Drought Influenced Syrian Civil War; So What?, Says U.S. Congress

A June 2013 flood in Uttarakhand, India killed an estimated 30,000 people and battered the state's hydropower sector. Photo/Keith Schneider
A June 2013 flood in Uttarakhand, India killed an estimated 30,000 people and battered the state’s hydropower sector. Photo/Keith Schneider

A paper earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States added fresh, peer-reviewed details about how a malicious four-year (2007 to 2010) drought in Syria played a role in touching off a calamitous civil war in 2011. The long rein of water scarcity ruined the farm economy, and drove over 1 million farmers and their families into unstable resource-scarce cities inspired by the Arab Spring to rebel against authoritarian rule.

The paper, like others before it, identifies climate change as the primary cause for the deepest and most economically disastrous drought in Syria’s history. The paper makes a powerful case for explaining that at least a portion of the anguish and fury of the civil war, the bedlam of obfuscation and bloody torment that has spread from Syria to Iraq to Beirut to Paris, is due to the Earth’s response to mankind’s ecological abuse.

This singular thought, that climate change can stir dangerous human conflict, is gaining salience across much of the world. One of its lone holdouts is the U.S. Congress, which apparently abhors science and prefers existing in an illusory landscape riven by the fury of its own ideology. More on that later.

We’ve Seen It Up Close
Those of us who’ve witnessed first hand the power of the Earth now to disrupt previously stable hydrological cycles, and cause global havoc, bear no such doubts.

California now reckons with a four-year drought that is putting grave pressure on groundwater supplies, and that several climatologists theorize is a facet of an enduring cycle of water scarcity unfolding in the American West.

California's four-year drought, the worst ever recorded, is disrupting life and the economy in America's largest state. Photo/Keith Schneider
California’s four-year drought, the worst ever recorded, is disrupting life and the economy in America’s largest state. Photo/Keith Schneider

Last year I reported on a vicious Himalayan flood that killed as many as 30,000 people and wrecked the hydropower dams of Uttarakhand, India. The cloudburst that dumped a foot of rain on high Himalayan shoulders, and caused the banks of a big alpine lake to rupture, was later deemed by scientists to be one of the year’s significant examples of the hazards of climate change. The economic and technical consequences of the Uttarakhand flood also caved in India’s hydropower construction sector, and damaged the country’s ability to diversify its electrical generating industry with carbon-free energy sources. Continue reading “Drought Influenced Syrian Civil War; So What?, Says U.S. Congress”

China Joins Global Pivot Away From Carbon

Shenzhen's high-tech free trade business park is designed to help shift the city's economy to greener, cleaner professional business sectors. Photo/Keith Schneider
Shenzhen’s high-tech free trade business park is designed to help shift the city’s economy to greener, cleaner professional business sectors. Photo/Keith Schneider

SHENZHEN, China – Although it is a distinctive way to view the world, to some extent the contemporary industrial age is a global narrative of substance abuse and recovery.

Sixty years ago the basic elements at the center of political and ecological concern were uranium and plutonium. Reckless Soviet and American atomic bomb blasts put so much deadly radiation in the atmosphere that milk and water became contaminated. Nations heeded the warnings of scientists and a global treaty to ban atmospheric testing was signed in 1963.

In the 1970s and 1980s the world came to recognize the malignant hazards of chlorine and its various chlorinated compounds used to manufacture pesticides, plastics, and coolants. A hole in the ozone opened over Antarctica. An industrial accident in Bhopal, India killed thousands of people. Trace residues showed up in food, in breast milk, and contaminated groundwater from leaking toxic waste dumps. Chlorine-based products were banned. Cleanup programs were instituted. Industrial safety improved.

Today, the world is steadily coming to agreement that carbon is the chemical compound putting life and economies at risk. Rejecting the views of the fossil fuel industry and their political allies in the United States, most national governments now heed the warnings of the climate-altering capability of carbon and are pivoting away from fossil fuel, its principle source.

The shift starts with coal and is starting to encompass oil. Coal production in the United States and western Europe is declining. Oil consumption in both regions is flat. Prices are sagging. Mexico banned new water drilling permits for shale oil and gas development near the Rio Grande Valley. Wind and solar electrical generating capacity is climbing quickly. A number of nations are developing new market signals and regulatory programs to reduce consumption of coal and oil, and to encourage cleaner energy alternatives. World leaders are set next month to converge on Paris to negotiate the first international agreement to limit carbon emissions.

In the United States, in an especially telling example of the global shift on fossil fuels, President Obama this week rejected the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and ExxonMobil is being investigated for securities fraud. The company is charged with hiding its own scientific studies about the carbon emissions threat, and spending millions of dollars to protect its fossil fuel holdings by supporting lawmakers and interest groups that marketed the false idea that climate change is a scientific hoax.

