Friday, October 30, 2009

Lessons in Adaptation from the Western Sahel

This is an interesting post from Isabella Santoro about positive lessons that can be learned from the drought in the Western Sahel in the 1970s and '80s for people interested in climate adaptation:

On Tuesday, 27 October, Oxfam America hosted a panel discussion on food security and climate change adaptation in the Sahel region of West Africa – a belt of land located on the Southern edge of the Sahara desert. The panelists included farmers, technicians and agricultural innovators from Burkina Faso and Niger who, together with NGOs, universities, and partnerships with private sectors, transformed a large portion of the Sahel desert into arable land. The West Africa Sahel region experienced heavy droughts in the 1970s and 1980s. Wealthier inhabitants relocated to areas with higher rainfall, but local farmers had little choice but to adapt to the harsh and changing environment. The successful adaptations included increasing tree density and practicing sustainable, environmentally friendly, and locally oriented agricultural practices, the farmers were able to transform an arid and windswept landscape into farmland.

One of the panelists, Yacouba Savadogo, is a farmer and community leader from Burkina Faso who learned valuable planting and fertilization techniques through a program sponsored by Oxfam in 1979. Yacouba’s land was transformed into a rich forest, which, in addition to increasing food production, also helped the local population adapt to the changing climate. Ever since then, he has been teaching other farmers in and beyond his community how to increase tree density and practice sustainable agriculture through “study visits,” where farmers observe his farming techniques and then apply them to their own land. Mathieu Ouedraogo, Director of the Africa Re-Greening Initiative, praised Yacouba’s work and stressed the importance of the next step, which is to export these practices to other parts of Africa and to build on the capacities of local organizations to increase food production.

Sakina Mati, also a farmer and community leader in the Maradi Region of Niger, made a similar contribution to food security and climate adaptation by working together with other women farmers in her village to increase tree density. She is now the project leader for six villages, each with more than three thousand inhabitants. She teaches the women how to protect trees, prune them, and conserve firewood so that it does not decay rapidly. These sustainable agricultural techniques have transformed five million hectares of desert into woodland and there are 200 million new trees in Niger. This has increased income for farmers by $300 million a year. Villagers used to walk five to ten kilometers in search of firewood, but now farmers can sell their surplus at the local market. This project has protected the land from wind erosion and increased food production for the entire community. “We are protecting nature for future generations,” stated Ms Mati.

Issa Martin Bikienga, deputy secretary of the Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS), talked about the committee’s purpose and goals. CILSS was founded by USAID in 1973 and is comprised of nine countries that work together to strengthen strategy and policy formulations to promote food security, water management, and population control in West Africa. He called for greater financial support from USAID, saying that it is essential the US government continue sponsoring grassroots projects. Countries should build on local methods and resources to increase food security and adapt to climate change. It is thanks to this revolution in agricultural techniques that West Africa has been able to reverse the post-colonial trend of importing food and begin relying on their own land and produce.

Chris Reij, geographer and resource management specialist, said the stories of farmers like Yacouba and Sakina Mati are comparable to the biblical story of David and Goliath. Whether their opponent is a Philistine giant or global warming, all it takes to win the fight is skillful use of the tools at one’s disposal. Climate change threatens to undermine the food and water security of arid regions like the Sahel. This success story shows how local adaptation methods, combined with international funding, can help overcome the challenges looming for regions like the Sahel around the world.

Natural Gas Reserves

Though not technically about the security effects of climate change, natural gas is becoming a key part of the energy future for the United States.

Natural Gas is often thrown into the same fossil fuel paradigm as oil and coal. For example, President Obama's recent speech at MIT said: "figuring out how to use the fossil fuels that inevitably we are going to be using for several decades, things like coal and oil and natural gas; figuring out how we use those as cleanly and efficiently as possible". This implies that natural gas is at the same level as coal or oil. It is not.

Natural gas burns cleaner than coal: it produces only about half as much CO2 as coal to produce the same amount of power, and very little smog-forming emissions. New finds -- what Daniel Yergin calls the 'Shale Gas Revolution' -- mean that we can produce more of our energy for electricity and transportation here, cleaner than we ever have before.

