like-minded countries. Finally, it recommends that the Bangladeshi government implements a new strategy -- coordinated throughout the government and private sector -- to adapt to the security effects of climate change.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Who is responsible for ‘climate change refugees?’

India is taking concrete steps to ensure national security against the threat of ‘climate change refugees’ from neighboring Bangladesh in calling for 2,100 miles worth of high-tech fencing along its border with Bangladesh. Understandably, India can barely provide for its own citizens and does not want responsibility for these people whose homelands are being destroyed by rising sea levels and increasing climate variability.

Western governments avoid the term ‘refugee’ because it may lead to a call for international aid from these countries that have emitted the majority of GHG emissions in the past, arguably causing the problem. The UN is also wary of the term because they feel it does disservice to those who fall under the original legal definition of refugee, which focuses on refugees fleeing due to brutal dictatorships, violence, repression and civil wars.

Environmental and human rights groups, including local migration agencies feel the term is appropriate. They feel the term accurately describes the situation in Bangladesh; "If a family lost his house or capital, if he doesn't have any place to get housing or buy food, he should go some other place. He's a refugee. If it happened because of climate impact, then he's a climate refugee," said Sarder Shafiqul Alam, a research fellow at the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies in Dhaka.

For countries like Bangladesh, ‘a country that could provide more climate refugees than anywhere else on earth,’ said Isabel Hilton, an environmental commentator whose London-based nonprofit promotes climate change dialogue in China and throughout Asia, this becomes an important issue and will only continue to cause increased tension in the future if not solved properly.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Climate Change Security Conference

On Tuesday, March 17, the Institute for Environmental Security (IES) hosted a small event at the Brookings Institution entitled: “Climate Change & Security At Copenhagen.” This day-long event brought together a range of views from around the world to discuss the science and security implications of climate change, as well as the measures that governments are beginning to take to reduce emissions. Here is a brief news release that explains it in more detail.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

World Water Forum addresses climate change and security

On Monday, March 16, experts in sanitation, climate change, and development from government, academia, the media and business gathered in Istanbul for the World Water Forum. This week-long conference focuses on how best to achieve water security through developing sanitation systems, addressing climate change and balancing food and biofuel production.

The third edition of the UN World Water Development Report (released every 3 years) was presented in the meeting. It recommended immediate action before water resources become an additional reason for wars. "Water is linked to the crises of climate change, energy and food supplies and prices, and troubled financial markets," the report says. "Unless their links with water are addressed and water crises around the world are resolved, these other crises may intensify and local water crises may worsen, converging into a global water crisis and leading to political insecurity and conflict at various levels."

US specialists, such as Aaron Salzberg, special coordinator for water resources at the State Department, and Brian Richter, director of fresh water programs at the Nature Conservancy, are happy to see the link between climate change and water security. They both note climate change’s intensifying effect on water security due to more frequent and intense water-related disasters as well as unpredictable weather patterns. Director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Geoffrey Dabelko recently said climate change could affect not just drinking water and sanitation, but also the amount of water available for energy production.

Water problems, such as lack of sanitation infrastructure and reliable access to clean water are often worst in developing countries, where water availability and prosperity are closely linked because many of the world’s poorest citizens are reliant on subsistence agriculture for survival. Population growth and climate change are predicted to exacerbate the water security problem; both of these problems are most critical in developing nations.

Piracy and climate change

Bill Rammell, a junior minister in Great Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, recently suggested that maritime piracy could increase ten-fold around the world as a result of climate change.

The links between piracy and climate change are by no means direct or obvious, but they are nevertheless a source of concern. Climate change can act as a ‘threat multiplier’ by severely eroding natural resources (such as fish, farmland and freshwater) that many coastal communities rely on for livelihoods.

Erosion of natural resources is especially worrisome when combined with weak, corrupt or non-existent local government and law enforcement. The piracy problem in Somalia, although not directly linked to climate change, provides an extreme example of how fishermen can turn to piracy in a country that has not had an effective government for almost two decades.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks are either depleted or fished at their limits. Population growth and climate change are likely to exacerbate the pressures in the coming decades.