Shenzhen's public parks are masterpieces of urban design in a gigantic city of 16 million that held just 40,000 residents 30 years ago. Photo/Keith Schneider
Shenzhen’s public parks are masterpieces of urban design in a gigantic city of 16 million that held just 40,000 residents 30 years ago. Photo/Keith Schneider

Tilting To Cleaner Production Practices
I spent time this month in China’s Pearl River Delta as part of the Global Choke Point project I developed with Circle of Blue in 2010. The Choke Point project builds on seven years of multimedia reporting and convening that examines the water-energy-food confrontations in China, Australia, the United States, India, Mongolia, and the Arabian Gulf.

On the global resume of a world awakening to an era of ecological and economic reason, China’s new reckoning with the dangerous consequences of carbon stands out. Like a lover escaping the burden of a relationship that has suddenly grown difficult, China is steadily realigning its passion for coal, the largest source of carbon emissions. With an estimated 8.5 billion to 10 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, China produces more of the world’s carbon air pollution than any other nation. Continue reading “China Joins Global Pivot Away From Carbon”

Challenged By Drought, Fire, Earthquake, and Flood, California Departs On New Path

The depleted condition of Lake Oroville is an apt example of California's challenge in the 21st century. The state is drying. The lake in northern California is 42 percent of capacity and receding  daily. Photo/ Keith Schneider
The depleted condition of Lake Oroville is an apt example of California’s challenge in the 21st century. The state is drying. The lake in northern California is 42 percent of capacity and receding daily. Photo/ Keith Schneider

OROVILLE, CA — Until visitors peer over the crest of 770-foot Oroville Dam, which stores the cold Sierra waters of the Feather River and is the tallest dam in the United States, it’s hard to tell a drought grips Butte County, or any of the other neighboring Central Valley counties in this part of northern California.

The dirt-lined transport canals are filled to the top with water that slakes the thirst of thousands of hectares of rice, sunflowers, peaches, corn, soybeans, and all manner of California’s agricultural cornucopia. Unlike the southern reaches of the Central Valley, there’s no sign of the empty spaces of brown dirt where tomato fields lie fallow, or laser-leveled orchards under moisture duress that have been ripped out.

Quite the contrary. The region’s bullet-straight two lane highways pass by new orchards under cultivation, the roots of each infant tree politely dressed in swirls of drip irrigation line, and saluted by the short red plastic stake of a single spray irrigator. More surprising are the throngs of sunburned bathers and jet ski operators enjoying the deep cooling depths of two blue and bountiful manmade lakes that flank Highway 162. The highway is the primary route to enter this city of 16,000 residents, and to climb the Sierra foothills to reach the dam and its visitors center.

The sight from the trail across the dam’s spillway describes a much different story. The Lake Oroville reservoir, California’s second largest, is 42 percent of capacity, according to the state Department of Water Resources. It looks it. Two million of its 3.5 million acre-feet of water are gone. A bathtub ring of rock and soil, 200 feet wide, circles the lake like a light brown rebuke to the will of its essential purpose.

A Drain on Storage
Week by week the ring grows a little wider as the reservoir drains to irrigate fields and supply thirsty towns across the state that receive Lake Oroville’s liquid offering. The steadily receding water level is intently followed along the Sierra front like the won-loss record of high school football teams. “What’s happening is kind of out of our hands,” said Karen Wilson, a mother of two young children, who works part-time at an Oroville convenience store. “We do what we can. Don’t wash the car. Short showers. Live with brown grass. Dishwater on the gardens. You kind of hope the people in charge of the big stuff know what they’re doing.”

Perhaps because Californians exist in a perpetual state of peril aggravated by a fast-rising population, a consensus emerged a long time ago that to live and thrive here comes with a public responsibility to match supplies of energy, water, food, transportation, and housing with demand. Photo/Keith Schneider
Perhaps because Californians exist in a perpetual state of peril aggravated by a fast-rising population, a consensus emerged a long time ago that to live and thrive here comes with a public responsibility to match supplies of energy, water, food, transportation, and housing with demand. Photo/Keith Schneider

In much of the skeptical, government-suspicious United States that’s an odd appeal — looking to the authorities for guidance. In its matter of fact way, though, Wilson expresses the conviction held by most Californians that the authorities are actually capable of responding well to urgent conditions.
Continue reading “Challenged By Drought, Fire, Earthquake, and Flood, California Departs On New Path”

Water Supply And Reason Are Priorities in New U.S. – China Climate Agreement

One goal of the agreement is to make Chinese cities much cleaner and greener, like Chicago. Photo/Keith Schneider
One goal of the agreement is to make Chinese cities much cleaner and greener, like Chicago. Photo/Keith Schneider

NEW DELHI, India — There are nearly 1.3 billion people in this swarming democracy, where over 66 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the general election last May. A few of them took me aside this week to express surprise at the puzzle that is the American electorate and its national leadership.

