Posts Tagged ‘Climate Change’


The Buck Stops Here


4 in a 4 part series


Planning and proper preparation is everything! We knew, without doubt,  one day the odds would finally deal New Orleans the category five hurricane card and we thought we were prepared for such a disaster. Hurricane Katrina opened our eyes to the fact there is a huge disparity between being aware an environmental disaster is possible and truly being prepared to deal with the aftermath of that disaster; which clearly in the case of Katrina we were not. Sending financial and physical aid to an area hit by disaster is far different from having to take care of it’s mess from the ground up and the commitment of the resulting years of restructuring lives as well as the areas infrastructure and economy. Climate change, environmental change and natural disasters are inevitable, it is the nature of the climate beast, so it behooves us to plan for the worst to the utmost of our abilities.

“Charity begins at home” is a proverb we will see come into play more and more as the United States has to pay for the effects and prevention of climate change and more frequent environmental catastrophes, as well as the care of an aging and uninsured population, here at home while being called upon to help foot the bill elsewhere for humanitarian aid. As these costs mount the U.S. may become reluctant or even unable to send financial and humanitarian aid to other countries. Greater storm intensity alone may see huge increases in humanitarian aid needed domestically in addition to the billions of dollars we already spend annually in natural disaster related costs. Our nation’s already burgeoning healthcare costs will rise in response to more frequent heat waves, deteriorating air quality and water borne disease. Sadly, the more that we wrestle with our own demons we may simply become desensitized to the plight of others as we are continually and in greater depth exposed to a world consumed by the ravages of conflict, famine, disease and death.

Since the industrialized countries are the greatest causative factor in anthropogenic global warming and environmental degradation there is a certain moral obligation implied towards climate refugees since the great majority of these will be from undeveloped countries who have contributed little to the problem. It is only fair to note that the people and governments of undeveloped countries do commit actions that lead to climate change and environmental degradation, such as deforestation, abuse of water resources, and pollution. Generally though, it is comparing apples to oranges to suggest the contribution of the undeveloped world to these changes is on the same level as the output of the industrialized world. The industrialized nations and the wealthy of the undeveloped nations must realize that their wealth will not insulate them from the degradation of our ecosystem s or from climate change; it may postpone their acquaintance but the piper will ultimately have to be paid for the dance. Humanity shares the same water, air, and food resource base and there is nowhere else for us to go when these things fail us.

We have had seminal moments of global accountability; the founding of the United Nations came about through the need to have a global point where, to paraphrase Harry S. Truman’s desk plaque: the buck stops here. Climate change and environmental degradation brings the politics of accountability to the forefront of a global stage where no one has the desire to be the star. Accountability is about power, without a global entity that has the means to demand accountability from the nations of the world it is impossible to enforce answerability and deliver true social justice. In the instances of climate change, environmental degradation, and manifold other eco issues, the un-accountability of offenders, and lack of social justice is manifested in that those who contribute the most to the problem bear the consequences the least and have little incentive to ameliorate the problem.

The results of climate change, environmental degradation and overpopulation cannot be left on the level where we think only in terms of a warmer globe, higher sea level, and formulating refugee policies. We need to consider how climate change will influence the shift of resources and population and how those shifts will contribute to economic and social disruption, terrorism, shifts in national power, and ultimately the possibility of conflicts; even full blown war over resources. Consider a population of eight billion, if only one percent is faced with climate change caused, directly or indirectly, migration that is eight million people will have to be relocated either within their own country or abroad. If we move the percentage to five percent it becomes forty million displaced refugees, how would we meet their needs? Where do we put them? To keep this in perspective, if sea level rises to moderate predicted levels we are looking at thirty million refugees from Bangladesh alone.

