If you thought assigning attribution of individual weather disasters to global climate change was tricky business, imagine trying to establish a causal link between specific ecological problems and global warming.
In this commentary in Nature Climate Change, ecologist Camille Parmesan and her co-authors suggest not going there. It’s not that they think global warming doesn’t adversely affect the biological world; it’s just that it’s too difficult to quantify the measurable impact at an individual species level. The authors assert that there is
a complex interplay among habitat destruction, land-use change, exploitation and pollution, in addition to climate change. The emerging view is that interactions among drivers of change are the norm. For example, after a warming event, corals in overfished areas recovered more poorly from bleaching than those with intact food webs. Effects of habitat fragmentation also interact with those of climate change. Northwards expansion of the speckled wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria) in Great Britain progressed rapidly where barriers were minimal, but was hampered in regions where agriculture had rendered woodland habitat patches too scattered for individuals to find.
At a time when ecological problems are increasingly framed and discussed in the context of climate change, Parmesan and her coauthors are going against the grain with this rebuke (my emphasis):
By over-emphasizing the need for rigorous assessment of the specific role of greenhouse-gas forcing in driving observed biological changes, the IPCC effectively yields to the contrarians’ inexhaustible demands for more ‘proof’, rather than advancing the most pressing and practical scientific questions. This focus diverts energies and research funds away from developing crucial adaptation and conservation measures. To improve estimates of future biological impacts we need research focused on how other human stressors exacerbate impacts of climate change. Most importantly from a conservation standpoint, these other stressors are more easily managed on local scales than climate itself, and thus, paradoxically, are crucial to constructing adaptation programmes to cope with anthropogenic climate change.
The argument underlying this commentary was similar to one made two years ago in Slate by Brendan Borrell:
Climate change has the potential to displace the most impoverished human populations and bring about food shortages, flooding, and drought. But from the perspective of saving species, it’s a MacGuffin: a plot device that may impel the tired conservation narrative forward but is hardly a pragmatic strategy for preserving biodiversity.
Not to mix apples and oranges, but there is an interesting parallel with the recent injection of climate change into national security debates. Geoff Dabelko, noting the embrace of “climate security” as a new rhetorical term, in which socio/environmental and energy concerns have been packaged into a climate change box, has offered his own cautionary advice.
Don’t forget ongoing natural resource and conflict problems. The research and policy docket already is crowded with serious conflicts (as well as opportunities for cooperation) over resources, whether they are minerals, water, timber, fish, or land. While climate change certainly poses a large–and potentially catastrophic–threat in many settings, we must not overlook the ongoing problems of rapid population growth, persistent poverty, lack of clean water and sanitation, and infectious diseases that already threaten lives daily. Climate change will likely multiply these threats, but they will continue to exact a high toll even if the climate stabilizes. Presenting climate change as the number one concern and demoting other deadly threats is insensitive to the pressing problems faced by many people in poor and developing countries.
Similar pushback against the “collective fixation on global warming as the mother of all environmental problems” was expressed two years ago by Jonathan Foley:
In the rush to portray the perils of climate change, many other serious issues have been largely ignored. Climate change has become the poster child of environmental crises, complete with its own celebrities and campaigners. But is it so serious that we can afford to overlook the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies?
Anyone seeing a common thread in all these cases?
As I noted in this review of Cleo Paskal’s new book, “the northwest passage looms large in geopolitics.”
Paskal argues that the the U.S. and European Union are allowing short term economic interests in the Arctic to threaten their long-term security interests. It’s one of the more provocative assertions she makes in Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map.
On that note, an article in Foreign Affairs last March was titled:
The Great Game Moves North: As the Arctic Melts, countries vie for control
The author, Scott Borgerson, wrote:
The next few years will be critical in determining whether the region’s long-term future will be one of international harmony and the rule of law, or a Hobbesian free-for-all.
So I found it curious when, in a recent post at The New Security Beat, Geoff Dabelko wrote:
Remarks at a recent spate of Arctic climate and security discussions suggest officials in Washington view the geopolitical and trade issues more as “challenges” than “crises.”
