Rising seas threaten coastal drinking water

Here’s a global warming impact you may not have considered: saltwater contamination of drinking water in some coastal areas. It’s especially worth discussing, to me at least, because of my longstanding interest in water policy and because I just completed an environmental geology course, where we discussed the science behind drinking water supplies and coastal processes.

Basically, due to rising sea levels brought on by global warming, millions of Americans (and presumably people around the world) face possible destruction of reliable water supplies in low-lying areas. This can happen due to saltwater intrusion into the groundwater — something that has been occurring on Long Island for some time now as wells deplete the aquifers — or by saltwater further penetrating coastal marshes in estuaries, reaching into the non-tidal freshwater marshes. Also individual incidents such as storm surges, which often contaminate drinking supplies and treatment facilities, are going to be exacerbated by higher sea levels.

I’m particularly concerned because the state where I currently live (Delaware) has a coastline that is mainly an estuary, which was the subject of a new study on the impending problem. The potentially affected freshwater found in the coastal regions along the lower Delaware River and estuary provides drinking water for several million people in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. I caution you that the blog post I’m about to quote has some glaring errors, but I’ve tried to fix/remove them here:

Fresh water that now is flowing to the sea in the Delaware estuary is threatened by future sea-level rise resulting from rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions, a new study finds. As sea levels rise, salt water will move inland up the estuary.
[…]
The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary studied impacts [PDF] on drinking water, tidal wetlands and shellfish like the local oysters and freshwater mussels in “Climate Change and the Delaware Estuary” and how people can adapt to help protect the threatened resources.

Drinking water, tidal wetlands and shellfish are key resources for the estuary; and all three are vulnerable to effects of climate change, including warmer temperatures, higher sea levels and saltier water. Oysters alone brought about $19.2 million into the [region] in 2009.
[…]
Currently a “narrow fringe of freshwater wetlands” protects the freshwater, but the wetland marsh plants are very susceptible to rising salinity.

 

Low-lying wetlands of the lower Delaware River and estuary. Key: Red=Tidal wetland, Green=Nontidal wetland. NVCS map via the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

It looks like there’s a pretty noticeable correlation between some of those freshwater wetlands and the population distribution on the New Jersey side…

If they become tidal wetlands instead of freshwater, that’s a big problem.

If you’re at all familiar with the disaster-ridden English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, then you probably know that, “the colonists soon discovered that the swampy and isolated site was plagued by mosquitoes and tidal river water unsuitable for drinking, and offered limited opportunities for hunting and little space for farming.” While the hunting and farming issue is not as much of a problem for the coastal United States these days, rising sea levels could basically expand a lot of estuaries and make much more of the seaboard’s water “unsuitable for drinking.” I know Jamestown had more problems than its drinking water, but everybody needs clean, freshwater to survive, and there are a lot more of us now living in threatened areas than ever before. We don’t want to repeat Jamestown if possible.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Free & fair? Not likely.

The results are in from Rwanda’s presidential election, during which many voters said they felt intimidated and the Opposition candidates were weak or restricted. Ten years into the job, President Paul Kagame has been re-elected to another seven years:

Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, who has been in control of this country since 1994 and helped resurrect it from genocide into one of the most orderly nations in Africa, appeared to have been re-elected on Monday by a staggering margin, according to partial election results released early Tuesday.

Mr. Kagame won 93 percent of the votes cast in 11 out of 30 districts, the National Election Commission said, and total countrywide results were expected by the end of the day.

 
Anyone who tries to tell me that this was free and fair is either stupid or willfully blind. Nobody wins elections with 93% of the vote in a true democracy.

In my series on the abuses of the Kagame government and the RPF over the past two decades, I wrote:

With very close ties to the United States government and military, President Paul Kagame has been able to get away with many things, in large part because he liberated Rwanda from the extremist Hutu dictatorship that was precisely carrying out a genocide against the Tutsi minorities. It’s pretty hard to criticize the person that finally ended one of the very worst genocides of the 20th century, after over 900,000 people had been systematically murdered nationwide, with the world watching and doing nothing.

