Monday, September 27, 2010

Floods Amplified by Military Activity in the Siachen Glacier?

On Thursday, September 23 at a Congressional briefing of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, about 'Extreme Weather in a Warming World' the Pakistani Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, blamed the extensive floods in Pakistan partly on military activity on the Siachen Glacier on the disputed border between Indian and Pakistan in Kashmir.  He said that "Human Activity in the glaciers" is partly to blame for climate changes that brought on the devastating floods in Pakistan this summer.  He noted that the Siachen glacier, in particular, is host to a heavy presence of both the Pakistani and Indian militaries, although he noted that Pakistan has proposed to demilitarize the area.  The Times of India called this 'an unusual remark'.

The Siachen Glacier is the world's largest non-polar glacier.  It is 43 miles long, and covers about 270 square miles (including its tributaries).  Its heights are occupied by India, but it is claimed by Pakistan to be in their area of Kashmir.

The Siachen glacier has been at the heart of the long-running Kashmir border conflict between these two rivals.  There was an excellent story from four years ago in Time Magazine, "War at the Top of the World" that detailed the conflict.

NASA's Satellite View of the Siachen Glacier
There is no question that the glacier is heavily militarized.  It is home to the world's highest helipad, and both sides have brought troops.  I confess that I haven't seen any scientific studies linking local human activity to changes on the glaciers.  However, it would be logical that any local soot (black carbon) emissions could cause significant local melting.  As I mentioned in my post about cookstoves, black carbon can cause melting on glaciers because its dark color warms the glacier in the sun, increasing its melting.

This is certainly an area that merits further study, and if these environmental concerns can help bring about a demilitarization of the volatile border, then some good could come out of this.  On the other hand, I do wonder whether this was simply another example of a Pakistani officials going out of their way to antagonize India over Kashmir, as they have been threatening war over water.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Climate Change and the Millennium Development Goals

This week, the UN General Assembly is meeting in New York.  One of the key topics of discussion this week is a 10 year  report on the progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. IISS intern Nathaniel Markowitz has written a guest post on how climate change is affecting the progress towards the MDGs.  

On Wednesday, September 22, the Millennium Development Goals Summit concluded in New York.  With its conclusion, the General Assembly adopted a resolution titled Keeping the Promise: United to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals. This document stresses that addressing climate change is a lynch-pin for “safeguarding and advancing” progress toward achieving the MDGs.  It notes that climate change has resulted in “increased vulnerabilities and inequalities and adversely affected development gains, in particular in developing countries.” 

While addressing climate change is important for realizing all of the MDG, the resolution observes that it is particularly significant for eradicating extreme hunger and poverty (Goal 1) and ensuring environmental sustainability (Goal 7).  Several passages underscore the dramatic and immediate impact climate change has on food security.  The document also highlights the threat climate change poses to preserving biodiversity and fragile ecosystems.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the precursor of the Kyoto Protocol) is invoked as the primary forum for negotiating a global solution.  Specifically, it reaffirms the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which recognizes that a country’s ability to mitigate its contribution to climate change is constrained by its capacities.  [I don’t think I’ve ever seen a UN pronouncement that doesn’t include this phrase! - AH]

In addition to the outcome document, climate change was also addressed Tuesday at the roundtable on emerging issues.  The discussion emphasized that “climate change will particularly impact land productivity and water availability, undermining rural livelihoods, with a disproportionate impact on women and vulnerable populations.”  The panel recommends increasing investment in both renewable energy and developing resilience to climate impacts; encouraging implementation of a green economic growth strategy; and enhancing global and regional integration.

Here is a full update on how well the world is meeting the MDG targets. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

Today in New York, Secretary Hillary Clinton announced the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves at the Clinton Global Initiative, hosted by her husband Bill Clinton.  As well as the launch being an interesting bit of Clinton family cross branding, it could be an important new initiative that could improve the health of many poor people in the developing world - and help to reduce the threats of climate change in South Asia.  As well as providing $50 million in US Government money for the project, the project boast support from across the public and private sectors.

A Cookstove in Mali
Cookstoves are the target for this project because of their danger and their ubiquity.  The alliance estimates that 3 billion people rely on traditional cookstoves and open fires for their daily cooking.  These cookstoves are harmful to the health of the people doing the cooking, because of the 'black carbon' that they emit.  Black carbon can be defined as  fuel that has not been completely combusted.  It is a common byproduct from burning wood, as well as dirtier fuels like kerosene or low-quality diesel.  You can literally see black carbon: it is the black smoke that comes out of dirty stoves or dirty vehicles.  The project aims to replace dirty stoves with clean efficient cookstoves (like the one pictured below) in 100 million households by 2020.

Reducing black carbon is essential for human health.  Then that black smoke gets in your lungs it can cause asthma, lung damage, and premature death.  The Alliance says that it causes 1.9 million deaths annually, and women and young children are often the most affected.  
Clean-burning Stove

Reducing black carbon is also a key tool for mitigating climate change.  Though black carbon does not contribute to the traditional greenhouse effect - unlike Carbon Dioxide it does not go in the upper atmosphere -- it is extremely important for local and regional warming.  Essentially, the black color of the soot can increase the heat level.  When it lands on snow or ice, the darker color will absorb more heat and reduce the amount of glaciers or snowpack.  This is very important in the Himalayas, because one of the biggest areas of cookstove usage is in the Indian Subcontinent.  More detail can be found in this testimony to Congress by VS Ramanathan, a leading scholar on its effects.

One of the great things about reducing black carbon is that it has immediate effects: when it rains, the carbon is literally washed out of the sky, so this program can have big effects on climate in the short term.

Take a look at their website here:  It looks like it just went live today.