Conflict in a resource stressed world is inevitable. There are 260 trans-boundary rivers in the world; as the demand for and shortages of water grows there are at the bare minimum 260 places for conflict to erupt, especially in the arid parts of the world where tensions over water already exist. The United States government began to take the consequences of climate change seriously at the national security level in the late eighties and early nineties as a scan of the articles published, in the last twenty years, in the journal International Security will show. In 1992 the U.N. Security Council issued a paper saying their studies revealed continuing environmental degradation could threaten world peace and security through conflicts over water (and the pollution of water resources), food shortages, fuel shortages, drought, and the refugees fleeing these things.

As our global population increases, the disparity between rich and poor will become greater, environmental damage will increase, and climate change will continue to put pressure on already stressed resources. Should we as a global community continue to stonewall on preventative and ameliorating measures the environmental pressures will continue to escalate while the world’s policy makers will have less and less capacity to intervene and prevent or lessen environmental damage, social disruption and conflict. The importance of the security of the world’s fresh water supply cannot be overstated. Waters intrinsic value to us is that life cannot exist without it. Our very survival and that of all living things depends on water. Overall, the last few decades have seen increased water demand due to: 1) growing population, 2) economic growth, 3) expanding agriculture, and 4) lifestyle change amongst all populations, not just the developed world. Irrigation is responsible for roughly 70% of fresh water use worldwide and irrigated crops compose 40% of the total world crop, a substantial amount by any reckoning. It takes little imagination to see many ways climate change, environmental degradation, and continued flagrant over use will impact the planets freshwater cache directly and indirectly; as the population and global economy grow so will our voracious appetite for water.

Scientists and academics need to assume some responsibility for the way the public perceives climate change/ global warming, environmental degradation, and overpopulation. Science tends not to present its findings as part of an integrated whole but in bits and pieces which we do our area of study in. The sciences are, until rather recently, very compartmentalized yet we as individuals and a society operate the best and the most efficiently when we see the “big picture” in its entirety. The stereotype of the academic in their ivory tower is not too far off target for the majority of the public because we do not speak the same language they do and we do not make our work relative to them. As a global community humanity cannot afford to be wrong about the consequences of climate change, environmental degradation, and over population; the stakes are too important — too high — to allow us that luxury. If scientists and academics want and expect the public to take these issues and their consequences seriously, after 25 years of scientists, industry, and politicians arguing over them, then we have to make our work relative to them and their best interest; we have to put a face on it. God bless his heart, Sir Crispin Tickell was on the money when he said, “….We need to recast our educational system to promote better understanding of broad issues and lateral thinking between them. Specialization is the bane of wisdom (emphasis mine)”.

In humanity’s long term big picture it does not matter who or what causes climate change, as it is as inevitable as death and taxes, what matters is: can we adapt to the changes that are coming about via climate change, environmental degradation and over-population? And, there is this: If the global temperature never rises another tenth of a degree, from now until the sun burns itself out, the issues of environmental degradation, water scarcity, and a population greater than the earth has resources to provide for will have to be dealt with. The World Hunger Project at the University of Rhode Island found, based on diet alone and with all food shared equally, the earth could sustain comfortably the following populations:

0% animal products – 5.5 billion people Completely vegan diet


15% animal products – 3.7 billion “


25% animal products – 2.8 billion “


35% animal products – 2 billion “ Typical American diet


These are sobering figures indeed when you consider in July of 2012 we will have reached the mind numbing number of seven billion human beings on this planet. 2024 will see eight billion people, and by mid-century we expect the world’s population to hit 9 billion; eventually leveling off at roughly 11 billion. Even more distressing, the earth is experiencing the same phenomena with population as she does with climate change –some areas are severely overpopulated while others are experiencing under-population. Some of the developed nations, like France and Germany, are encouraging fertile women to have children as the country has reached the demographic transition stage where they have an aging population and births are not at replacement level; creating incredible economic stress and fear immigrants will change the face of the nation. Developed countries, such as the U.S., which are at replacement level births seldom take into account the immigrant births bolstering their numbers. It is inconceivable for most nations to consider greater immigration levels as a partial solution to their under-population problem as they fear losing their identity. Frankly, climate change and global warming are just two more complications in our species life, huge ones to be sure, but complications nonetheless. This complex mesh of issues created by a changing climate, burgeoning population, and environmental degradation is forcing us to answer questions that we do not fully understand.