 
Yes, he did a heroic, monumental thing in his life once. I recognize that. But it’s not a lifetime get-out-of-blame card.

Who really believes that just because you’ve stopped a genocide in progress and upgraded your country’s infrastructure (to have fast internet and good roads) means you should be permanently shielded from criticism, despite committing numerous atrocities of your own, repressing freedom, assassinating political enemies across a continent, abducting children, and arresting foreign lawyers who represent your opponents?

I explained in my second post why I am so intent on exposing the RPF’s abuses:

I raise this not to minimize the horrors committed by their Hutu genocidaire opponents … but because it is important that we confront all the facts — not just those that make one side play the pure villains and the other side the untainted heroes. The world does not divide evenly like that.

 
Some people still think it does.

 
Editorial note: This post was originally published (in a longer form) at Starboard Broadside. It was moved here and cut down in June 2015.

Refudiated

The Prop 8 ruling is obviously last week’s big news, but I wanted to touch on an issue that I didn’t get a chance to write about yesterday. On Tuesday, a New York City panel rejected efforts to grant landmark status to a building near Ground Zero slated to be built into a mosque. The mosque had become the latest outrage du jour for conservatives concerned about the impending Muslim takeover of America. Republican heavyweights Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin took a day off from demonizing city dwellers to instead speak on their behalf by bashing the mosque and claiming it is an insult to all those who died during 9/11. I know it is political silly season right now, but I think this is an important issue because of just how blatantly the conservative arguments about the mosque fly in the face of basic American values.

Gingrich, in addition to basically comparing peaceful New York Muslims to Al Qaeda hijackers, had this particularly cutting argument for why we shouldn’t allow a mosque.

There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.

 
Yup, Newt is basically saying that we should throw out our commitment to religious pluralism and nondiscrimination because the Saudis don’t allow freedom of religion. When the hell did Saudi Arabia become our standard for freedom? Lets get rid of women rights too, while we’re at it! America is a better country than Saudi Arabia precisely because of these freedoms and it would be ludicrous to hold ourselves to their standards.

Not only is the Ground Zero Mosque not really a mosque (it is more of a community center that has prayer spaces), it’s also not on Ground Zero. Everyone is talking about how insensitive it would be to built a mosque on ground zero, but it’s located several blocks away from the former site of the Twin Towers and would be only the second mosque in lower Manhattan (I don’t have really any first-hand knowledge on this, but I can only really find one other on google maps). We are talking about prime real estate in a city with thousands of Muslims who might appreciate having a place to pray close to their work.

I definitely understand that 9/11 was a traumatic experience for all Americans and New Yorkers especially. And because the terrorists attacks were carried out in the name of Islam, it is not at all surprising that some Americans would feel uneasy about other members of that religion. But the pain of that day should not blind us to the fact that Islam is the second largest religion in the world and the vast majority of its followers are not terrorists and do not wish to kill innocent Americans. Our prejudices, not matter how understandable they may be, should not allow us to deny fundamental rights to other Americans. In this case, having the government prevent the mosque would violate both the religious rights and property rights of the Cordoba Initiative (they own the building and are mostly free to do whatever they choose with it). Maybe the Cordoba Initiative could choose to stir less controversy and outrage by building the mosque somewhere else. But if they want to build the mosque there, they have the right to. Don’t like it? Too bad, we live in a free country.

This all brings me back to another point I have touched on several times before: every time we compromise our fundamental rights in the name of fighting “terrorism,” we are in fact advancing the terrorist cause. Religious pluralism, one of the foundations of American democracy, is antithetical to the jihadist ideology and when we compromise our ideals we create an America less free and more like the nation Al Qaeda would like to create.

But none of this really about Ground Zero and 9/11. That’s just a cover. How do I know this? There is a trend from Tennessee to Wisconsin to California of opposition to mosque construction. Along with silly fears about “creeping sharia law” there’s a feeling among conservatives that Islam is not a religion, but rather a “political ideology” or a “cult.” Since our Founders recognized “Mohammedans” as a religion that deserves the protection that other religions enjoy, I am going to side with Thomas Jefferson and his Koran on this one (Never mind that the only real difference between a cult and a religion is the number of followers they have). In a time of economic recession, this type of xenophobic bigotry is certainly not unprecedented. That, however, does not make it any less shameful.

