International climate change negotiators are in Cancun, Mexico today for the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. There has been quiet speculation about what to expect from Cancun, with markedly less attention drawn to the conference than last year’s Copenhagen Conference, in part because organizers for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have been trying to manage expectations better by minimizing the prospects that international negotiators will settle on a binding treaty to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (You can read a piece Christine and I wrote for World Politics Review outlining what we think you should watch for in Cancun this week, here. [Subscription required]) Nevertheless, there are some worthy climate change-related news items from this past weekend that may directly or indirectly inform your thinking about what to expect from Cancun.
To begin, The New York Times ran a story on Friday on efforts in Norfolk, Virginia to adapt to rising sea level. Leslie Kaufman, reporting for The Times, writes:
As sea levels rise, tidal flooding is increasingly disrupting life here and all along the East Coast, a development many climate scientists link to global warming. But Norfolk is worse off. Situated just west of the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, it is bordered on three sides by water, including several rivers, like the Lafayette, that are actually long tidal streams that feed into the bay and eventually the ocean. Like many other cities, Norfolk was built on filled-in marsh. Now that fill is settling and compacting. In addition, the city is in an area where significant natural sinking of land is occurring. The result is that Norfolk has experienced the highest relative increase in sea level on the East Coast — 14.5 inches since 1930, according to readings by the Sewells Point naval station here.
As Kaufman reports, residents of the Larchmont Neighborhood in Norfolk have already started to adapt to sea level rise, successfully lobbying the local government to invest 1.25 million dollars to raise a small stretch of street by 18 inches and to change the angle of the storm drains so that water does not backup into the street. Yet, as Kaufman notes, “it is already drawing critics who argue that cities just cannot handle flooding in such a one-off fashion.” Indeed, “In the short run, the city’s goal is just to pick its flood-mitigation projects more strategically,” Kaufman reports, rather than commit resources to these piecemeal projects.
With the president preparing to depart India for Indonesia tomorrow, I thought it was appropriate that The Washington Post had a piece over the weekend on Indonesia, a country that has been prominent on the administration’s agenda, especially as the administration touts Indonesia’s potential to be an export market for U.S. energy and other firms. But in addition to that, Indonesia is strategically important for the United States and the Obama administration’s regional engagement; it is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, rich in natural resources and a burgeoning economy in the region.
According to the Post’s Howard Schneider:
In plotting a path to boost U.S. exports, the Obama administration has turned a keen eye to the trillions of dollars Indonesia and other Asian nations plan to spend on power plants, transportation and other infrastructure in coming years, expecting it to boost American makers of heavy equipment and other top companies.
But as Schneider suggested, U.S. firms may have an uphill battle. “China, Japan and South Korea have made deep inroads into the Indonesian market over the past 15 years, even as the United States slipped as a source of its imports,” Schneider wrote, “and nearby countries such as Malaysia and Australia are aiming to benefit from increasingly tight regional ties.”
“U.S. firms are long-established here in the energy and mining industries,” Schneider noted. “But U.S. officials say that recent regulations adopted by Indonesia - rather than opening the market in areas of U.S. expertise - have heightened restrictions on industries important to U.S. exports, such as pharmaceuticals, energy and telecommunications.”
Late last week, Japan concluded a successful international conference on the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, pledging $2 billion for conservation efforts and pulling through the new Nagoya Protocol. As Time's Bryan Walsh describes this new accord:
The negotiators agreed on a 20-point strategic plan to protect marine and land biodiversity while conserving larger areas of the planet. It's the last bit that contains hard numbers—or at least as hard numbers as we're likely to get at a U.N. summit. The signatories agreed to protect 17% of the planet's land and inland waters, and 10% of coastal and marine waters by 2020. (That's up from 13% of land and just 1% of marine areas right now.) There's also a broad "mission" to take action to halt the loss of biodiversity—nations will aim to halve the loss of habitats and will each draw up national biodiversity plans that will chart how each country is mean to halt overfishing, control invasive species and in general stop the rampant destruction of the natural world.
Even more noteworthy, however, is the fact that the diplomats in attendance managed to come up with a compromise on what was by far the most contentious issue on the table: the trade in biological and genetic resources.
To add to the success of this conference, the delegates also agreed on measures blocking geoengineering that could harm biodiversity (with a series of caveats, of course). We look forward to digging into this treaty more and letting you know what we think on its details. And Congrats to the Japanese on their leadership in this conference.
On to DOD fuels. If anyone out there is still unconvinced that our lack of fuel supplier diversity has meaningful effects, The Washington Post ran an extensive A1 story on Saturday on some of the shady aspects of the business of DOD procuring and transporting sufficient fuel into Afghanistan.To give you a hint at the content, the piece is called "Kyrgyzstan deals cloaked in mystery," and it includes sections titled "Contract flaws," "Lack of transparency," and "Elusive entrepreneur." As the Post reports:
The contracts have kept U.S. warplanes flying over Afghanistan and helped the Pentagon skirt increasingly hazardous supply routes through Pakistan. But nurtured by retired U.S. military and intelligence officers, the jet fuel deals have generated a thick fog of mystery that has flummoxed competitors, and the White House.