It’s easy to see why.

On November 4, despite the most money ever spent in a national election ($US 3.7 billion), just over a third of eligible American voters — the lowest percentage since 1942 — felt it necessary to cast a ballot to influence the country’s management.

But just eight days later, on November 12, the president of the United States reached a momentous accord with the president of China to cap greenhouse gas emissions and do a whole lot more for Mother Earth and its human inhabitants.

THE PACT
Though viewed here in India, and by most observers globally as a an environmental accord, the pact’s six major provisions boil down to a very new international economic development strategy. The agreement sets out two politically arduous but technically achievable goals:

1. Turn major industries, particularly the institutions that supply electricity, into technologically advanced, water-conserving, low-carbon, pollution-avoiding guardians of environmental safety and human well-being.

2. Redesign cities to be much cleaner, much greener, much healthier, and much more efficient users of water, energy, land, and other natural resources.

In effect, the agreement sets out to either convert or overrun skeptics in the carbon-based industries, and their allies in government and finance. It does so by encouraging collaboration between the two largest economies, and the crowd of inventors and practitioners in both countries, to much more quickly put into place new tools, new practices, and especially new markets to contend with radically different ecological and economic conditions.

Temporarily putting aside political realities in both nations, and the skepticism fostered by decades of reporting in the U.S., and more recently in China, the two nations appear to be trying to do something truly significant.

President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping, and their aides, very clearly recognize the new malevolence displayed by Planet Earth in the 21st century. They seem to be looking at the searing storm of environmental and economic transition square in the eye, and presenting a concerted response that comes straight from the shoulder. The two leaders, in sum, seem resolute about aggregating achievable steps in technology and policy like a wall against danger. The changes the agreement calls for in water conservation, efficiency, clean energy, green equipment and the like, are the bricks. In short, the two leaders are trying to build a new foundation for industries and cities and people to survive and thrive in a perilous ecological age.
Continue reading “Water Supply And Reason Are Priorities in New U.S. – China Climate Agreement”

Earth Pushes Back – Hard

China's coal consumption, from mines like this in Inner Mongolia, is closing in on 4 billion metric tons annually, influencing dangerous new weather patterns in Asia and globally. Photo/Toby Smith
China’s coal consumption, from mines like this in Inner Mongolia, is nearing 4 billion metric tons annually, influencing dangerous new weather patterns in Asia and globally. Photo/Toby Smith

There’s nothing demur about Mother Earth these days. She’s fuming and pushing back hard. Very hard.

The Ebola emergency that began in West Africa and has since spread to two more continents has produced 5,000 deaths and is accelerating. Deep droughts engulf Brazil’s largest city and America’s largest state. Hurricanes drowned two major American cities since 2005. The 2013 Philippines typhoon killed 6,250 people. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed 228,000 people. A tsunami in the Pacific Ocean in 2011 killed 16,000 people and shut down Japan’s seawater-cooled nuclear sector.

All of these events illustrate Earth’s new temper tantrum and reflect two reasons common to its cause. The first is the massive population growth that is pushing mankind deeper into dangerous places to secure increasingly scarce supplies of water, food, and energy. In West Africa more people ventured into equatorial forests for land to grow crops and wood to heat fires. They unleashed a plague.

The second is how transportation, energy, food, water supply, and other public systems have been so weakened by disinvestment, mismanagement, and corruption that nations are not capable of summoning an adequate response.

In the case of the Ebola outbreak what was missing in West Africa was a competent health care system. The virus is loose now, spreading and dangerous.

The Earth doesn’t care. The Ebola outbreak is evidence of how nations are being pummeled by ecological emergencies that don’t seem natural — longer droughts, harsher floods, deadlier diseases, more severe insect infestations, earthquakes, tsunamis, and more powerful storms than ever before.

The tough droughts in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, and in California are visible chapters in this new narrative. Disruptions in hydrological cycles have resulted in drier conditions across much of the planet.  Sao Paulo, a city of nearly 12 million residents that is twice as big as it was in 1980, was slow to recognize the severity of the shortage of moisture and did next to nothing to encourage water conservation.

The Earth is adding 80 million new people a year; 25 million from India alone. Here, workers making their way to jobs in New Delhi, capital of a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people that is twice as big as it was in 1978. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Earth is adding 80 million new people a year; 25 million from India alone. Here, workers making their way to jobs in New Delhi, capital of a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people that is twice as big as it was in 1978. Photo/Keith Schneider

Continue reading “Earth Pushes Back – Hard”