Finally, I want to give out to some cheers and jeers in this saga. Jeers to the Anti-Defamation League for condemning the mosque and, well, defaming Muslims. Having followed the Anti-Defamation League’s antics surrounding the Armenian Genocide and the Israeli-Palestinian Debate, however, I can’t say I am surprised. Cheers to Fareed Zakaria for returning an ADL prize in protest. Here’s an excerpt from his letter:

The ADL’s mission statement says it seeks “to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.” But Abraham Foxman, the head of the ADL, explained that we must all respect the feelings of the 9/11 families, even if they are prejudiced feelings. “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted,” he said. First, the 9/11 families have mixed views on this mosque. There were, after all, dozens of Muslims killed at the World Trade Center. Do their feelings count? But more important, does Foxman believe that bigotry is OK if people think they’re victims? Does the anguish of Palestinians, then, entitle them to be anti-Semitic?

 
Cheers again to Michael Bloomberg for an eloquent speech defending religious freedom and the right of the Cordoba Initiative to build the mosque. I recommend watching the whole thing.

This post was originally published on Starboard Broadside.

Another Failed Senate Bill Attempt (or Why I Blame Harry Reid)

I had, perhaps foolishly, higher hopes than usual for the latest attempt to pass climate legislation in the US Senate. Harry Reid killed that completely, formally, yesterday. So I was very frustrated for the rest of the day. I’ve been discussing these multi-faceted frustrations with many of the environmental bloggers I know and trying to work out the next course of action, on what I consider to be the most important policy issue of the era. I will be discussing this more during the coming days, in lieu of my planned action/public lobbying posts (I canceled the one on Thursday about calling Senators and won’t be doing the one today about lobbying the White House).

But I think DR Grist (David Roberts) had an excellent post-mortem on the dead climate legislation attempt, in which he made a number of strong points. The two linked points I choose to highlight today are these… first:

Every cowardly senator repeats it like a talisman to ward off the terrible threat of having to act: “We don’t have the votes.” Two things to say about that. First, of course you don’t have votes for something this controversial before you go to the floor and force the issue. Pelosi didn’t have the votes before she took the House bill to the floor. She got the votes by twisting arms and making deals. She forced the issue. That was the only way the Senate vote could ever work — if the bill was put on the floor, the issue was forced, and Dems united in daring the GOP to vote against addressing the oil spill. There’s no guarantee that would have worked, but at least it would have been a political rallying point. It would have put senators on record. And it’s not like the wimpy avoidance strategy is producing better results.

 
We will never know if the votes are there or not unless we bring these provisions up for votes. It seems inconceivable to me that the Democrats could be taking a political bigger risk at this point by holding and losing big policy votes than by getting nothing done for two years. After all, the public elects them to cast votes and after a while will lose patience with the idea that they can sit there for six years and not cast any major votes in order to avoid casting risky votes. The Senate Democrats are risking their majority by not getting anything done, and they are not getting anything done because they are sure that they will risk their majority by voting on potentially controversial things and losing… somehow.

Like the House Democrats as a caucus, some individual Senate Democrats have put out themselves on the line publicly supporting climate policy provisions that will be unpopular with special interests, only to find the Senate as a whole isn’t planning to even hold a vote, let alone pass it so they have something to show for their courage. Mark Begich of Alaska, for example, is a moderate freshman Democrat from a conservative oil-producing state and he supported this plan publicly; that kind of willingness to take political risks shouldn’t be rewarded with another failure from lack of even trying.

And to finish quoting David Roberts’ related point:

Second, senators need to stop talking about “60 votes” as though it’s in the Constitution that the U.S. Senate — unlike every other legislative body on the planet — has a supermajority requirement. It’s not in the Constitution. It’s an accident, an informal rule that Republicans have taken to relentlessly abusing, not to extend debate but simply to degrade the Senate’s ability to act. The filibuster is anti-democratic and it is thwarting the country’s will. The American people need to be told this and senators who still want their institution to be minimally functional need to start getting angry about it.