That seems fair enough. But depending on how those issues are handled, might the challenges soon become crises?
Last week, there was a horrifying story out of Nigeria, in which
the attackers set upon the villagers with machetes, killing women and children in their homes and ensnaring the men who tried to flee in fishnets and animal traps, then massacring them, according to a Nigerian rights group whose investigators went to the area. Some homes were set on fire.
It was the latest, tragic episode of an ongoing vendetta between Muslims and Christians in Jos, Nigeria. Today, a NYT op-ed by a Nigerian journalist puts this incident in a larger perspective. The picture that unfolds in the op-ed crystallizes–at least to me–the kind of complexity that must bedevil environmental security scholars. For example, here’s the writer, exhibiting a weary, almost anesthesticized view of the normalized disorder in Nigeria:
But even if we decided to make more of a big deal out of our calamities, Jos, terrible as what happened there was, would have to patiently wait its turn. While ethno-religious violence takes place in Jos, people in Ebonyi State, who speak the same language and share the same religion, are massacring one another over natural resources. Disgruntled militants in the Niger Delta are threatening to cripple the economy by vandalizing more petroleum pipelines. Politicians are assassinated regularly in the western states; the elderly fathers and mothers of prosperous children are kidnapped and held for ransom in the east. And we know it’s just a matter of time before riots between Muslims and Christians break out again up north.
That’s a hell of knot for anyone to untie, especially environmental security experts, who examine the linkages between conflict and natural resources, among other socio/political factors. So I’m wondering if someone like Geoff Dabelko at the Woodrow Wilson Center, or anyone from the Center for for a New American Security (they have a program called Natural Security), could provide a a big-picture, environmental security perspective of Nigeria. Is there one overriding resource issue that runs through all the country’s aforementioned crisises? I’m not even sure what natural resources the people in Ebonyi State are killing each other over. You can start by explaining that one, then perhaps help me make sense of the whole, if that’s possible.
I guess what I getting at here is that Nigeria–judging by that snapshot above–is obviously beset by a number of seemingly unrelated “calamities.” Still, separate natural resource conflicts appear to be a common denominator. So if you’re an environmental security expert, do you approach these cases individually, or is there one meta issue that must be tackled above all, before all the crisises metastasize beyond repair?
I’m a little surprised this NYT story by Jeffrey Gettleman hasn’t been noted at Natural Security. It’s about an innovative aid project in Sauri, Kenya that seems to be a big success. Because the Sauri initiative is among the first of 80 “showcase” projects dreamed up by Jeffrey Sachs, the implications of its success are huge. Gettleman wastes little time in examining the bigger picture:
But the question for Mr. Sachs and his team remains: Is this progress, in development-speak, scalable? In other words, is there a way to take a place like this one and magnify the results by 1,000 times or 10,000 times and wipe out poverty across the developing world?
What follows after that is an interesting capsule debate on the relative merits and pitfalls of foreign aid in developing countries.
And if none of that is enough to pique the interest of environmental security bloggers, the story’s kicker should, which pivots to Sachs discussing the links between poverty and terrorism:
A few years ago, Mr. Sachs said, he came back from Yemen, which has recently become a haven for Al Qaeda, and spoke to American officials about how the country was “broken by hunger, water-stress, disease and poverty” and “sliding closer to the cliff.”
“I told our government all about this,” he said. “But all I got back was a blank stare.”
I’m all for the U.S. improving avenues of cooperation with Mexico, especially if that helps ameliorate the miserable conditions of border communities. But in this post over at Natural Security, Will Rogers overreaches when he suggests that environmental initiatives with Mexico aids U.S. national security interests along the southern border. That can hardly be the case when the border remains a violent battleground, in large part because the U.S. government stubbornly clings to a futile, bankrupt policy: the War on Drugs.
Let me back up a minute. In his post, Rogers discusses
an ongoing bilateral, interagency effort that includes the U.S. Northern Command [NORTHCOM] the Environmental Protections Agency (EPA) and several U.S. and Mexican state and federal agencies around environmental preparedness, protection and response along the southern border.