As a society, in general, Americans and other Westerners are woefully ignorant of all that goes into maintaining the lifestyle to which we are accustomed. We are disconnected and distanced physically, mentally, and emotionally, from the resources which sustain us. We live in an age of genetically enhanced food crops, we spend millions on research in the hope we can manipulate our genes to allow us to live a longer and more vibrant life; it is time for us to eradicate Dawkin’s “selfish gene” that gave our ancestors their edge. Our earth has become far too small and limited for us to allow our genetic hardwiring to continue leading us into a global “tragedy of the commons”. Humans have always known the climate and environment affected our survival and affluence, but it is only recently have we began to understand the complex relationships existing between ourselves, the climate, and environment. The bonds between these three factors are not only intertwined  but they are intrinsic parts of our economies, politics, and cultural infrastructures. In order for our children and grandchildren to embrace a sustainable and prosperous future we must rise above our hardwired hubris and realize we do not stand outside of nature nor does nature exist merely to serve us;  we are part of nature and it is vital we learn to exist in harmony with the world around us.


This document is available in with footnotes, references, and full bibliography upon request.



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Probable Cause

3 in a 4 Part Series

We buy vehicle insurance on the probability, not the surety mind you, but the probability, that we will have an accident that we will need help meeting the cost for. The IPCC took 29 thousand observational data series from 75 different studies and found roughly 89% of the series agreed with the projected changes predicted by climate scientists. If there is an 89% probability I am going to have a serious car accident I can do one of three things: take my chances driving uninsured, have the bare minimum of insurance required, or purchase full coverage insurance. The costs of driving uninsured, both the direct and indirect costs, are higher than the cost of my bare minimum premium, should I “get caught” driving without insurance. If I never have an accident, never get stopped and ticketed, then the insurance costs more; but the 89% probability of having an accident far outweigh the 11% chance I won’t. The insurance premiums may be expensive but the insurance will pay for itself should an accident occur. There is the issue of diminishing returns but when the stakes are as high for humanity as worst case scenario climate change makes them, then the issue of diminishing returns becomes relative.

Some of the world’s wealthiest coastal cities are “buying full coverage insurance” by building bulwarks and floodgates to stem the damage from predicted rising sea levels. Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port, spent $600 million on floodgates. Venice, London and New York are planning similar projects, at a cost of $51 billion, to protect their interests. Yet as a global community we are essentially uninsured; having earmarked only $398 million and some change for climate adaptation in the developing world, where the most severe effects of climate change will be felt.

The correlation between climate change, environmental degradation, over population, and human migration is undeniable. The ability of our ancestors to adapt, with both their brains and their feet, to changing environmental conditions is found in the flowing waves of human migration recorded in the genetic and archeological record. Climate change and environmental degradation directly affect us in the following ways: rising sea levels, the intensity and/or frequency of storms, drought, desertification, and water shortages; the indirect ways we are affected by them are nearly innumerable. All of these singly are sufficient to start migration activity if they are severe enough but when more than one of these is occurring in an area at one time and there are any other social, economic or political pressures, it is a recipe for disaster.

Any discussion of refugees created by climate change or environmental degradation begins with a handicap -we do not have a working definition, that is accepted across the board, of what such a refugee is. The scientific, academic, and political, communities must come to a consensus on what the definition of a person who flees their home due to climate change and/or environmental degradation is. Climate change refugees and environmental refugees are not the same thing, although a climate change refugee is most assuredly an environmental refugee the reverse is not true.

Essam El-Hinnawi ,of the United Nations Environmental Programme , brought the term environmental refugee into the public arena fully when he used it in a 1985 policy paper but it was Norman Myer’s who hammered out the first serious definition.