 
This was not only another failed climate bill attempt, but one more failed bill attempt in general for the Democrats because of the myth of 60. The blame for this latest failure lies with them almost as much as with the ever-obstructive Republicans. I have condemned many of these Senate Democrats individually over the past year and half, but I reserve my strongest condemnation of failure for Harry Reid on this one. It was his (great) idea to merge the must-pass Spill Bill with climate and energy legislation. We knew it would be limited, but he got our hopes up by claiming (along with others like Kerry and Lieberman) that the caucus was uncharacteristically totally united behind this effort… and then he failed to deliver on this and by extension the job he is most required to do: lead. Now, having failed to unite his own caucus, let alone gather bipartisan support, he has punted climate legislation to November or beyond, when it will have even less chance of passage.

The extent to which I despise the pathetic failure of a US Senate Majority Leader we have right now has now reached unfathomable levels. I don’t say that lightly. I don’t despise the man himself, but the job he is doing (or not doing, more accurately) as “Leader.” When he uses the phrase “we don’t have the votes” — or lets others in key committee roles use the phrase — or refuses to pursue filibuster reform actively, it’s like he expects that votes will materialize when they feel the time is right, and that if we keep vaguely chopping legislation down without any real give-and-take negotiations, eventually 60 lost Senators will wander back to the fold and agree to vote for whatever half-assed stone soup has been assembled (or still remains).

One never gets the feeling that Harry Reid is shepherding the flock toward anything in particular or that he even has a bell to lead them home. They’re more like free-range chickens. That’s why I say he’s a pathetic failure as Majority Leader. And because his Republican opponent is out-of-her-mind crazy, he’ll be re-elected this year, which means at least another two years of his leadership, since he’s unlikely to step aside and won’t be challenged (or at least not successfully, since his hands-off style is exactly what most of the ego-maniacal Democratic caucus members love in a majority leader). Sure, the White House should get some of the blame too for not taking a more active role in pushing the Senate on these things, and that’s probably a function of President Obama’s tenure as a legislator himself for many years, but Harry Reid’s very title should command some level of reasonable expectation that he will lead the caucus.

For now, it will be time to re-evaluate on climate change mitigation efforts, perhaps by supporting inclusion of a strong renewable energy standard, as DR Grist suggests (although Reid also doesn’t want that), or by defending the Environmental Protection Agency vigorously as it works to regulate CO2 emissions without Congressional action. To be continued, as they say, but I wanted to make some initial comment on this Senate failure first…

This essay was originally published at Starboard Broadside.

OSCE may send advisers to Kyrgyzstan

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has announced the deployment of a small team of police advisers to Kyrgyzstan, in response to the widespread reports from ethnically Uzbek Kyrgyzstani civilians of police and military abuse by Kyrgyz Kyrgyzstanis over the past few months in southern Kyrgyzstan. From the OSCE press release:

The agreement [with Kyrgyzstan’s government] said the group would comprise 52 [unarmed] police officers with the possibility to send an additional 50 officers at a later stage. The group would be in Kyrgyzstan for four months, with a possibility to extend as needed and agreed.

“The tasks of this mission is first of all advising the Kyrgyz police. The Police Advisory Group will have contact with all parts of the population in southern Kyrgyzstan,” Salber said. “They will be assisting and also monitoring the Kyrgyz police. They will accompany them in their work with the communities there with the objective of strengthening the confidence in this area, in particular between the police and the population.”

 
These monitors would, best case scenario, serve to deter further abuses or acts of genocide against the Uzbek population while they are present. Sadly, it likely won’t be enough… After all, one of the worst atrocities during the Bosnian War happened in front of 400 United Nations peacekeepers inside sanctuary zones, but the rules of engagement, lack of supplies, and ratio of combatants to peacekeepers prevented intervention. But I guess this is better than nothing.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Guinea heads to a runoff

According to Radio France Internationale, Guinea will head to a July 18 runoff between the top two presidential candidates, after a relatively successful first-round election on June 27:

Turnout was 77 per cent, according to the Independent National Election Commission, with 3.3 million people voting.

