Study on Syria finds concrete link between drought, climate, the war

A new study found that prolonged drought conditions (directly associated with warming of the global climate) in Syria for several years preceding the war pushed over a million people to migrate from the northern countryside to cities in the 2007-2011 period, fostering substantially more unrest and instability than usual by the time the Arab Spring sparked protests and an uprising that became the Syrian civil war. While many factors caused the war, this seems to have exacerbated or accelerated it.

“There are various things going on, but you’re talking about 1.5 million people migrating from the rural north to the cities,” said climate scientist Richard Seager at Columbia, a co-author of the study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “It was a contributing factor to the social unravelling that occurred that eventually led to the civil war.”

These results are among some of the most definitive so far in proving not just a general environmental/resource stress factor in civil unrest but stress factors specifically connected to global warming.

The study in Syria is also not the first link identified between global warming-related droughts and the upheaval of the Arab Spring. Previously, drought conditions in Ukrainian and Russian export breadbaskets in the summer of 2010 — also thought to be a result of global warming — have been tied to skyrocketing wheat and bread prices in Egypt, which was a major contributing factor in the January 2011 revolution.

Pictured: Destroyed Syrian Army tanks, August 2012, after the Battle of Azaz. (Credit: Christiaan Triebert via Wikipedia)

Pictured: Destroyed Syrian Army tanks, August 2012, after the Battle of Azaz. (Credit: Christiaan Triebert via Wikipedia)

Climate policy: Disengage “stakeholders”?

Perhaps there has been too much engaging of certain uncooperative and undermining stakeholders in the climate change policy discussions. As one of the world’s largest climate action protests ever unfolded this weekend, Anna Lappé makes that case in a new Al Jazeera America op-ed entitled “What climate activists can learn from the fight against Big Tobacco”:

Progress has been stalled in part because the biggest polluters in the world — those oil and gas companies responsible for the lion’s share of emissions, for example — have been given a seat at the negotiating table, treated as partners and stakeholders at the annual global meetings called the Conference of Parties, or COP. Over the years, these COPs have featured industry-sponsored pavilions, dinners and breakaway meetings. And companies have been granted official observer status through their industry trade associations, which are considered nongovernmental organizations under current climate meeting rules. Some have even attended as official members of country delegations. (For instance, a representative from Shell joined the Nigerian delegation to COP16 in 2010 and Brazil’s to COP14 in 2008.)

As climate activists call for governments to take real action on climate, the decades-long fight against Big Tobacco — specifically, how public health advocates successfully kept companies away from the negotiating table — holds powerful lessons for the role industries should have in these key talks.

It would be one thing if the oil and gas companies were actively interested in pursuing new energy strategies or diversifying their future plans into new and cleaner areas, but as she notes they are spending a lot of money trying to undermine the case that new regulations or laws are even needed in the first place. And in that regard they are probably forfeiting their right to have a seat at the table as stakeholders.

Incidentally, that mention of the Shell rep serving on the delegation from Nigeria in 2008 and 2010 is very unsurprising. As I explored in an article in January 2011, entitled “The Nigerian Republic of Royal Dutch Shell”, on the Nigeria-specific revelations from the leaked diplomatic cables a few years ago:

Royal Dutch Shell has essentially become, according to the company itself, the industrial octopus inside Nigeria’s government, even in the “democratic” era…

The ambassador reported: “She [Ann Pickard, then Shell’s vice-president for sub-Saharan Africa] said the GON [government of Nigeria] had forgotten that Shell had seconded people to all the relevant ministries and that Shell consequently had access to everything that was being done in those ministries.”

Until now, most of the discussions have included oil and gas lobby folks on the theory that their “buy-in” would be critical to producing actionable plans for dealing with climate change. But what if they just refuse to buy-in? It should be clear after more than two decades of efforts that they aren’t really interested in taking the transformative steps necessary to bring their businesses into the future. At this point, they have too much influence at the table, rather than not enough. The fight against Big Tobacco is probably a useful analogy.

Dark clouds of smoke and fire emerge as oil burns during a controlled fire in the Gulf of Mexico, May 6, 2010. The U.S. Coast Guard, working with BP, local residents and other federal agencies, conducted the burn to help prevent the spread of oil following the explosion on Deepwater Horizon, an offshore drilling unit. (Credit: US Navy via Wikimedia)

Dark clouds of smoke and fire emerge as oil burns during a controlled fire in the Gulf of Mexico, May 6, 2010. The U.S. Coast Guard, working with BP, local residents and other federal agencies, conducted the burn to help prevent the spread of oil following the explosion on Deepwater Horizon, an offshore drilling unit. (Credit: US Navy via Wikimedia)

Recommended reading on Louisiana’s receding coastline

Here’s a fantastic piece of long-form journalism by Brett Anderson with tons of incredible graphics and maps (and discussions of inaccuracies of maps) on the shape of Louisiana’s coastline and trying to keep track of it. This coast is continuing to shift quickly — as it has done for millennia — only now people live there, and the land is receding sharply, not re-arranging laterally or extending outward.