These new finds are not simply marginal changes. They are revolutionary. In June, the Potential Gas Committee (PGC), a US non-profit estimated US gas resources at the highest level in the committee’s 44-year history, a 35% increase over the last estimate published in 2007. They said that that abundant, recoverable natural gas resources exist within our borders, both onshore and offshore, in all types of reservoirs.

However, this has not yet seemed into the political debate. The Natural Gas industry has nowhere near the political clout of the coal industry in Washington, because it is newer, more geographically diverse, and primarily smaller companies. They are trying to increase their power, before the Senate debate, so that the US doesn't get stuck by the cap and trade bill into a long-term commitment to 'clean coal' (whatever that is defined as).

We need to seize upon this windfall by switching our baseload electricity generation to natural gas. These plants can be used as the perfect back-up to expanded renewable power, because they are qucik, cheap, and easy to turn on and off (unlike coal-fired power). We need to transition our heavy transportation (trucks) from diesel to natural gas, while transitioning our light transportation (cars) to electricity (which will be generated from natural gas). A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation says that you could reduce US emissions by about 1 billion tons (15%) of carbon per year with these two switches, which would be likely to save money.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Will Obama Attend Copenhagen?

One of the big contentions going into December's Copenhagen meeting is how many heads of state will attend. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has pledged to attend, in keeping with the priority level that his government has given to the issue.

Now, the Times of London is reporting that Lord Stern, who wrote the Stern Report in 2006, is saying that Obama must attend the meeting in Copenhagen. This article is the latest in a series of 'will he - won't he' articles that seems to have obsessed the Times and other British Papers.

The papers have probably taken their lead from British politicians: earlier this month, Ed Miliband, the British Energy and Climate Change Secretary, called on Obama to "save" the summit.

Examples of this trend include an October 20 article reporting that Obama "'may not attend" the summit, according to Todd Stern, the State Departments special envoy on climate change. This was followed by a report on October 24, also in the Times that Obama would "almost certainly" not go to Copenhagen, citing 'an official close to the Administration'. Today, the Times is reporting that an Administration spokesman insisted that “no decision has been made” about the trip. I'm quite sure that no American newspaper has been following this so closely.

Obama will be in Oslo on December 10 to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Personally, I think it would be a big snub to be so close, and skip Copenhagen. However, one man cannot bridge the unbridgable divides at the UN negotiations. Instead of focusing entirely on Copenhagen, the British press should be looking to the bilateral arrangements that the Obama administration is quietly lining up. If the upcoming meetings with Chinese Premier Hu Jintao and Indian PM Manmohan Singh end with robust climate agreements, then we can begin to talk about success in Copenhagen.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

China and the Brahmaputra

As a follow-up to the previous post on the need for cooperation among the nations dependant on the rivers from the Himalayas, I've come across a report, "Dammed Rivers" from The Economist's Asia columnist, Banyan saying that Gezhouba, a Chinese construction company, had begun work on a dam across the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet, near the India-China border. When it enters India, this river is known as the Brahmaputra, emptying through Bangladesh into the Bay of Bengal.

Related, there is a story in yesterday's Times of India about Indian concerns over the beginning of a plan to divert water from the Yangtze River at the border of the Hubei and Henan provinces in Central China. The Yangtze is a river entirely within the borders of China, so at first glance it would appear that India should not be worried. However, an elaborate network of canals, resevoirs, and dams could concievably connect the rivers to the Yarlunch Tsangpo before it crosses into India. This would divert India and Bangladesh's water north to China.

Earlier this year, I had asked a geologist who specializes on the glaciers of Himilayas whether China could dam or divert the headwaters of any of their major rivers that begin in Tibet, like the Brahmaputra, the Ganges, or the Mekong. He said that such an engineering project would be impossible, because the area is so geologically active and the threat of earthquakes is too great. However, the Chinese are faced with a long-term, dire drought in the North, and they may think that massive engineering projects could get them out of that.

Certainly, diverting the flow of the Yarlung Tsangpo would provoke anger downstream in both India and Bangladesh. The question remains, though, to what extent would they go to stop it? Could conflict ensue over dwindling water resources?

Reports about the Himalayas

The Financial Times reports today from Kathmandu about the dwindling amount of snow and ice on the glaciers of the Himalayas. Sometimes called 'the Third Pole', these mountains are the sourse for at least 10 of Asia's major rivers. Changes in the flow of these rivers caused by glacier and snow melt could affect the livliehoods of around 2 billion people.

