10 04 2010

And, while we’re on the subject of apologies….

Like many people, I spread the IPCC’s claim that the Himalayan ice sheet, which is the third largest on the planet, and the source for every major river in Southeast Asia, was likely to melt by 2035.  Well, the good news is, they now admit they were wrong about that–it will actually happen in 2036.

Just kidding!

Seriously, though, the official estimate for the demise of that ice pack is now three hundred years, which, geologically speaking, is hardly any different from twenty-five years, and in any case, the IPCC’s estimates have consistently turned out to be optimistic, compared to what is actually happening.  For instance, fossil fuel use, and consequent carbon release, has risen much faster than even their worst-case scenario predictions.

A slower dwindling of the Himalayan ice pack means that the billions of people who depend on the rivers of Southeast Asia for their water–from the Indus in Pakistan to the Yellow River of China–will be gradually parched rather than suddenly hung out to dry.  If the affected countries plan carefully, this could allow time for voluntary population reduction, social programs to obviate the perceived need for large families, transition to less water-intensive agriculture, reforestation, and other water conservation and ecosystem stabilization practices.

None of that will be easy, and even a coercive state like China has not been able to actually reduce its population, in spite of a fairly strict one-child-per-family law.  The alternative, whether reached in twenty five years or three centuries, is horrific–billions of people displaced by famine, failing surface and ground water supplies, and rising seas.  There will be population reduction and eventual return to some kind of equilibrium, but it will not be pretty.

In fact, it’s not pretty already.

In India, the “Green Revolution” replaced lower-yielding, open-pollinated dryland crops with hybrid crops that, given irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer, produced higher yields.  While costs of these fossil-fuel based inputs were originally low, they have since risen faster than the price of the crops that demand their application.  In addition, since they are  planting hybrid seeds, farmers can no longer save seed from one year to the next, and are confronted with rising seed prices.  This has had several serious, unintended consequences.  Indian farmers, caught in a noose of rising debt, are committing suicide in record numbers, and record numbers of families are being forced off land they have inhabited for centuries, seeking the dubious shelter of India’s already swollen and out-of-control cities.  Meanwhile, the increased demand for irrigation water is drawing down India’s water table, causing wells and springs to go dry, sending more people out of the countryside and into the cities.  Last but hardly least, the dryland crop seedlines–and the knowledge of how to grow and use them–are in danger of being lost in the rush to grow green revolution rice.

The monsoon, which provides another big chunk of India’s water supply, failed last year.  This is not unheard of, and not necessarily connected to climate change, but it should serve to remind us that we have set things in motion that we can neither predict nor control, despite our conceit about our own cleverness as a species.  Can you say hubris, boys and girls?

And, speaking of hubris, let’s look at China, where the rush to industrialize has resulted in incredible, pervasive levels of pollution.  Even boiled water is not safe to drink in many locations, because it is apt to contain chemicals that cannot be removed by boiling.  Worse yet, China’s much-vaunted railway line into Tibet is likely to help China exploit Tibet’s vast, untapped mineral resources–which, given China’s abysmal environmental track record,  will result in toxic mine waste polluting the water supply of most of southeast Asia–while it lasts.

I wish I had something vast and uplifting to offer you at this point, but I don’t.  The reality of our situation is grim and sobering, especially for poor people in the second and third world, who are going to be bearing the brunt of the problems we in the first world have created with our exorbitant, exploitive lifestyle.  We have the luxury of time and energy to form garden co-ops and relearn low-tech grain farming and animal husbandry, blacksmithing and woodworking, and to adapt high-tech electronics to consciously conceived and executed sustainable lifestyles. Most of us have plenty of clean water available. We are not Indian or Chinese peasants or urban slum dwellers, facing poisoned water or none at all, lack of land and other resources from which to feed ourselves, or even a secure home.  It’s a blessing that we have blessings to count, and probably the best way to insure our own continued good fortune is to seek ways to share those blessings with whoever we can reach out to.   That’s not much, but it’s what there is.

(on the subject of corrections, I have been crediting “The Road to Hell” to Leonard Cohen, because somebody gave it to me on a CD that was otherewise all LC songs, and they sound somewhat alike…finally figured it out!)

music:  Chris Rea, “The Road to Hell”


6 01 2006

As I said, scientists studying the glaciation of the Himalayan Mountain chain think it quite possible that permanent snow cover on the Himalayas will be a thing of the past in just another thirty years, if things continue at their current rate—and the thing about climate change seems to be that it is not continuing at its current rate, it’s speeding up. Studies of air bubbles trapped in 650,000 year old Antarctic ice reveal that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now is higher than it’s been in that entire timespan, and scientists think that the only reason temperatures aren’t already higher than they’ve been in 650,000 years is because this rise has happened so fast that the climate hasn’t had time to catch up yet. “Climate and carbon dioxide are like two people who are handcuffed together,” one scientist explained. “Where one goes, the other has to follow.”

This is not good news for the billions of Indians, Chinese, and other southeast Asians who depend on the glacier-fed rivers of southeast Asia for water. Many of these people live near the ocean, and it will be even worse for them, because the Himalayan glacial complex is the third largest ice mass on the planet (behind Greenland and Antarctica) and when it melts the oceans will rise a foot and a half or so, making life more difficult for shore-dwellers from Bangladesh to New Jersey. You don’t often think of it, but the topography and population distribution in New Jersey make it almost as vulnerable a storm target as New Orleans.

And the storms are cranking up. We have just had tropical storm Zeta, which churned up the eastern Atlantic ocean over New Year’s and tied the record for the latest tropical storm on record, while back in October Hurricane Vince became the first hurricane to make landfall in Spain, and in December we had Hurricane Epsilon, only the fifth hurricane ever reported that late in the season. Zeta was the 27th named storm this year, beating out the old record by 4 storms, and Epsilon was the fourteenth hurricane, beating out the old record by two. Oh, I forgot to mention the good news from the Himalayan study—it looks like maybe fluctuations in the Gulf Stream don’t have as much of an effect on climate as was previously thought. But there’s lots of other factors hard at work to change the climate.

The Bush administration is dragging its heels on admitting there is a problem here not, I believe, because they don’t think there’s a problem, but because if they admit there’s a problem, then they’ll have to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. As long as they don’t admit there’s a problem, they can quietly protect themselves from impending calamity, but they are under no obligation to do anything to help out the rest of us, which after all would divert resources away from protecting their own precious asses. So that’s why the emperor is wearing a beautiful suit of clothes, and the sky is not falling.

music: Mike Scott and the Waterboys, “Dumbing Down the World”

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