Twenty out of 24 candidates failed to get over five per cent, with late-president Lansana Conté’s party, the Unity and Progress Party (PUP), failing badly.

Despite relief at the vote not being marred by violence, the majority of candidates have claimed there was widespread fraud.

 
As I blogged about previously, this election was a monumental point for Guinea’s post-independence history, as it marked their first democratic election ever, and international monitors had confirmed the transitional/caretaker government was staying out of the process, while the military pledged not to interfere either. The fraud allegations, although disappointing, are to be expected at some level. All things considered, the first-round ought to be taken as a success, in my opinion.

RFI has brief summaries of the two candidates…

Two candidates will face each other on 18 July in the second and final round of Guinea’s presidential election.

Cellou Dalein Diallo, 58, was prime minister several times under General Lansana Conté, who ruled for 24 years after coming to power in a military coup in 1984; he is a member of the Fulani ethnic group; his strongholds are middle-Guinea and the capital, Conakry.

Alpha Condé, 73, is a third-time candidate who has opposed all three heads of state since independence, spending two and a half years in jail under Conté and sentenced to death in absentia by first president Ahmed Sekou Touré in 1970; he is a member of the Malinké ethnic group; his stronghold is Upper Guinea.

 
If the next round is a success, that’s only the beginning of the hard work, as I wrote before. This is a promising moment for Guinea — and even for much of the developing world — but it is also a perilous time, as reality of democracy in the third world sets in:

Even if there is no widespread violence or military intervention in the first-round or the runoff in this election, there is still the possibility of future instability, whether by popular discontent with the slow grind of democracy or by some overzealous or power-hungry military officer.

 
I’m still hoping for much better than that. They have a rare opportunity here, and if they avoid squandering it, they will pave the way for other countries to transition from autocracy to democracy successfully.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Looking backward while going forward

In the United States, the Obama Administration in 2009 claimed it would not pursue torture investigations because that would be looking backward and distract the country from moving forward. Many on the left, including me and Nate at this blog, basically thought this was a rather absurd claim and a damaging decision. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron, elected in May and heading a coalition Conservative/Liberal Democrat cabinet, is taking the opposite approach:

Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Tuesday that Britain’s new coalition government would appoint an independent inquiry into allegations that its security services, MI5 and MI6, colluded with the Central Intelligence Agency and other foreign organizations in the rendition and torture of terrorism suspects held in foreign prisons after the 9/11 attacks.

Mr. Cameron had called for the inquiry before the spring election campaign against the former Labour government, which had endured years of criticism at home for being too cozy with the Bush administration in the reaction to terrorism.
[…]
“While there is no evidence that any British officer was directly engaged in torture in the aftermath of 9/11, there are questions over the degree to which British officers were working with foreign security services who were treating detainees in ways they should not have done,” Mr. Cameron said. He said this had “led to accusations that Britain may have been complicit in the mistreatment of detainees.”

Under the Labour government, MI5, responsible for Britain’s internal security, and MI6, responsible for external security, issued strong denials that their agents were complicit in mistreatment. The agencies received vigorous backing from the government, at least until court disclosures began to show that the detainees’ allegations against them might have had some validity.

 
Certainly there will be complaints because this won’t be a particularly transparent investigation for security and international intelligence reasons, but it’s way better than the total lack of investigations we got in the United States. That was mainly a nakedly political decision, anyway. Cameron is also certainly taking politics into account, but he’s decided that in any case this will be a better and faster route to ending the speculation and criticisms dogging the British intelligence services. That’s the practical side. The moral side happens to be in the same general direction, unlike the Obama calculus.

Of course, Cameron has little to lose by this, and potentially much to gain. Obama faced an insane, pro-torture right-wing faction and pro-torture media in America, which explains some of his reticence. But he also somehow believed (or his advisers did) that he could get Republican support for some of his agenda by not investigating their Bush era buddies over torture. That didn’t happen. So Obama didn’t gain much practically speaking either.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.