Myers defined environmental refugees as people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with the associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty. In a 2007 paper, Biermann and Boas stipulated that climate refugees had to be fleeing one or more of three climate change impacts: 1) sea level rise, 2) extreme weather conditions, and 3) drought and water scarcity. Harvard’s Environmental Law Review ran an article in 2009 which defined climate change refugees, even more narrowly, as people whom climate change forces to relocate across national borders. The authors of this document also believe that we need a new, international legal instrument to deal with the plight of climate refugees guarantying them human rights protections as well as humanitarian aid. They further propose we should seek to prevent the situations which cause people to become climate refugees, remediating where prevention is not possible. There are those who separate the migration causing events even further by dividing events into sudden and gradual causation and whether the events are triggered by human activity or nature.

The closest thing we have to a working global definition is the one settled on by the United Nations, a definition markedly similar to Myer’s. The U.N. defines an environmental refugee as someone who is forced to leave their traditional habitat permanently, or temporarily, due to natural or anthropogenically caused environmental disruption. The environmental disruption may be the result of physical, chemical or biological changes in the ecosystem or resource base that render it unsuitable to support human life.

Theoretically, it does not matter what we label the millions of people who flee their homes due to environmental degradation and/or climate change because nomenclature does not change their circumstances. At the very best the label we will finally give climate refugees is a tool to ensure that they receive what we in the developed world take for granted: human rights, social justice, sufficient food, water and shelter to live a life of dignity and worth. At its worst, the final label we will give to climate refugees will be a tool of semantics; a device by which to dole out the blame and therefore the cost of these people. If climate change scientists are correct in their predictions the developed world will see climate refugees of its own. At that point a new ethical question will be wrestled with as we will have to ask ourselves “Is it ethical to treat first world refugees differently than the third world refugees who will fall victim first? “

Estimates on the number of climate refugees varies from 26 million to 1 billion by 20501; a number that can change tomorrow due to deteriorating conditions in the environment, natural disasters, as well as better, more detailed information from ongoing and new studies. The deputy high commissioner of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the U.N. agency whose primary function is the protection of refugees, said in February of 2008 that “by 2050, hundreds of millions more people may become permanently displaced due to rising sea levels, floods, droughts, famine and hurricanes. The melting or collapse of ice sheets alone threaten the homes of one in twenty people. Increased desertification and the alteration of ecosystems…. are also likely to trigger large population displacements”.

The wide range in the estimates of refugees is due to the fact that researchers use differing definitions of what actually constitutes a climate refugee and that each study works from a different set of assumptions, uses different methods, timeframes, scenarios and measures different variables.

The only thing all the definitions agree on is that climate and environmental refugees may not ever be able to return to their homes. Climate refugees will arrive in groups, since a whole area will be affected at once by any said climatic event, which is something fairly unusual as people tend to migrate or immigrate as individuals or family groups. Permanent climate change and environmental refugees will have to be assimilated into either the population of a new area of their own nation or whatever country will accept them; creating new pressures on existing services and resources.

It is naivety of the highest degree to think that we can prevent environmental refugees from coming to the developed countries of the world, or that we will not have internal refugees of our own. One needs to look no further than the Mexican-American border so see how difficult it is to successfully halt illegal immigration of a determined population. The flow of immigrants across the Mexican-American border is a small number compared to the global potential. Climate change is projected to send immigrants from South and Central America, to the United States and Canada. People fleeing North Africa and the Middle East will go to Europe and those leaving South and Southeast Asia will go to Australia. Asia in particular is seen to be the greatest source of environmental refugees globally because of their profound rise in natural disasters, due in part to Asia’s phenomenal population growth; which has moved greater numbers of people into marginal areas. Refusing asylum to climate and environmental refugees is the ultimate act of moral denial.

