Thursday, June 17, 2010

World Day to Combat Desertification Celebrated

Today is the World Day to Combat Desertification. Though this may not get the attention of such days as Flag Day (Monday), Chinese Dragon Boat Festival Day (yesterday), or Father's Day (this coming Sunday), this is an important subject that deserves our attention.  The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) entered into force in 1996. It calls for international cooperation to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought.

The process of changing grasslands into desert can be incredibly destructive to the societies that live there, and there is clear evidence that in extreme situations, it can cause conflict. The best example of that is in Darfur. Jeff Mazo explains how this happened in an excellent chapter in his book "Climate Conflict". Darfur can be delineated as a conflict between agriculturalists and pastoralists. As rainfall decreased, and the Sahara expanded, these two groups came into conflict over land rights. This led to the beginning of a destructive war. As quoted by Mazo's book, UNEP said "There is a very strong link between land degradation, desertification and conflict in Darfur."

Friday, June 11, 2010

Warming in the Arctic to Cause Colder Winters

In an ironic twist, a new study shows that rapid warming in the Arctic will make the weather in Northern Europe and Eastern North America much colder.  This was the weather pattern that prevailed in December and January of the past winter. The map below, from NASA, shows that temperature were much higher (red) than normal in the high Arctic, while much lower (blue) in Eurasia and North America.

At the International Polar Year Science Conference, currently taking place in Oslo, Dr James Overland of NOAA presented a study that says that a warming of the arctic will have significant impact on winter weather in Europe, Asia, and North America.  In fact, Dr Overland said "The exceptional cold and snowy winter of 2009-2010 in Europe, eastern Asia and eastern North America is connected to unique physical processes in the Arctic."

The loss of Arctic sea ice has long been seen as one of the areas that will have major feedbacks on a changing climate.  However, so far as I know, the focus of worries about those feedback has been that a (darker colored) ice-free ocean would absorb more heat than the (lighter colored) ice does currently.  This would cause the Arctic to warm, and would prevent the re-building of ice.  According to Dr Overland, this is occuring, and that will cause the current warming to be permanent.  However, this is the first study I've seen that supposes any effects on global weather patterns of a warming Arctic, and it is disturbing. 

Last year, Time magazine ran an article "Is There a Climate-Change Tipping Point?" which said that before we hit a tipping point that the earth would see what was called 'squealing'.  I'll quote directly from the article:

In climate terms, squealing may involve increased variability of the weather — sudden shifts from hot temperatures to colder ones and back again. General instability ensues and, at some point, the center ceases to hold. "Before we reached a climate tipping point we'd expect to see lots of record heat and record cold," says Carpenter. "Every example of sudden climate change we've seen in the historical record was preceded by this sort of squealing."
These tipping points - which we won't know about unitl after they've passed - are scary.  Rapid, sustained changes in the climate are impossible to predict, and as I've said before, uncertainty should worry us.

Of course, the fact that global climate change could cause record levels of snowfall and cold is a level of complexity that will struggle to make it through the ADD political-media crowd.  No points for guessing who will build the next igloo on the Capitol lawn.  If it weren't so important, it would be funny that a symptom of a rapidly changing climate is being used as evidence that the climate isn't changing. 

Thursday, June 10, 2010

An Aside into Domestic US Politics

I have spent very little time on this blog delving into the US political debate about climate policy.  Frankly, in the short to medium term, it doesn't matter very much for security policy what any nation does.  Most scientists say that we're locked-in for the next 30 years or so with an escalating concentration of carbon and the warming that will accompany it, no matter what any of us do.  Of course, it is very important for the long-term that the world comes together and figures out a way to reduce our emissions before we boil ourselves. 

All of that is a long introduction to say that today, the US Senate is going to vote on Senator Murkowski's proposal to block the EPA from regulating carbon.  This looks to be the kick-off of the long-awaited debate about climate legistion.  However, with Senator Graham pulling away from the climate bill (which he and his staff helped write), it looks like there's little chance of real legislation this year to put on a price on carbon

One of the frustrating things about working on climate policy in the US is the creeping feeling that the American public doesn't really believe that what you're doing is important.  Last October, for instance, we saw a Pew poll that said that only 57% of Americans believe that climate change is happening, and only 36% believed that it was "because of human activity".  So, it was encouraging for me to see Jon Krosnik's Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times "The Climate Majority".  His contention is that polls on climate change have asked questions that are needlessly complicated, and that skews results. 

The results of his poll showed that 74% of Americans believe that the planet has warmed over the past century, and 75% said that "human behavior was substantially responsible for any warming that has occurred."  This is backed-up by a Washington Post-ABC News Poll that says that 71% of Americans say that the federal government should "regulate the release of greenhouse gases from sources like power plants, cars and factories in an effort to reduce global warming". 
However, Americans are not as excited to do anything that means that they will have to pay for it.  I'll quote directly from Krosnik's article:
"Fully 86 percent of our respondents said they wanted the federal government to limit the amount of air pollution that businesses emit, and 76 percent favored government limiting business’s emissions of greenhouse gases in particular. Not a majority of 55 or 60 percent — but 76 percent.

Large majorities opposed taxes on electricity (78 percent) and gasoline (72 percent) to reduce consumption. But 84 percent favored the federal government offering tax breaks to encourage utilities to make more electricity from water, wind and solar power.

And huge majorities favored government requiring, or offering tax breaks to encourage, each of the following: manufacturing cars that use less gasoline (81 percent); manufacturing appliances that use less electricity (80 percent); and building homes and office buildings that require less energy to heat and cool (80 percent)."
All of this says that Americans want action on climate change, they just don't want to pay for it.  This goes along with the continuing line of polls I've seen that says that Americans want fiscal discipline and to reduce the deficit, but they strongly oppose reductions in any specific spending programs or any tax increase. 

More after the jump --

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pacifc Islands Growing - But can that really continue?

Foreign Policy's Passport blog has a quick post, "Pacific islands are actually growing" linking to a new study from the University of Aukland saying that 80% of Pacific Islands have grown or stayed the same size of the last 60 years.  The article in question, titled "The dynamic response of reef islands to sea level rise: evidence from multi-decadal analysis of island change in the central pacific" was published a couple of weeks ago in "Global and Planetary Change".
According to the authors, Pacific Islands respond to rising sea levels (an average of 2 mm per year over these 60 years) by rising along with the sea.  They do this by growing their coral reefs and capturing sediment.  Tuvalu, a country widely expected to be the first to fall beneath the waves, has expanded in size over these 60 years, according to the study. 

If only this meant that we don't have to worry about entire nations slipping beneathe the waves anymore! Unfortunately, there is evidence that we should not be complacent about this.  Of the accelerating amount of carbon emissions being pumped into the atmostphere, about 50% of it is being captured by the oceans.  A chemical reaction of the increased carbon with elements in the seawater is causing the oceans to become more acidic, and that acidity is killing coral reefs.  So, we should not be so sanguine as to expect that what has worked to preserve these islands over the past 60 years of slow sea level rise will also work in the forthcoming 60 years.  We should also be aware that there is an increasing threat that sea level rise will be much faster than the 2 mm per year.

Last year, I blogged about the UN resolution, proposed by 12 Pacific island states, about the national security effects of climate change. The Maldives and Tuvalu have been at the center of international political action against climate change, and they have done good work.  I worry that this study will be used by those opposed to climate action as a way to sideline them from the debate.  I think they still have some persuasive arguments to make that they remain at risk.  We shouldn't stop sending the filmmakers, campaigners, and politicians to the Maldives or Tuvalu yet.