Thursday, August 5, 2010

Climate, Weather and the Media

There is an excellent blog post on the Economist's 'Democracy in America' blog about the media's handling of two weather events of the last year: the snowstorms and the Russian fires.  He presents an analogy of coverage of weather as part of climate change to coverage of the WWII on the Eastern Front: a small German victory in 1943 shouldn't have been mistaken as anything other than the exception to the rule of "the Red Army advancing implacably across western Russia in 1943-44." 

I've written two posts in the last two days about Russia's heat, so I don't have much more to say on that.  In the western media, M.S. is right that there has been vanishingly little efforts to link the fires and drought to climate change, but the Russian media has not had such a problem: in fact, one commentator went so far as to blame the drought on the US military's 'climate change weapons'.  I should also note that other countries similarly have no problem calling a single event evidence of climate change: Pakistan's Environment Minister recently said that global climate change is to blame for this year's flooding and heavy rains.  Likewise, Nigeria's Environment Minister said “The effects of climate change have been wide spread in Nigeria."

Perhaps it is because of the tradition of presenting both sides in a news article that our media is reluctant to cover it in this way - but I think that is a false balance.  As M.S. said, if something is part of a larger trend (as these droughts are) then it should be presented in that way.  

In addition, there are new studies showing that abnormally cold weather in the northern hemisphere (as we had last winter) may actually be a factor of an abnormally warm arctic.  If that turns out to be the case, last winter wasn't actually an exception, it was just another example of the trend: global warming is happening at an accelerated rate, and we should not expect the weather of the future to be analogous to the weather of the past.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

DNI Nominee Clapper on Climate and Energy Security

Via Marc Ambinder, I see that General James Clapper, the nominee to be the new Director of National Intelligence (DNI), had some interesting things to say about the intelligence community's responses to climate change and energy security.  Clapper's hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was held on July 20. The nomination is still pending, and there are reports that Senator McCain has placed a hold on the nomination, preventing a vote on the Senate floor.

In the section on national security threats, Clapper was asked to "discuss your view of the appropriate IC [Intelligence Community] roles and responsibilities with respect to the issues of climate change and energy security, and how well the IC has performed in these areas"

I will quote in full the answer he gave in writing to that question.
Global climate change could have wide-ranging implications for US national security interests over the next 20 years because it would aggravate existing world problems—such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions—that threaten state stability. Since the 2008 publication of the National Intelligence Assessment (NIA) on the national security implications of climate change, the IC has stepped up analysis and collection to look more in depth at climate change implications in individual countries and regions important to U.S. long term interests. The CIA has also created a center to provide all-source analysis on the impact of climate change on political, economic, military and social stability. It is also responsible for the MEDEA program which reviews and declassifies imagery for sharing with the climate scientific community. 
Energy security has also been an important topic for Intelligence Community analysis and collection. To meet demand growth in next three to 10 years and reduce the risk of future price spikes, international and national oil companies will need to re-engage on major projects that were shelved when prices fell in late 2008. Within OPEC, Iraq is a bright spot for oil capacity expansion. Recent developments in the U.S. gas sector, primarily shale gas, have made the U.S. essentially gas independent for at least a decade or two, if not longer. The IC has for some time closely followed energy security developments, warning of longer term trends and  highlighting potential opportunities for mitigating negative implications for U.S. national security. 
After the hearing, General Clapper had more to say in his response to post-hearing questions, saying that "the CIA could serve as the DNI's Executive Agent on Climate Change."  To me, it is unclear if this means that the re-organization of the intelligence community's response to climate change, which I wrote about in May, will mean that all climate issues will be concentrated at the CIA's "Center for Climate Change and National Security". It would be a shame if it meant that they closed the National Intelligence Council's office of Climate Change and State Stability, which has done some excellent work.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Real "Climate Change Weapon"

Following up on yesterday's post, which showed satellite pictures of the heat, drought and fires in Russia, I see that a widely-published Russian author, Andrei Areshev, deputy director of the Strategic Culture Foundation, alleges that has Russia's recent hot weather should be blamed on a US military program.

Here is his original article, "Climate Weapons. More Than Just a Conspiracy Theory?", and here is the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty article: "Russian Scholar Warns Of 'Secret' U.S. Climate Change Weapon."

