Wednesday, September 4, 2013

When climate change becomes a matter of war and peace

William R. Polk, a guy who has been supplying the establishment with what passes for convention wisdom in the Middle East since the Eisenhower Administration, has written his analysis of what is happening in Syria for the The Atlantic's September 2 web post.  It is filled with the sort of lofty imperial assumptions one would expect from the State Department or the Council of Foreign Relations but buried deep in his analysis is a little nugget of historical observations about the effects of climate change on Syrian agriculture and its role in triggering the current civil war.

Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011. Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well. But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.

In some areas, all agriculture ceased. In others crop failures reached 75%. And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger. Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies. Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3 million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”

The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population. Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq. Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers. And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.

Survival was the key issue. The senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Syria turned to the USAID program for help. Terming the situation “a perfect storm,” in November 2008, he warned that Syria faced “social destruction.” He noted that the Syrian Minister of Agriculture had “stated publicly that [the] economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’” But, his appeal fell on deaf ears: the USAID director commented that “we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time.” (reported on November 26, 2008 in cable 08DAMASCUS847_a to Washington and “leaked” to Wikileaks )

Whether or not this was a wise decision, we now know that the Syrian government made the situation much worse by its next action. Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year. The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive.

So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire. The spark was struck on March 15, 2011 when a relatively small group gathered in the town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them. Instead of meeting with the protestors and at least hearing their complaints, the government cracked down on them as subversives. The Assads, who had ruled the country since 1971, were not known for political openness or popular sensitivity. And their action backfired. Riots broke out all over the country, As they did, the Assads attempted to quell them with military force. They failed to do so and, as outside help – money from the Gulf states and Muslim “freedom fighters” from the rest of the world – poured into the country, the government lost control over 30% of the country’s rural areas and perhaps half of its population. By the spring of 2013, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), upwards of 100,000 people had been killed in the fighting, perhaps 2 million have lost their homes and upwards of 2 million have fled abroad. Additionally, vast amounts of infrastructure, virtually whole cities like Aleppo, have been destroyed.  more
The climate scientists are screaming, "when will anybody take us seriously—climate change is real and it will trigger catastrophes we can only begin to imagine."  Unfortunately, merely understanding that the climate is changing is barely a start when it comes to doing anything meaningful about it.  So here we have another example of a major climate scientist somehow believing that if people can accept that the climate is changing and that humans are responsible for that change, things may start to improve (on their own and as if by magic, I guess.)  I grew up in a religious household that taught if people accepted the fact that they were sinning, this was the start of a new and better life.  Didn't work very well in religion and it certainly won't work when it comes to something like the altered physics of the atmosphere.  But folks still want to believe that confession is the start of something better.  It's not—unless there are clear plans to do something else.  And it's the lack of such plans that means we have not progressed much, if at all, since James Hansen sounded his warning in 1988.

UN Chief Scientist Urges Action On Climate Change: ‘We Have Five Minutes Before Midnight’


Rajendra Pachuari, head of the United Nation’s group of climate scientists, said on Monday that humanity can no longer be content kicking the can down the road when it comes to climate change. “We have five minutes before midnight,” he emphasized.

“We may utilize the gifts of nature just as we choose, but in our books the debits are always equal to the credits.

“May I submit that humanity has completely ignored, disregarded and been totally indifferent to the debits? Today we have the knowledge to be able to map out the debits and to understand what we have done to the condition of this planet.”

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which Pachuari heads, is slated to release its long-awaited Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) later this month. Drafts of the report seen by Reuters point to an even greater certainty that humans are the primary drivers of global warming, “It is at least 95 percent likely that human activities — chiefly the burning of fossil fuels — are the main cause of warming since the 1950s.” This is up from 90 percent in the 2007 report, 66 percent in 2001 and just over 50 percent in 1995, “steadily squeezing out the arguments by a small minority of scientists that natural variations in the climate might be to blame.”

Other leaks suggest the report will address the coming threat of sea-level rise and refute recent claims of a slowdown in the pace of warming, a notion that has been seized upon by climate change skeptics.

However, as Joe Romm explains, IPCC reports can only be considered a partial assessment of the true magnitude of climate change impacts because they represent “an instantly out-of-date snapshot that lowballs future warming because it continues to ignore large parts of the recent literature and omit what it can’t model.”

AR5′s shortcomings aside, Pachuari is clear that governments worldwide can no longer defer their responsibility to address climate change. He told the crowd on Monday that reining in greenhouse-gas emissions was still possible if countries, including in the developing world, rethought their approach to economic growth, reported Agence-France Press — a shift that would boost energy security, cut pollution and improve health, and also offer new job opportunities.

“We cannot isolate ourselves from anything that happens in any part of this planet. It will affect all of us in some way or the other,” Pachauri said. more


  1. It is frightening to see the different possibilities climate change can cause. Economic collapse may also be inevitable that an income protection cover may only be good for a short period of time. We must find ways to take care of our environment.