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August 24, 2010

Pakistan, Niger, Russian, US Floods, Droughts: Climate Change Preview

Category: Climate Change,Economics,Political – Tom Harrison – 11:37 am

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There’s been a lot of dramatic weather this year, in fact more records than in recorded history — I would like to take a moment to consider their impact.

Many, many people suffer, and much property was damaged or destroyed. These extreme weather events are all consistent with the predictions of climate change. Let’s go out on a limb, for a moment, and consider a world that has, with increasing frequencies, climate events like these. This isn’t going far out on a limb, because this kind of weather instability is one thing climate scientists have been predicting, correctly, as a result of climate change.

What climate change scientists predict are resulting in some downstream impacts, which I tend to think are likely to be the most immediate threats to our “first world” ways of life.

Flooding and more flooding

The most trivial were the various floods that occurred in New England, Nashville, Arkansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma and other places this year. Yes, people were killed, but not many — mostly these were event of economic impact. Our basement was flooded twice here in Massachusetts this Spring. We had flooring in the basement that was ruined, but some of our neighbors had to replace boilers, water heaters, appliances and other things. For us, the cost was a few thousand dollars, and the Federal disaster insurance only covered cases more severe than ours.

We talked to the guy who got rid of all that ruined flooring for us (landfill?) and he said it was an economic boom for his business, and for the carpenters, plumbers and electricians who were called to repair the destruction. So, good for some, not so good for others. One would think flood insurance will be very costly indeed.

In a remarkably blithe story about the Russian drought, and subsequent forest fires, Radio Free Europe had the headline “Analysts: Impact Of Drought, Fires In Russia Offset By Other Economic Factors” which is good, I guess. In the last paragraph, it was noted that as of August 16th,

Wildfires in central and western Russia have been burning for weeks. They have thus far killed at least 50 people and devastated hundreds of thousands of hectares of land. Some 500 fires are still burning and extensive drought along with the fires has severely affected the country’s agricultural sector.

An alternative point was made more strongly in a Reuters article, quoting a Russian official

Russia’s worst drought in decades has led to fires that have almost doubled death rates in Moscow to around 700 per day

More Flooding, Drought, and Displacement

The flooding in Pakistan makes our “first world” economic concerns seem a little petty, perhaps. But not irrelevant.

In Pakistan, the flooding has killed many, but displaced millions. The Guardian reports as of August 23rd,

Tens of thousands of people are trying to flee the latest flood surge in southern Pakistan, three weeks after huge monsoon rainfall hit the country. About 1,600 people are thought to have died and an estimated 20 million have been affected by the disaster, 10 million having lost homes, livestock or crops.

The World Health Organisation has warned that diseases are spreading, with hundreds of hospitals and clinics damaged or destroyed. Jane Cocking, the humanitarian director of Oxfam, said casualties could rise sharply if there was a significant outbreak of waterborne disease and those affected were unable to get swift medical care.

Normally, I quote from the New York Times, but no story about this disaster made the front page today. In fact, it was not even amongst the highlighted stories on the World section. Near the bottom, there was a good story.

One other section in the Times had a story titled “Can Flood Aid Weaken the Taliban in Pakistan?” The question was whether our help would be better or worse for the Taliban. Hmm.

No major news source mentioned the floods in Niger as far as I could tell. A news search found a few stories, such as one from Voice of America, whose title is “Floods Heighten Food Crisis in Niger”

The floods are hitting Niger at a time when more than seven million people in the country are already facing severe hunger, according to the United Nations. The heavy rains are not only washing away food reserves, but also roads that are used to deliver emergency supplies to the population, added Oxfam sources.

The World Food Program recently announced that at current funding levels, it will not be able to help feed 60 percent of those facing hunger in Niger.

The End of the Deniers?

Last week, an excellent piece in the NY Times helped put all of this in perspective. With (real) fair and balanced reporting, the story explains lucidly why it is that scientists don’t say “Yes, this flood was caused by global warming”, and how that is dramatically different from the statement “No, this flood was not caused by global warming”.

It’s beginning to look more difficult for the “deniers” to hold on to their absurd repudiations of science.

But to all of this, I am responding quite differently.

Geopolitics is Just as Scary and Chaotic as Climate Change

Climate change is a geopolitical issue.

“Geopolitical issue” tends to mean “war”.

Displaced people and ruined crops mean people have to go somewhere else. In Sudan, drought and famine resulted in displacement that resulted in wars leading to genocide.

The US is discussing how aid to Pakistan will affect our political stature, especially with regard to how we are seen in comparison to the Taliban, who mostly took the heat for a war started, in part, over our demand for oil. We’re thinking “How are we going to protect ourselves from this political instability”. It’s a fair question, and if a little callous, not something we can really ignore.

World economics is already under strain. Tensions are high. People are dying. Opinions are changing.

Climate change is creating unstable atmospheric conditions. And these lead to unstable geopolitical conditions.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

What we are seeing this year (and have been seeing for the last five or ten years) is mostly a prelude. In another five or ten years, I predict this kind of weather, and it’s outcome, will be mild.

It is time for us to act, if only because it is in our national interest to do so.

2 Comments

  1. So what do you say to the study described here? The basic conclusion is that there is no evidence that global warming is responsible for recent weather-related disasters. These are more related to people building in flood zones.

    Comment by George — August 24, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

  2. @George —

    The headline of the Revkin article certainly implies what you may have concluded. But I think if you read all of what Revkin, and the scientist he quotes (Verchick) are saying, you’ll find that we’re all pointing to the same outcome: lots of strife coming in the future. Where we are now is up for debate, but (following the lead of Joe Romm, who writes for the Climate Progress blog), I have tried to be careful with my conclusions.

    Respectfully, the basic conclusion of Revkin’s summary of Bouwer’s article is

    Regardless of what happens due to global warming, on a crowding, urbanizing planet, increased exposure to, and losses from, nature’s hard knocks are a sure thing if people keep settling in harm’s way.

    and then

    None of this negates the importance of moving to limit emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases; the analysis just reinforces the reality that while that effort proceeds, there’s plenty of other work to do, as well, if humanity desires a relatively smooth journey in this century (as was recently stressed by Robert Verchick here).

    So, again, with respect, my post says “These extreme weather events are all consistent with the predictions of climate change.” And the papers focus on “disaster losses”, and if you read the paper and other comments, the author has focused on population and economic growth. These are important issues, and strongly related to both causes, and subsequent impacts of climate change.

    And with respect George, your synopsis of the conclusion, “there is no evidence that global warming is responsible for recent weather-related disasters” is a rather different one than the actual conclusion “anthropogenic climate change so far did not have a significant impact on losses from natural disasters”.

    Take a careful look at what I wrote. Read beyond the headlines of the Revkin article and other Verchick comments. I think you’ll see that none are in conflict with each other. We’re all in agreement that dramatic weather events like floods and droughts cause geopolitical instability.

    Comment by Tom Harrison — August 25, 2010 @ 8:01 am

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