Again, this is all good stuff, which hopefully will improve the heavily degraded environment along the U.S.-Mexican border. Here’s the additional upside that Will envisions:
Such sustained engagements have the ability to professionalize Mexico’s first responders, build cross-border good will and help assuage some of the tensions associated with one of the many laundry list of issues that continue to undermine stability in Mexico (e.g., drug trafficking) ““ a country whose national security is inextricably linked with ours.
But drug trafficking is not just one of the “many” issues–it is the premier one. Just consider the hook that Rogers uses for his post, this Washington Post story, which reports:
For the first time, U.S. officials plan to embed American intelligence agents in Mexican law enforcement units to help pursue drug cartel leaders and their hit men operating in the most violent city in Mexico, according to U.S. and Mexican officials.
So the U.S. is going to double down on Mexico’s whack-a-drug cartel member strategy. To see how that’s faring, let’s scroll down a bit in the WaPo story:
Since his inauguration three years ago, CalderÃ³n has pursued a U.S.-backed strategy of relying on the Mexican military to confront the cartels fighting for dominance in the billion-dollar corridors to the U.S. drug market. The Mexican troops, who lack law enforcement training or investigative abilities, have made record numbers of arrests, but few of the detained have gone to trial. Instead, the military has been accused of human rights abuses — coerced confessions, illegal detention, unlawful searches.
Hmm. Human rights abuses, coerced confessions, illegal detentions…I feel like I heard about that somewhere else, in another part of the world, until a change in Administration policy decided to go in a different direction.
But I digress. Let’s get back to how that tip of the spear approach is working out in Mexico:
According to U.S. and Mexican officials, the municipal police cannot be trusted, nor can they operate on their own. One U.S. official said a local police chief was caught briefing his cartel bosses via cellphone immediately after planning sessions.
“This is an enormous mess. It is now starting to hurt CalderÃ³n politically. He cannot point to any success. And he is running out of time,” said Jorge CastaÃ±eda, a former Mexican foreign minister and now a professor at New York University.
Oh, but here in the U.S. we don’t have that problem. Time just stands still, while a broken, failed policy marches on. So if CalderÃ³n pays a political price, then it will be up to his successor to convince the U.S. that it should rethink it’s own war on drugs. Because guess what: we don’t have that debate in this country.
And yes, at some point, if Mexico unravels because of its own internal rot and corruption, that’s a national security problem for the U.S. No well intentioned environmental initiatives between the U.S and Mexico will stop that fire from burning out of control. That’s because the fuel that feeds the illicit, immensely profitable drug trade is demand from American consumers. U.S. policy makers that keep funding the war on drugs are just fanning the flames.
Looks like Marc Morano is steering clear of the U.S. military’s acceptance of climate change. You won’t find any big, bold headlines on Climate Depot about how the Pentagon is planning for a warmer world:
Climate change will affect DoD in two broad ways. First, climate change will shape the operating environment, roles, and missions that we undertake. The U.S. Global Change Research Program, composed of 13 federal agencies, reported in 2009 that climate-related changes are already being observed in every region of the world, including the United States and its coastal waters. Among these physical changes are increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the oceans and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt and alterations in river flows.
Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.
The seriousness with which the U.S. intelligence apparatus and the Pentagon take climate change is an inconvenient truth for Morano–and skeptics. As I’ve said before, it’s much easer to whack Al Gore or the IPCC than four star generals. The institutional acceptance of climate change by the U.S military is a hard thing to deal with over at Climate Depot. Much easier to ignore, right Marc? C’mon, surely, you can think up some headline about how the Pentagon has been bamboozled by the great global warming hoax?
I have a belated wish for the New Year. I want the CNAS Natural Security bloggers to juice up their posts. I want that blog to generate dialogue and become a must-read in green circles. I’m already a fan, but that’s because I’m interested in the environment/security intersection. So I dutifully check in to see what the latest policy papers or related news Natural Security is flagging.
They need to liven things up over there, write with a stronger voice, and maybe throw a few elbows around. Enough already with the polite, wonky, approach. If Natural Security wants to be a player in environmental debates, it should emulate its sister blog. Or any of the frontline bloggers at Forign Policy.
