A World of Slow Drips

by Nancy McGuire, Wordchemist.com

On January 24, a panel of seven journalists gathered at Washington, DC’s, Wilson Center to brief an overflow crowd of policy wonks, issue advocates, writers and reporters, and other interested citizens on the likely hot topics in environment and energy for 2014. The annual event, co-sponsored by the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program, the Canada Institute, the Science and Technology Innovation Program, and the Society of Environmental Journalists, featured a lively audience Q&A session at the end. This is the last in a four-part series on this briefing.

Dennis Dimick, executive editor of the environment at National Geographic, spoke of a nexus where food, water, and energy issues meet. Much of the petroleum extraction being done today, including water-intensive fracking operations, is being done in arid regions. Many arid regions in the U.S. are under stress because of decreases in the mountain snowpack that replenishes rivers and lakes every year.

Heavy demands from the extraction industries, agriculture, and growing cities have tended to push aside concerns for the indigenous animal and plant life. This neglect could have serious repercussions for human populations because of complex cause-and-effect relationships and the interconnecting roles that drive environmental effects. “It’s not just a water supply for people, you have to look at the whole ecosystem,” Dimick said.

At the same time that arid regions in the western U.S. are dealing with extended drought periods and diminishing snowmelt, they are experiencing significant population growth. Cities in these regions, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, are already experiencing water shortages. Their demand for water is outstripping the ability of their aquifers to replenish themselves, and in essence, they are “mining fossil water”, said Dimick. Water stress is not limited to the southwestern deserts, however. Orlando, Atlanta, and the San Francisco Bay area are also feeling the pinch. (See this article in Yahoo Finance on the ten largest U.S. cities dealing with water shortages.)

These stories are sometimes not covered in the news as well as they could be, noted Andrew Revkin, the science and environmental author who runs The New York Times blog “Dot Earth”. In part, this is because the long development times for phenomena including climate change and ecosystem degradation are hard to report on a journalistic time scale. It’s much easier to generate a news item about a particular wildfire in California than to report on a decades-long increase in the number and intensity of wildfires across the Southwest. However, “it’s a world of slow drips that set up hard knocks,” Revkin noted.

Dramatic elements of a news story often overshadow the factors that contributed to the drama, Revkin continued. For example, Tacloban, a city in the Philippines that sustained massive damage during last November’s Super-typhoon Haiyan, saw its population triple over the past 40 years, according to the National Census Office for the Philippines.

Poverty and infrastructure neglect are common in this city, located in a particularly storm-prone area. About one-third of Tacloban’s homes have wooden exterior walls. One in seven homes has a grass roof (down from about a quarter of all homes in 2000), according to the National Census Office report. (Revkin discusses this in detail in his Dot Earth blog.)

More humans mean more human loss when a “fairly typical” disaster hits, Revkin said. This is especially true when more humans concentrate in particularly sensitive or disaster-prone areas. He noted that “misguided incentives” encourage people to build in harm’s way, including insurance policies that cover rebuilding in risky areas. “Insurance costs should rise” to cover the risks, he said.

Revkin noted the effects of confounding factors in creating climate models and predicting resource levels in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Changes in the environment and living standards there are driven by more than just greenhouse gas levels. He noted complexities in climatology and widespread mismanagement of water resources as examples.

When considering the effects of population growth and resource consumption on climate change, “consumption is key,” said Revkin in response to a question from an audience member. “Nine billion vegan monks” would have a much smaller impact on global resources than, say, a world of upper-middle-class Americans. However, large family sizes can reduce the quality of life for dense local pockets of urban poor people, and localized family planning efforts can have positive effects on such things as deforestation. The issue doesn’t get discussed much, he added.

Suzanne Goldenberg, the U.S. environmental correspondent for The Guardian, noted that rich nations are the “main perpetrators” of climate change effects because the scale on which they extract and consume fossil fuels so far outstrips that of less prosperous countries. Large international agencies and treaty organizations have made little progress on targeting efforts toward getting rich nations to act, but small side negotiations could produce significant results, she said.

A Matter of National Security
What about the impact of climate change on national security? Coral Davenport, who covers climate and energy for The New York Times, noted the 20-year effort by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to address climate change issues. She asserted that the State Department is heavily focused on climate effects and their influence on national security. She also noted that the Department of Defense is acutely aware of the issue. “The awareness is there … and it’s growing,” she said.

Goldenberg noted that the U.S. military’s leadership is pushing to reduce or eliminate dependence on petroleum-based fuels. They have put great pressure on unit commanders to “green” their establishments (but they don’t call it “green”), she said. Davenport explained that the military’s push toward alternative fuel sources is driven by security concerns, with the environmental benefits as a fortuitous side effect. Transporting fuel to remote or hostile locations is prohibitively expensive in terms of money and danger to the lives of servicemen, and oil convoys are prime targets for attack, she added.

Food shortages are another national security concern. Several recent riots in other countries have been attributed to food price increases driven by crop failures brought on by drought. The problem is beginning to make itself felt in the U.S. as well, said Dimick. Farmers in the southern high plains of Texas can no longer grow corn, he said. Instead, they have begun to raise dry-land crops such as grain sorghum. (Other sources note that the high plains water shortage is caused both by drought and by depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer. Farmers have switched to short-season corn, grain sorghum, and cotton to reduce demand for water.)

Effecting Changes in the Political Climate
Given the polarized and combative atmosphere in Congress, is there any hope that legislators representing deeply conservative constituents in the “red states” could support efforts to address climate change? Is there hope for a carbon tax, or will big business defeat any efforts in this direction?

Davenport stated that when large companies see their profitability threatened by climate effects, they often come around to support climate change mitigation efforts. She noted that Monsanto, an agricultural products company whose customer base is largely in the red states, is concerned about volatility in weather patterns. Droughts, tornadoes, and wildfires threaten the farmers who make up the company’s customer base.

Exxon Mobil, the petroleum producer, has acknowledged the role of carbon emissions in climate change. This company, which is a major donor to Republican campaigns, has developed a proposal for a carbon tax. Davenport noted that this change of heart occurred when Exxon Mobil bought natural gas producer XTO Energy in 2009, adding that their embrace of climate science is now good for their bottom line.

Despite support from major corporations (and campaign donors), conservative lawmakers are still fighting regulations that address climate change, Davenport said. Larry Pearl, Bloomberg BNA’s director of environmental news, noted that support from the business could give moderate legislators the political cover they need to support legislation without being branded anti-business. “Business is out ahead of the lawmakers on this,” he said.

Davenport noted that significant legislative changes will come when red-state Republicans have the constituent backing and political will to support these changes. This, in turn, will happen when local effects — depleted or contaminated water supplies, or increases in insurance rates because of floods or wildfires — drive citizens to push for change. In some ways, she said, the push for action from the left impedes change because it hardens the opposition and politicizes the issues. This makes it harder for moderates to speak up without paying a price politically.

This is the last in a four-part series on the January 24 briefing, “The Year Ahead in Environment and Energy”. Previous posts: Global Issues, Local Actions, Coal: Politics and Power Supplies, and Keystone Capers and Ocean Issues.

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