‘Teach a man to fish and you have fed him for a lifetime’ is a well-known adage in the foreign aid field. However, when the fields are flooded and the fish stocks are depleted, there is a real danger that poverty-stricken fishermen may turn to less savoury forms of employment.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Scientists are growing increasingly worried about the policy response to climate change

Top climate scientists from around the world are gathering in Copenhagen on 10-12 March to call attention to the growing sense of urgency arising from recent scientific findings. Media coverage of the event has highlighted the scientific community’s increasing fear that currently planned mitigation measures may not be enough to prevent dangerous levels of global warming.

This has led to some scientists advocating a serious look into ‘Plan B’ options, such as geoengineering (that is, the deliberate manipulation of the Earth’s natural processes to reduce the impacts of climate change). For example, an article in the latest Foreign Affairs discusses the opportunities and risks of geoengineering, and concludes that ‘It is time to take geoengineering out of the closet [...] so that the nations of the world can collectively decide whether to raise the shield if they think the planet needs it.’

While geoengineering may provide hopes for solving the climate change problem, it is unlikely to provide a ‘magic bullet’ solution. Investments into combating climate change should be based on sober cost-effectiveness analysis that ensures most ‘bang for a buck’ for public expenditure. Such a policy would most likely include a mix of mitigation, adaption and possibly geoengineering measures.

New research since the IPCC’s two-year old assessment report has suggested that climate change may be progressing faster than previously thought, casting doubt on the feasibility of the current policy response. This week’s meeting in Copenhagen is a welcome reminder of the magnitude of the challenge.

Monday, March 9, 2009


Bangladesh is usually one of the first countries named when you’re talking about vulnerability to global warming. Because of its position in the delta created by two of the largest rivers in Asia, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, Bangladesh is uniquely vulnerable to flooding – caused by either upstream flow or sea level rise – and coastal storms.

There seems to be a growing recognition in the media of Bangladesh as the ‘test case’ along with low-lying islands of the effects of global warming. As a poor, populous country with a tenuously-held democratic government, how the people of Bangladesh reacts to climate change will give us important lessons in how the world can begin to address this issue.

The Daily Star of Dhaka says "Climate change to have impact on food security"
E&E Daily is running a series on "Bangladesh: where the Climate Exodus Begins"

Friday, March 6, 2009

China Increasing Spending on Agriculture

The Guardian has an article saying that the Chinese government is expanding spending on agriculture in its annual budget by 121 billion yuan (about $17.8 billion). This marks a 20% increase this year. However, what is interesting about this spending increase is not the numbers, but the justification: short-term alleviation of the financial crisis, but long-term expansion of resilience to climate change.

With China, though, its often important to hear what is said about the government from the inside, as well as the outside. While the Guardian's article focuses on climate change as the main reason for the 20% spending increase, Xinhua, the official press agency of the Chinese Government, barely mentions climate change in its article. Instead, the focus is on expanding agricultural subsidies, increasing the price of grain, and investment in rural infrastructure. Clearly much of this is short-term oriented spending that has little to do with climate change.

So, in this case, it would appear that the Chinese government is spending money on their priorities, but claiming (at least internationally) that they are doing it in the name of climate change. As Orwell said, though, "Language can corrupt thought." While the Chinese government may be disingenuous about using this money specifically to deal with climate change, if they continue to talk about investing in climate change-related issues, they may eventually start to take the threat of climate change seriously.
Note: The graphics come from the Chinese Government. Aren't they great?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Climate Migrants

Today, I was discussing the problem of climate-change related migration. It seems that many politicians and policy-makers point to migration as a key consequence of climate change. One of our recent posts was about the recent studies saying that 100 million, 250 million, or 1 billion people would become refugees because of climate change. Clearly, this is a big issue, and deserves much closer attention.