According to the U.S.G.S., the state lost just under 1,900 square miles of land between 1932 and 2000. This is the rough equivalent of the entire state of Delaware dropping into the Gulf of Mexico, and the disappearing act has no closing date. […] An area approximately the size of a football field continues to slip away every hour.

One problem is falling sediment levels to replenish the Delta’s land, a result of levees and other river construction projects that artificially constrain the Mississippi River’s course and its flood plain patterns. Another is rising sea levels, due to man-made global warming. Between the two (plus recurring factors like Gulf hurricanes), the state’s distinctive “boot” shape is more and more a historic relic that keeps appearing on maps but doesn’t exist on the ground.

Map: 4,600 years of the Mississippi River Delta moving around the Louisiana coastline due to erosion/direction changes.

Map: 4,600 years of the Mississippi River Delta moving around the Louisiana coastline due to erosion/direction changes.

Repeating Collective Failure, Long After the Great War

wwi-italian-frontAlmost a century after the start of World War I, Italy is still recovering bodies of those killed in action high in the Alps. Starting in the 1990s, the Earth’s mounting temperatures melted enough ice to free some of those long-frozen souls.

In recent weeks, Britons got to read in their newspapers a war of words between Education Secretary Michael Gove and actor Sir Tony Robinson, over the latter’s TV representation of the first world war as a colossal, tragic mistake.

Sadly, that was indeed a fairly accurate summary of a war that began almost accidentally and rapidly involved every European country that had nothing to do with it.

A local assassination, excessive hubris, illogical military plans and a general unwillingness to stop a war’s wheels from grinding into action let things get out of control faster than any diplomats could rein in it – even if they wanted to.

Soon, officers were ordering wave after wave of young men into barbed-wire-tangled moonscapes, as machine guns raked across their ranks and shells exploded around them. The metric for victory became a few feet of meaningless dirt.

It is a cliché to note that the “War to End All Wars” was certainly far from the last conflict, but it seems to have become accepted wisdom that no countries could be so foolish a century later as to initiate a cascade of mistakes on that scale.

The irony, of course, is that the recently recovered Austrian and Italian bodies from the mountain front were likely only disgorged due to the melting of glaciers and once-permanent snow packs as a result of man-made global warming. Will unrestrained climate change be 2014’s tragic answer to the epic, collective failure of 1914?

The phenomenon has until recently been, in effect, a slow-motion collision of the different economic plans of nations everywhere. Our diplomats had more warning this time – but again had no support from their home governments to negotiate a solution that might head off the impact.

Every vanishing glacier that once served millions with drinking water now serves only as a catalyst for more squabbling over limited resources. Every new factory in one nation must be answered with a factory in its competitor. There is no partial mobilization of resources when economic primacy is at stake.

The world’s marginal places – the societies literally living on the margin between existence and extinction from one harvest to the next – are finding themselves drier and more prone to catastrophe than ever. They are an ecological and human powder keg that rivals last century’s Balkans.

The rapidity of South Sudan’s recent collapse – or that of nearby Central African Republic – or northern Mali in 2012 – even the wheat-driven Arab Spring – should be seen as a bigger warning of what is yet to come than any anarchist bomb or gunshot.

This warming is upon us and we are its primary cause. We can ignore the signs until an avoidable global tragedy is fully unleashed once more or we can commit our diplomats, strategists and resources to a collaborative counter-effort that will benefit all mankind.

This summer, as Europe swelters through commemorations of the Great War, we should heed the heavy cost of 1914’s chain of errors or past will again be present.

This essay originally appeared in The Globalist.

Global Warming, Snow, and Arctic Chills

Whenever there’s a severe winter whether event, the conservative cranks start crowing about how this means there’s no such thing as global warming. This view starts from a pretty silly baseline — obviously there will always continue to be outlier events in either direction because that’s what outliers are and weather is not exactly the same as climate — and ignores the other obvious point that winter is typically associated with cooler temperatures than the rest of the year in higher latitudes (nearer the poles than the equator), even if the annual average is rising.

But then there’s just the relatively simple science that explains not only why global warming can exist simultaneously with severe winter weather but how it can cause it to be even more frequent and more severe. This post will explain the basics of two types of events, in the context of global warming.

1. Heavier snow storms
During the course of a year, global warming is evaporating moisture from drier climates. (Right now, for example, we’re seeing record droughts in California instead of winter rainfall to replenish water tables.) During the summer months at each pole, the warming trends are also evaporating meltwater from the ice sheets. This means that, overall, there’s more moisture going into the atmosphere — and it’s going into an atmosphere which is warmer than in the past. The warmer the air (relative to normal temperatures at that time), the more capacity it has to hold moisture.

When the capacity is reached or if the temperature of the air drops suddenly (which reduces capacity), precipitation occurs. In warmer regions or during the non-winter months, this occurs in the form of rainfall. This is why severe rainstorms and flooding have occurred all over the world, even as water shortages are happening right nearby. The moisture is sucked up into the atmosphere on one side of a geographic zone (or not dropped in the first place due to higher carrying capacity) and then dumped out very quickly on the other (usually colder) side, often on opposite sides of a mountain range.