A secondary aspect to climate refugees which receives negligible attention is the well being of those who cannot speak for themselves; what do we do about the about the plant and animal life endangered by the same climate and environmental factors which cause humans to flee an area? According to the United Nations 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, humans have increased the species extinction rate by over one thousand times the rate it was before we emerged from the mists. The global community must deal with the ethical issues surrounding floral and faunal refugees which will share, or should share, our exoduses.

While it is impossible to predict exactly what, where, when and how the vagaries of climate change will come into play it is in a very real sense predictable as to what the outcome will be in a given area and it is prudent for us to act on that knowledge. For example, it is no secret that island states such as the Maldives and low lying areas such as Bangladesh will be affected by rising sea levels and we know the approximate number of people who will be dislocated on a permanent basis. With strategic planning the disruption to both the refugees and the receiving area can be minimized somewhat and we owe the courtesy of preparation for these events to ourselves as global citizens.

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Critical Thinking

 2 in a 4 Part Series

Critics of climate change  often point out  our current environment is not the warmest period the earth has seen, which is true; the Eemian interglacial, which peaked 125,000 years ago, gave us the warmest period in the last 150,000 years. However, it’s important to note during the Eemain it was also cooler in some areas than now. What is new to the climate change scene, and what the critics fail to consider, is the greatly increased human population level we have, the marginal environments a large portion of the world’s population inhabits, and how much human activities have and continue to increase the rate of climate change as we enter into the earth’s newest warm episode. The “Blame Game” has no place in this discussion; it politicizes the issue further while it channels energy and resources away from solving the problems we face.

Two of the greatest misunderstandings, which fuel both our indifference to and the arguments about climate and environmental change are:

1)  We do not understand the difference between weather and climate nor do we realize climate change will not be uniform around the globe. Weather is a local occurrence while climate is regional and in the expansive sense of the word, global. If the current warming trend continues we will see regional and seasonal variations in climate. There will be warmer nights, fewer extremely cold days, and oddly enough, some regions will cool down while other areas of the world warm up; but the average global temperature will rise. Climate change is most evident at the higher latitudes where we see ice melting, changes in growing seasons, and migrations. It is ironic the ecosystems which are likely to suffer the most damage from a warmer climate are the tropics.  Tropical flora and fauna  are not required to adapt to seasonal changes. Research has revealed that a two degree temperature fluctuation is more than some tropical species are capable of adapt to.

2) The vastness of geological time.  Geological time is difficult for us to wrap our minds around yet, in spite of that difficulty, we couch climate change in broad, sweeping, geological terms, making “it” a thing distant from ourselves. Climate change, by and of itself, is not the problem, the rate at which current climate change is occurring however, is. We tend to think of climate change as a slow, insidious, creeping thing, which alters the world gradually. McKenzie Funk called climate change “incremental… it is an ocean that rises slowly, a glacier that melts gradually or a dry spell that lasts a little longer” in his 2009 book “Come Hell or High Water”. Like McKenzie, most of us think of typical climate change in a way similar to not realizing that someone you see every day is failing until an old acquaintance, who hasn’t seen them in a long time, stops in for a visit and takes you aside before they leave to ask you what is wrong with their friend. Paleoclimate records reveal a dramatically different version of climate change, one where drastic climate change can, and often has, occurred rapidly, in some cases taking only a few decades. There is little serious disagreement in the scientific community as to whether climate change is occurring, the disagreement is on the rate of change, the implications of those changes, and whether it is a completely natural occurrence, anthropogenic in nature or a combination of the two.

The old cliché “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it” contains a basic truth; we must learn from the experience and events of the past. Jared Diamond did a masterful job of illustrating how past societies either collapsed, dispersed, or did both when faced with major environmental change in his book “Collapse”. The climate and environmental related failures of the Anasazi and their neighboring cultures in the American Southwest, the Norse colonies in Greenland, the Haruppa, the Akkadians, and other ancient cultures is a clear signal to us from the past that climate change is a trigger event which disrupts the social, economic and political fabric of the civilizations affected. In hindsight it is easy for us to see that these ancestor societies did not understand the interconnectedness of the systems which composed their environment, the signal events taking place in their environment, or the consequences of those events. Humans tend to see themselves as extant and outside the environmental system as a whole; a conceptualization made possible because of the uniquely human ability to live in denial, something no other species is capable of doing.