I was discussing these problems with Steffen Angenendt, an expert in migration policy from Berlin. He was saying that the problem of climate refugees must be strictly defined before we move further. People migrate for many reasons, and we must clearly delineate between refugees forced to move because of climate change, and people who are move for economic reasons, but happen to come from a warm climate. There is a danger that by simply labeling everybody as 'climate refugees' we water down the term. He suggested that climate refugees be defined only as those who come from areas affected by rising sea levels, and those affected by major, long term droughts.

Clearly, a challenge in this area is to create a new international regime for how to deal with climate refugees, akin to the 1951 Geneva Conventions on political refugees. He suggested three possible ways to adapt international law to deal with cross-border climate migrants:

1. Extend them the same status as political refugees.
2. Create a new regime as part of an International Climate Change Treaty
3. Muddle through with our current legal structure

Quick Analysis: (1) would seem likely to overwhelm the (already strained) system, (2) would take decades to develop an acceptable global regime, and (3) would seem likely to cause nations to figure out new ways to close their borders to any migrants.

Perhaps the best route would be to begin to negotiate on (2), while we create an international body that could develop a broad consensus for how to define 'climate refugees' by identifying global hot spots where the refugees could come from.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Secretary Kissinger on Climate Change

Last night, the IISS held our "50th Anniversary Dinner." As well as a nice dinner of a rack of lamb, we heard a very interesting discussion about global strategy for the last 50 years, as well as the next 50. Our CEO, John Chipman moderated the discussion between Sir Michael Howard, the IISS' President Emeritus; Shashi Tharoor, former Undersecretary General of the UN; and Henry Kissinger, who needs little introduction.

The discussion centered around statements that each had made at the IISS over the last 50 years, and was very interesting. It even made a small amount of news today, when Dr. Kissinger called the Bush Administration a failed Administration, saying "success is extremely important to the U.S. and the world. We should not have another failed administration."

But that is not what this blog is about. The final question of the night was asked by David Stafford, of Northrup Grumman. He asked how to address Climate Change in the 21st Century, and if they deemed it a problem of global security. In many ways, Dr. Tharoor's response was the classic developing world response, essentially the 'you got develop dirty, why can't we?' mantra that Tom Friedman has talked about in his new book. However, he acknowledged that India and China's position of denying responsibility has become "untenable." He closed by saying that this is a shared problem that must be faced globally.

Most interesting was Kissinger's answer to the question, which he answered in a very professorial manner. He said that it is unlike almost all other questions of international diplomacy, in that there are two areas for negotiations. First, there is the conventional negotiating questions of how to allocate costs and benefits; secondly, however, negotiators have to define the goal. He said that there is 'no intellectual framework' for this exercise. Clearly, scientists at the IPCC are trying to define the goals in terms of carbon presence in the atmosphere, while some politicians are still trying to define the issue as not a problem at all. Its interesting, though, to see the Secretary Kissinger has thought some about the issue.

An economic perspective on climate change

US senators, including Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), John McCain (R-AZ), Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) convened top policy-makers, CEOs and economists to Capitol Hill for a climate event on March 3 to discuss the challenges as well as opportunities that climate change legislation can bring for the US.

Multiple attendees emphasized that economic slow-down should not be an inhibiting factor, but instead is more reason to act now. During the opening session, the former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, argued that the leading economic powers around the world now understand the significant risks of climate change and appreciate that the best way to minimize the dangers is by investing in a low-carbon economy.

The US understands that concerns about economic slow-down should only be more reason to implement climate change legislation without delay. Governor Jennifer Granholm stated ‘in Michigan our top priority is growing the economy and creating jobs and that is why comprehensive climate change legislation is important to our state.’