This is a laughable conspiracy theory, and should be dismissed out of hand.  In a conference which we held in early 2009, a questioner (who also seemed to be of the conspiracy-theory set) asked whether climate change could be used as a weapon.  Our panel, consisting of speakers from the military, diplomatic, and intelligence professions, concluded that it would be very unlikely that climate change or carbon emissions could be used as a weapon.  However, they did say that geoengineering does raise some particularly difficult geopolitical problems.  Others have raised similar concerns about manipulating the climate and weather, through man-made geoengineering.  

Though we can dismiss Areshev's argument out of hand, we should not underestimate the power of the argument underneath it.  Areshev is wrong that the US Military is intentionally manipulating the climate by using the High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) or some sort of space-based laser weaponry (which he claims is deployed on the X-37B, pictured at left).  However, as the recent report from NOAA stated,  it is 'undeniable' that the planet is warming, and that the decade 2000-2009 was the hottest globally on record.  And, as the IPCC's 4th assessment report stated, "Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations."  The largest historical emissions of greenhouse gases come from the United States, and the US is currently the second largest current emitter (recently overtaken by China).  

As I wrote yesterday, you can never say that any one event is caused by global warming -- we have always seen drought and extreme weather -- but you should expect more extreme weather events like this. If, for the sake of argument, we say that this drought is caused by man-made global warming, then we can say that the US is responsible for at least part of that warming.  Of course, so also is Russia, China, Brazil, India, Europe, and others.  All industrial and industrializing countries share the responsibility for deploying this 'climate weapon' over the last century.  

As the effects of climate change become more apparent, I believe that we will see more cases of blaming the US (or China) for climate change, even if it is simply added to a long list of grievances agricultural protectionism, globalization, colonialism, and others.  Earlier this year, we saw Osama bin Laden accuse the US of causing climate change.  At the time, I wrote: "this leads to a sort-of conspiracy theory of climate change, whereby the emissions of the US and the rich world has purposefully doomed the poor world to an unending series of disasters." I think we should expect to see more of these accusations being made, though it would help their credibility if the accuser blamed US industry and transportation, not some James Bond-type space laser.  

Monday, August 2, 2010

Russia's Heat, Drought, and Fires - As Seen from Space

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth 1,000 words, and in this case a sequence of pictures shows exactly what's happened this summer in south western Russia, around the Volga River, in the region immediately north of the Caspian Sea. NASA's Earth Observatory satellites do an excellent job of showing views of major events as they happen.

Land Surface Temperature Anomaly, July 4-11 2010
First, at left we see a global map that shows temperature anomalies for July 4-11, as compared with the same dates from 2000 to 2008. These are the dates of the heat wave here on the US East Coast.  Note the extreme dark red in South Western Russia, stretching from approximately the Ukraine border through Russia' Volga region, and in to Kazakhstan.  The extreme red indicates temperatures of 12 degrees C (about 21 degrees F) above the average from last decade.  Indeed, on July 11, Russia's hottest temperature in history was recorded in Yashkul, at 44.0°C (111.2°F).

Second, at right, we see a satellite vegetation index image, that shows the damage done to plants and agriculture around the Volga river (pictured running through the center).  For location reference, Ukraine is in the bottom left portion of the map, with Kazakhstan in the bottom right.  In no area of this map is there any green, which would indicate above average vegitation. The darkest red areas show a reduction by over half. Note that this region is one of the main breadbaskets of Russia, and in some areas over 50% of the crop has already been lost. Potential losses from this area have driven wheat futures past $7 a bushel today, taking this grain's prices 67% above June's nine-month low.

Finally, at left, we see the satellite photo of the predictable consequences of heat and drought: fire.  The Volga River is labelled, and we see a haze of smoke extending across the entire region, completely covering Nizhiniy Novgorod.  Fires across Russia have killed at least 40 people so far this summer.  Today, President Medvedev declared a state of emergence in 7 regions across Russia, including Mari El, Ryazan, Mordovia, Vladimir, and Nizhny Novgorod (which are in this picture).  

The US National Intelligence Council, in its report on the national security implications of climate change in Russia, says that Russia's agriculture will become "more vulnerable to droughts and other extreme weather" over the next decades as global warming takes hold.  To add the usual caveat, you can never say that any one event is caused by global warming -- we have always seen drought and extreme weather -- but you can say this event is an example of what we should expect global warming to do.