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Common Bonds

 1 in a 4 Part Series

We live in an era where the perils of climate change, environmental degradation, and overpopulation, are bandied about in such fashion we have become, as a society, relatively blasé concerning them. The average American’s worries about the economy, terrorism, the current presidential election, and whether we can get the laundry folded while supper is cooking, take precedence over issues which seem so distant, both in time and relativity, to our well being. A 2009 Pew Research poll revealed that while 84% of U.S. scientists believed human activities affected global warming, only 49% of the public did. This same poll found that the economy, the War in Iraq, and several other issues were more important to Americans than climate change and the environment; the issue of over population was not part of the poll.

Climate change, environmental degradation, and over-population, are inseparable due to the feedback loop generated by the common bonds they have. A change in the balance of one can, and usually does, escalate the others in a non-linear fashion. These three issues have become so politicized it is nearly impossible for the science exploring them, and their possible solutions, to speak for itself. Linking these three apocalyptic horsemen into a causality chain often banishes our apathy and stirs no small amount of controversy in the process. Overpopulation, in particular, is almost impossible to discuss; even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared the subject essentially off limits when in 2007 it issued the statement, “…. (the) scope and legitimacy of population control…..are still subject to ongoing debate”.

The politicizing of these three issues makes it easy for us to put dealing with them, and matters directly related to them, on the back burner. Debates surrounding them allow us to insulate ourselves further from these issues by creating a mental buffer which says “If the problems which climate change, environmental degradation and over-population cause, both directly and indirectly, were as vitally important as some say then all would be in agreement and the government would “do something” about them”. The arguments are myriad, with “Climategate”, the most “celebrated” entrant to the debate party, giving climate contrarians the world over their best argument yet: the science validating climate change and global warming was fudged. Sadly, after both internal and external investigation revealed the science was sound but conceded the scientists manners were lacking, “Climategate” ended with a whimper in the fifth section of the Sunday paper. Instead of climate science’s vindication being trumpeted on front pages and top of the hour broadcasts with the same media explosion it was crucified the investigation results were buried and the critics arguments go on ad nauseam. Perhaps at the very core of the contention is the fear that if we accept climate change, environmental degradation and over- population as real, who is accountable and where does the responsibility lie for “fixing” them and the attendant problems they bring?

One thing critics do have right is climate change is a natural process. Global climate change is not new to our planets environmental system, it’s a vital part of the processes constituting the earth’s life cycle. We now understand the earth has a series of naturally occurring cycles. Some cycles are decadal, others are hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of years in duration. Two examples of these cycles are the earth’s orbital tilt cycle which takes forty one thousand years to complete and the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit which has a cycle of roughly one hundred thousand years. Ice ages and interglacials come and go as the earth progresses through the cyclic events of her planetary life. As the earth shifts from one part of her cycle to the next some species decline in response to the change while others rise to take their place. Oblivious to the chaos she causes,  earth’s natural rhythm marches inexorably on. Simply put, climatic instability creates and closes niches for faunal and floral exploitation. Our species filled a niche that was opened by such changes and we have prospered greatly, perhaps to greatly. The plasticity and ingenuity of our species has not only allowed us to subjugate the earth to meet our needs but to populate marginal environments. In times of climatic and/or environmental stress these marginal areas can no longer support the population load we demand they carry. The reality of an unstable climate and finite resources compels us to admit there is a limit to how many people our planet can support. Millions now face the same forces which pushed and pulled our ancestors to migrate in search of adequate resources to sustain themselves, to find new niches to prosper in –unfortunately,  there are no new places to go.

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