During the winter, in high latitude places, we’re seeing warmer winter months interrupted periodically by very severe snowstorms. During the warm weeks, the atmosphere is collecting a higher than usual amount of moisture. When the temperature finally does dip suddenly, this moisture is released in the form of heavy snowfall (i.e. the much colder version of the heavy rainstorms in the rest of the year). And that’s how we can get an increase of severe snowstorms in some regions during winter, because of (not despite) global warming.

2. Deep freezes
arcticThis past week, the continental United States experienced a very deep and widespread freezing, even stretching sub-freezing temperatures as far down the latitudes as the deep American South. The more northern, higher latitudes had (depending on one’s location) windchills ranging from 15-50 degrees (Fahrenheit) below zero. In some places, exposed skin froze within a minute. Very dangerous, very cold weather.

The American media didn’t do a great job explaining how this was happening, in terms of meteorological process, let alone why it was happening (i.e. that it can be linked to global warming). This left the conservatives to snark once again that this was somehow proof that global warming is a myth. But there’s a concise explanation from the blogs of Scientific American.

Essentially, melting Arctic ice in summer, due to global warming, evaporates meltwater into the (warmer than usual) atmosphere. This weakens and disrupts polar wind patterns — known as the polar vortex — that normally “lock” the cold air into the Arctic Circle (or close to it) during winter. Once released, this cold air then pushes southward, way past where it usually is found during these months.

Unfortunately, both of these types events will become more frequent in the near-term due to global warming, as long as there’s still ice to melt up there during the rest of the year and as long as the temperatures are still sometimes getting cold anywhere during the winter.

Individual episodes of these weather events can’t always be tied specifically to global warming. But as a whole, in terms of trendlines, we can correlate them statistically to rising average global temperatures. And by understanding weather science, we can see how there’s also a plausible causal link. So the parallelism of the trends isn’t coincidental. And the near-universal view of the professional climatology community is that global warming is increasing and results directly from human activities such as industrialization of production and agriculture.

Note: This analysis is intended to help lay readers understand the general concepts involved. It is not intended to be a 100% technically rigorous article. Some shortcuts and elisions in the science have been made for ease of mass communication.

Carbon pricing and “economic uncertainty”

American Conservatives these days spend a lot of time insisting in the media that policy-induced economic “uncertainty” — i.e. being uncertain as to whether Congress plans to raise or lower taxes in the long run, which is inherently unknowable* but is used to argue for “permanent” cuts — but the solution to this “uncertainty” from the corporate perspective has always been obvious.

Companies can plan for scenarios with higher fees & taxes and go forward accordingly. If Congress does raise the taxes, then they’re already prepared. If Congress doesn’t raise the taxes after all, then there’s no real harm done to the companies (and they might even find savings while hunting for ways to cut costs to keep profits up).

We are seeing this in action now according to a New York Times article about how several dozen major U.S. corporations are preparing for scenarios where Congress imposes some kind of industry-scale carbon pricing or tax system. Although not currently being seriously considered in the immediate future, given the makeup of Congress at this particular moment, this pricing would eventually likely be put into place to discourage high carbon footprints on a wide scale and probably to pay for some of the damage caused by unmitigated carbon outputs in the past.

More than two dozen of the nation’s biggest corporations, including the five major oil companies, are planning their future growth on the expectation that the government will force them to pay a price for carbon pollution as a way to control global warming.


A new report by the environmental data company CDP has found that at least 29 companies, some with close ties to Republicans, including ExxonMobil, Walmart and American Electric Power, are incorporating a price on carbon into their long-term financial plans.

Without carbon pricing, dirty fuel and power sources like oil, coal, and natural gas are essentially given a big cost break compared to cleaner renewables by forcing everyone else to pay for their environmental damage (and health consequences) — a practice known as “externalizing” the cost. Carbon pricing aims to end the harmful externalities and force dirty fuel sources to compete fairly against cleaner competitors. It also forces companies to find ways of becoming more energy efficient to save money and reduce their tax burden.

So rather than dithering around being “uncertain” as to when or how exactly Congress will get its act together and establish carbon pricing schemes, major U.S. firms are solving the problem by preparing for the more expensive scenarios now, so they aren’t taken by surprise later. Poof! No more policy-driven uncertainty harms! And that’s why it’s never a valid argument that policy decisions should be undertaken solely to reduce uncertainty in the markets and business world.

Well, that and the simple reality that uncertainty is a basic fact of capitalism, so that’s understood to be part of the rules and risk of going into business.


*It’s “inherently unknowable” whether Congress will do anything “in the long run” because the Constitution prohibits any one cycle of Congress from passing a law that cannot be undone at any time by a future Congress. Thus it is impossible to pass a “permanent” tax cut that is truly permanent. So such measures, while enthusiastically received by their advocates, are of limited real benefit for ending alleged “uncertainty.”

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.