[Interestingly, Sen. Stabenow was a sponsor of this event, even though she has been labelled a 'fence sitter' on passage of a climate change bill by E&E Daily. Unless they recieve significant allowances, rust-belt states like Michigan will be hard hit by tight emissions caps. Her website doesn't show a position on climate change either way -- Andrew]

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Effects of Climate Change: We Still Need Better Information

By necessity, climate change policy is driven by science. Only by using scientistific observation, theory, and projection can we adequately understand how increased greenhouse gases are increasing temperatures and changing the climate. There are literally thousands of climate scientists involved in producing the IPCC's reports.

Unfortunately, as this article makes clear, social science on climate change, particularly on economic and political issues, is not as clear or as developed as the climate and meteorological science. Partly this is because humans are by nature much more difficult to predict than the interaction of molecules in the atmosphere.

As the article asks, how can we know what events will trigger climate change induced migration?

"One study says 100 million people will be displaced by global warming. Another
puts it at 250 million. Meanwhile, a sweeping report from Christian Aid warns
that 1 billion people, an almost unthinkable crush of humanity, could be forced
from their homes by midcentury because of climate change and the increase in
natural disasters, which will exacerbate regional conflicts."

There are different assumptions about human behavior in each study, and global numbers of this magnitude are almost impossible to acurately predict. Instead of presenting such large-scale, global studies, perhaps it would be better for social scientists doing research on the effects of climate change to focus on defined regional or local trends?

Monday, March 2, 2009

Lobbying for climate change legislation

More than 12,000 young people, mostly high school and college students, from around the US traveled to Washington D.C., last Friday Feb. 27 to take part in a four-day-long convention involving a youth-led conference known as Powershift. Paul Wapner, director of the Global Environmental Politics Program at American University, agreed that the weekend will likely be the largest activism event on climate change in U.S. history. The annual event began in 2007 and serves to lobby legislators for climate-friendly bills and immediate environmental action. The gatherings are intended to capture President Barack Obama's attention and demand that Congress pass a climate change bill this year. Jessy Tolkan, president of the Energy Action Coalition, a network of youth activists who organized Powershift stated "we absolutely expect and demand that climate legislation gets passed in 2009." According to the conference's Web site Power Shift's goal is to "hold our elected officials accountable for rebuilding our economy and reclaiming our future through bold climate and clean energy policy."
The conference includes a focus on environmental justice, the belief that human rights include the right to a clean environment and access to critical natural resources. Climate change endangered indigenous communities from Alaska exemplify the many groups that traveled long distances to have their voices heard in the nation’s capitol. This is only one example of the many grass-roots initiatives worldwide seeking to mobilize governments and the public to deal with climate change. According to the new report from the WorldWatch Institute, called the State of the World 2009, “local struggles for climate change justice connect at the international level with a shared understanding that in addition to accelerating environmental degradation and species loss, global climate change will jeopardize human rights and exacerbate socioeconomic inequities.”

Water Scarcity in South Asia

This weekend's USA Today had an article about how climate change could affect the monsoon season in South Asia. It is based on a study, using predictive computer models, about the strength and timing of how the monsoon season will change on the Indian Subcontinent.

Tree important results to note from this article: (1) the monsoon season is likely to arrive later; (2) the effects of the monsoon are expected to move further east, towards Bangladesh and Burma; and (3) the rains fo the monsoon season are likely to be less intense.

The effects of the monsoon season on India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, and Nepal should not be underestimated. Often called an 'economic lifeline' for India, the strength of the monsoon is crucial to India's agriculture, which supports about 60 percent of the nation's 1.1 billion population. The monsoon season, which lasts from approximately June through September, can provide 80% of India's annual rainfall. In years when it is stronger or earlier than usual, widespread flooding can occur, but when it is late or light, it can cause widespread crop failure.

The strength of the monsoon also has a strong effect on Himalayan glaciers, particularly in the southeastern Himalayas, around Everest and Nepal. I attended an event last week at the Stimson Center that showed strong evidence that these glaciers are already under pressure from climate change. With reduced rainfall from the monsoon, they will be under even greater pressure.

Because of the geopolitical and economic significance of South Asia, it will be important for more thorough studies to be done on the effects of climate change in this region.