This article makes the claim that what's important is not actually the retreat of the glaciers, but the decline in the snowpack. Melting snow, they claim, is what feeds the seasonal rivers.  This is the first time that I've seen that enunciated. With credit to the FT, I reproduce their chart showing the rapid loss in water (snow, ice, or rain) from the Himilayas since 1960. What is most striking about this graph is that this decline has been constant since 1960, and the 1998-2008 decade -- the warmest in the human record -- is not even acounted for on this graph. We desperately need more and better information about what is happening in this region.

With better information, government ministers can determine how best to divide the dwindling water resources coming from the Himalayas. In September, environment ministers from across East and South Asia met in Nepal in the first example of intergovernmental meetings to discuss this topic.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Gordon Brown on Climate Risks

Gordon Brown gave an excellent speech earlier today at Lancaster House in London to the Major Economies Forum (MEF) on climate change and energy about the impacts of climate change.

He invokes the threats of the melting of Himilayan glaciers, in 25 years. He talks about the threats to water supplies, food supplies, and the threats of unprecedented 'climate migration'. Other climate impacts that he invokes include the loss of the rainforests, fisheries, and biodiversity.

He claims that we face a future of two paths: one of 'business as usual' that will deliver growth for some time, but will eventually collapse under these burdens of a warming world. We cannot stand around while the world boils. He contrasts that with the path of 'low-carbon, high growth' that will cause some economic dislocations now, but will avoid the worst catastrophes of climate change. Brown says it will not be easy, and this path will challenge long-held assumptions about politics and economics. However, it must be worth it.

This speech underlines that leadership in the UK 'gets it' on climate change better than almost any other nation. Brown understands that talk about climate change must be forward looking. We cannot talk about the costs of mitigation, without talking about the costs of inaction. Too often, polticians in the US only talk about the short-term. With regards to climate change, we're only just begining a generational project to address this challenge.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Making the Climate Security Argument

Politico had an article yesterday talking about the groups of veterans, named Operation Free, who are taking a bus tour around the country and making a case for action on climate change. Here is an article about the bus tour coming to Lincoln, Nebraska (at 6:15 am? will that really bring out the crowds?).

In some ways, I'm strongly in favor of this. Climate action is necessary, and whatever argument you need to make in order to pass it through the Senate should be made. However, nuance doesn't come through in political debates. By groups and politicians saying that climate change will cause wars, we risk overstating the argument.

It is demonstrable that climate change is a national security threat. Both the CNA and the National Intelligence Council have convincingly made that case. However, I am also slightly afraid that you could make that argument about any number of intractable global problems: poverty as a threat to national security, disease as a threat, inequality as a danger, even just general unhappiness. I've talked about the need to be prudent before.

That's why the IISS is working hard to more closely quantify the global security threats of cliamte change. The problem is that nothing is perfectly linear in this world. Climate change may cause water shortages, which may cause food shortages, which may cause famine, which may cause resource wars. This is a plausible and convincing chain of events, and there are other possible linkages. However, its very difficult to say that prudent action couldn't stop that chain at some point along the way.

I'm convinced, however, that addressing climate change is one of the most important challenges of our generation. Unmitigated, its effects over the long-term could be genuinely catastrophic. That should be reason enough to address this threat. If, politically, you have to invoke the military and call it a threat to 'national security', then I guess that's a stronger argument to make to Americans than calling it a threat to Polar Bears.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Plausible (and Scary) Scenario

IISS friend, Gwynne Dyer has written an article, "Losing Control of the Heat" for The Japan Times about last week's conference in Oxford "4 Degrees and Beyond" that looked at scenarios for out-of-control global warming.

This is an eye-opening article about the potential implications of what could happen with status-quo emissions. It is an extreme scenario, but preparing for the extremes is very important, both for society and for security. However, the implications of such a rise go far beyond 'security'. Dyer notes:

"At an average of 4 C warmer, 15 percent of the world's farmland would become useless due to heat and drought, and crop yields would fall sharply on half of the rest: an overall 30 to 40 percent fall in global food production. Since the world's population will have grown by 2 billion by then, there will be only half the food per person that we have now. Many people will starve.
In western and southern Africa, average temperatures will be up to 10 C higher than now. There will be severe drying in Central America, on both sides of the Mediterranean, and in a broad band across the Middle East, northern India, and Southeast Asia. With the glaciers gone, Asia's great rivers will be mostly dry in the summer. Even one meter of sea-level rise will take out half the world's food-rich river deltas, from the Nile to the Mekong."