To do that, they have to be fully engaged not just with current political events and recent journal articles, but also with other bloggers. The blogosphere is where average, interested readers go to watch the action and join in. If you want your ideas to gain greater currency, you gotta step into the ring. It’s not enough to just be in the arena.
So guys, put on the gloves and get in the damn ring. It’s just a lot of sparring. And nobody really gets hurt, unless they’re overly sensitive. It’s actually quite invigorating. And who knows, you may even land a few punches.
That’s the title of a new story on “climate security” that I wrote for Nature Reports: Climate Change, published today.
Climate security has become more than a convenient frame for politicians looking to win support for cap and trade legislation. It’s a real concern that military brass around the world are trying to get a handle on. As Wired’s Danger Room also reports, the Navy is now taking a pro-active approach to global warming.
So whatever happens in Copenhagen or in the U.S. Congress, there’s no denying that a strategic shift is afoot in military circles, with respect to climate change.
Are they coming? You can find out by listening to this CBC radio show.
On the program’s website, Gwynne Dyer discusses how his interest evolved a few years ago from passing curiosity to a serious exploration
into this idea that global warming could lead to wars. It turned into a year-long trek talking to scientists, soldiers and politicians in a dozen different countries. I have come back from that trip seriously worried, and there are four things I learned that I think you ought to know.
The first is that a lot of the scientists who study climate change are in a state of suppressed panic these days. Things seem to be moving much faster than their models predicted.
The second thing is that the military strategists are right. Global warming is going to cause wars, because some countries will suffer a lot more than others. That will make dealing with the global problem of climate change a lot harder.
Ah, you want the rest? Check out the site and maybe have a listen. I’m already interested in this, so I will.
We walked through a camp for displaced people, absorbing the human wreckage all around us. There were stick-skinny children with horrible, rattling coughs that sounded like an old Chevy Nova trying to start up on a cold morning. Emaciated goats snacked on piles of garbage, filling their stretched bellies with nothing more nutritious than black plastic bags. Families of ten packed into sweltering lean-tos made from sticks and cloth, many of them fleeing either war or drought, Somalia’s twin killers that have sent more than 20 percent of the country’s population on the run.
Gettleman then surveys Somalia’s desperately parched conditions and notes that
even the camels are dying, which really frightens people, because camels can plod along for days on just a sip of water. They are the last animals to keel over in the desert and disappear into the sands.
Now here’s the passage that makes this latest chronicle of Somalia’s seemingly endless tragedy horribly complicated:
True, droughts are cyclical, and various studies suggest that Africa has experienced parched epochs before. But many people here these days believe the extreme dryness may be evidence of climate change and leaders in far-from-industrialized Africa, which produces just a tiny fraction of the world’s CO2, are increasingly saying that their countries are paying a high price for greenhouse gases that are raising global temperatures worldwide.
Next, Gettleman quotes Nicholas Wasunna, an aid official in Kenya, who obviously combines these cyclical droughts with greenhouse gas-induced climate change to conclude:
This is the new norm. We’re going to be see more of these periods of intense droughts followed by intense rain,
to which, Gettelman then writes, ” is the situation predicted for East Africa this year.”
Okay, right here–this gray zone, where failed states, such as Somalia, collide with natural cycles of drought and the exacerbating factor of anticipated climate change–is where environmental security experts should step up their game and weigh in with policy prescriptions. Yes, we know that this might be a case study of “climate security,” the kind that we’ll see arising in other politically unstable countries, which the CIA will now be examining more closely for our own national security purposes.
But if we know Somalia’s misery owes largely to its decades-long failed state status, an enduring human tragedy now compounded by a four-year drought, and perhaps worsening environmental conditions from global warming, well, what’s the foreign policy/humanitarian strategy for tackling all these disparate “forcing actions” in a coherent manner?
After all, it is presumed that the carbon load already in the atmosphere is going to lead to “irreversible climate change,” no matter what happens in the U.S. Congress or in Copenhagen this year. So what’s the environmental security game plan for Somalia and other countries like it?