Congressional investigators have spent six months digging into single-source Pentagon contracts, the possibly illegal diversion of Russian fuel and Kyrgyz claims of backroom deals, which have soured ties with a crucial U.S. ally.
The below-the-radar rise of Mina Corp. and Red Star Enterprises - whose ownership, operations and even office locations are shrouded in secrecy - shows how nearly a decade of war has not only boosted the bottom line of corporate behemoths but also enriched unknown upstarts.
In just eight years, Mina and Red Star - both registered in Gibraltar and run by the same people - have come from nowhere to become a key link in the U.S. military's supply chain. They have beaten out established rivals to supply nearly a billion gallons of jet fuel to a U.S. Air Force base here in Kyrgyzstan, a vital staging post for the Afghan conflict, and also to American warplanes at Bagram air base in Afghanistan.
Finally, news broke last night that the Pentagon will soon release its Congressionally-mandated study on rare earth minerals in defense supply chains. It concludes that DOD does not have a rare earths crisis, and issues with these minerals do not affect naitonal security. This is smart, and along the lines of what we've discussed when we go around pontificating about minerals. Will and I visited a business earlier this year that depends on rare earths and is a supplier to DOD. Their stockpile could last them 6 months to a year if needed...and that stockpile is about the size of my office. The scale here is important - these minerals are critical in many applications, but often in small doses.
On a final note, I'd caution that this DOD report was to focus on defense supply chains. Minerals issues (especially lately) can quite definitely still form tough foreign policy problems.
The Week Ahead
At noon today at the Winston & Strawn LLP offices, the Women's Council on Energy and Environment is holding a discussion on "China's Climate and Energy Policy Since Copenhagen." SAIS is burning it up on natural security this week, including "The Political Dynamics of Conflict in the Great Lakes" today at 4:00, and "Russian Policy in the Arctic: Ambitions, Dreams and Strategies" at noon Wednesday, among several other cool events. On Friday, definitely go to the Wilson Center's event on "U.S.-China Climate Relations in the Run-Up to Cancun" at 9:30.
And tomorrow, if you haven't already, remember to vote!! Have a great week everyone.
With midterm elections just over a week away, there are a number of introspective reports on the Obama administration’s domestic policies, including on the clean energy initiatives supported by the stimulus package. On Sunday, The Washington Post offered a balanced appraisal of the administration’s energy policies in this piece, “Clean Energy Industry Looks Ahead.”
According to the Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson, the federal stimulus package provided billions of dollars that helped expand “green energy” industries and create “green jobs,” especially for the wind and solar industries, despite a struggling economy. Yet for all these successes, these industries’ future may not be as promising as one might hope. Eilperin and Mufson write:
President Obama frequently points to these wave-of-the-future jobs as one of the substantial achievements of his administration, and wind and solar executives say that the economic stimulus bill turned 2009 into a banner year instead of a catastrophic one for their businesses. But limited funding in one area, a slow ramp-up in another, prolonged negotiations over loan guarantees and the continuing economic slump have made it difficult for the industry to make the kind of progress Obama and many others had hoped for and imagined. As a result, the president does not appear to have gotten much political credit for new green jobs, despite his many visits to battery, solar and wind facilities aided by the stimulus package.
The report offers a glimpse at just a few of the many wind and solar projects funded by stimulus cash, from large-scale multimillion dollar projects that will producer longer-term economic results, to small-scale projects that have an immediate impact for small businesses, such as a Department of Energy-backed program that “funneled $15,964 to the Grumpy Troll Brewery, Restaurant and Pizzeria in Mount Horeb, Wis., so the brewpub could install 38 solar panels on its roof.”
War is hell. And many Afghans are reminded of this every day. That was my take away from this report in The New York Times on Sunday, “In Afghan South, U.S. Faces Frustrated Residents.”
The report comes amidst U.S. and NATO military operations in Kandahar province, what experts have described as the Taliban stronghold. According to the Times’ Carlotta Gall, “As American troops mount a critical operation this weekend in the campaign to regain control in Kandahar, they face not only the Taliban but also a frustrated and disillusioned population whose land has been devastated by five years of fighting.”
Many Afghan farmers have had their land destroyed, homes demolished and lives turned upside down – forced to flee the countryside where they have spent their lives earning a living off the land, whether it’s from grapes, wheat or other valuable crops. And despite a compensation system for farmers and villagers set up by coalition forces, many Afghan farmers are left without reclamation. As Gall wrote:
Yet Afghan officials and rural residents say many farmers have fallen through the cracks, partly because of the continuing war and because many areas remain under Taliban control, but also because of the corruption and carelessness of local officials. That means that many of the poorest villagers — whether through bad luck, ignorance or fear of retaliation by the Taliban — have missed out on compensation payments and assistance programs. Mr. Hamid, the grape farmer, said his wheat harvest was burned in the fighting. He and other villagers filed for compensation through the district administration. He was told the foreigners had accepted the claim, but said he never got any money.