However, Dyer makes clear that this is not written in stone. We have the opportunity to avoid this worst-case scenario. We can either continue with the status-quo, and hope we get lucky, or we can begin the difficult process of rolling back emissions. Europe has shown us how to begin. In December, negotiators from governments around the world will see if they can continue Europe's work.

Senate to vote to strip funding for CIA center on Climate Security

Tomorrow, the Senate will vote on an amendment to block any funding for the CIA's new "Center on Climate Change and National Security." The amendment to H.R. 3326, the Defense Appropriations bill, was offered by Senator Barasso (R-WY). It would prohibit any funding in fiscal year 2010 for the CIA's center.

The amendment was made in order under a unanimous consent agreement, and is scheduled to get a vote tomorrow (Tuesday 10/6). It is unclear at this time whether the amendment will be require 50 or 60 votes to be included in the legislation.

Technically, this is an appropriations bill, meaning that it only spends money, and does not make policy. However, amendments like this are a common way for Members of Congress to include their legislative priorities in appropriations bills.

Barasso has been a strong opponent of any climate action, most notable saying that a cap-and-trade bill will increase 'international organized crime'. Barasso claims that focusing on climate change at the CIA will distract them from protecting against terrorism. Senator Feinstein (D-CA), the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, opposes the amendment, saying that such a center is entirely within the rights and purviews of the CIA.

In 2008, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) submitted a National Intelligence Assessment (NIA) on the national security implications of climate change. It is classified, but here is the testimony is unclassified. Short summary: climate change is a threat to national security because it can undermine the stability of already weak states.

Since the completion of the NIA in 2008, the National Intelligence Council (NIC), under the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has operated an office of ‘Climate Change and State Stability’ to look at other issues in this area. The CIA's new center would apparently work in conjuction with the DNI's office.

It seems to me, that if the Intelligence Community has ruled that climate change is a threat to national security, then they must study it and look at it. For Congress to defund this office (or others that are looking at climate change) would undermine the ability of the Intelligence Community to actively look for non-traditional threats. One of the key areas that the CIA's center will study will be the negotiating positions and how other nations are complying with any international agreement on climate change. This is important work, and is consistent with the CIA's mission for other major international negotiations.

This is a clear political amendment that is targeted at undermining the argument that climate change is a threat to national security. If a majority of the Senate votes to prohibit this center, it clearly shows that the Senate does not support the view (held by Senator Kerry and others) that climate change threatens national security. This is an important signal vote for the upcoming debate on cliamte change in the Senate. Anyone who cares about how that debate will go should watch this debate closely.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

NATO: The alliance must focus on climate challenge

This morning, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Secretary-General of NATO said that the alliance must focus on the climate challenge: "NATO should do more to prepare for the challenges of climate change."

Rasmussen said that "rising sea levels, drought and competition for land and resources all have implications for security." This statement is broadly in line with what the IISS and others in the security community have been saying about climate change.

However, Rasmussen went further than many in the security community have gone, by offering a prescription for how to aleviate the security threats posed by climate change. First, he promoted fuel efficiency for military vehicles. This is not revolutionary, and was promoted by the CNA's most recent report. Frankly, the military can only have a limited role in mitigating climate change. More important, was his statement that NATO should help to build global military capacity for reacting to climate-induced disasters. He said:

"Right now, NATO engages in military training and capacity building with
countries around the world. We focus on things like peacekeeping, language
training and countering terrorism. What about also including cooperation
that helps build capacity in the armed forces of our partners to better manage
big storms, or floods, or sudden movements of populations?"

This is an important statement. As an organization, NATO is very good at projecting long-term strategy. A move to including training for how militaries, both within NATO, and developing country partners should deal with natural disasters caused by climate change would be an important way for the alliance to build a long-term capacity to deal with natural disasters.
(credit for photo: AFP)