The Times report is another reminder that Afghanistan’s future is inextricably linked to how well Afghans fair long after U.S. and coalition troops leave the country. And as Christine and I have written in the past, natural resources will play a critical role in sustaining Afghanistan’s long-term stability and security. “Fifty percent of Afghanistan’s GDP is derived from agriculture and ranching. However, frequent droughts, in combination with unsustainable land use and deforestation, have put 75 percent of Afghanistan’s land area at risk of desertification,” we wrote in our June 2010 report, Sustaining Security: How Natural Resources Influence National Security. “President Obama’s March 2009 strategic review of Afghanistan identified ‘sustainable economic development’ – specifically ‘restor[ing] Afghanistan’s once vibrant agriculture sector’ – as a major ingredient in America’s overall effort to sap the strength of the insurgency. Indeed, as the president noted, ‘It’s cheaper…to help a farmer seed his crops than it is to send our troops to fight.’ However, the effects of environmental degradation have been devastating for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan – and will confound long-term U.S. goals in the region unless addressed.”
Ridding the Taliban from the land will be critical to be sure, especially in the near term. As Gall reported in her piece on Sunday, “Part of the problem is that in areas where the Taliban presence is strong, villagers cannot take compensation openly. ‘When the Taliban know you went to the district, or to the city, they come and see you and say, ‘What is this?’ Then they take the money and beat you,’ said one farmer, asking not to be named.” But the Taliban may not be the long-term challenge for all Afghan farmers. Indeed, for many of them, sustainable resource management and adapting to a changing environment may be the greatest challenge. Only time will tell. But as the years pass by and many farmers continue to fall through the cracks, time is running short.
As I was perusing the news this weekend, this headline from the Sunday Washington Post caught my eye: “In Iraq, the Frustrating Sound of Generators.” Since there has been – understandably – no shortage of headlines featuring Afghanistan in recent weeks, especially with Bob Woodward’s new book making headlines about the White House’s internal debate on how to proceed there, I thought it might be a welcome change of pace to highlight what is happening in Iraq as part of our weekend roundup; or as this report from the Post points out, what is still not happening there.
As the U.S. military continues its drawdown in Iraq, challenges abound, including that many Iraqis still do not have access to reliable electricity. As the Post’s Janine Zacharia writes in her report, Iraqis can still recall President George W. Bush’s 2003 promise that the United States would help the country restore basic services, including electricity. But as Zacharia points out, “Seven years later, the state's inability to provide reliable power to homes remains one of the most striking signs of the dysfunction that persists here and a nagging source of frustration for ordinary Iraqis.”
It is important not to conflate the challenge of “reliable power” with no power at all. According to Zacharia:
Since 2005, the United States has helped Iraq double the amount of power it generates, U.S. officials said. But demand has doubled, too, as higher incomes have enabled people to buy more air conditioners, satellite dishes, televisions and refrigerators. Officials also said that shortages feel more pronounced in Baghdad, because during the Hussein era, much of the country's limited capacity was kept for the capital and not equally distributed among the provinces, as it is today.
So while the country is generating more power than it was in the pre-war era, rising demand has outpaced supply, causing widespread shortages that could undermine long-term development and sustainability.
Water was the frontrunner theme in this weekend's news. We even had a few comics with water-related punchlines.
Via the Wilson Center's Geoff Dabelko on Twitter, Steven Solomon writes in Forbes about China’s increasing hydropower ambitions, offering this forecast:
Within 10 years expect China's opening of the world's largest hydropower dam at the Brahmaputra's great bend to feed headlines about China and India's contentious south Tibetan border disputes. Geostrategic balances are likely to tilt in China's favor, especially as international support for Tibetan independence wanes after the aging Dalai Lama eventually dies.
And as if on cue, CNN International reported this morning that China’s water shortages continue unabated and are reaching crisis levels in some cities, including Beijing.
Moving westward into a dual-water-problem story, Egypt is now trying to contain damage from a barge leaking 100 tons of diesel into the Nile. The AP reports that the barge’s operators are blaming low water levels for the accident. On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times also had a great piece on just how politically and economically important the Nile is for Egyptians as well as for Ethiopians, who are using the water for both crops and electricity like never before.
Crop failures during the 2005 food shortage in Niger, as compared to 2004. This year's crisis is predicted to be worse.
Photo: NASA-Earth Observatory
For the past few weeks, the world news has been filled with stories natural disasters affecting the lives of millions: of floods in Pakistan and China, drought and fires in Russia. Here's another side to the 'fires and floods' story (and another way that climate change could potentially be affecting the lives of millions of people right now): in Niger, NPR reports that protracted droughts and floods are causing food shortages and a building hunger crisis that will affect nearly 8 million people, or about half of the country's total population. According to a regional spokesman from the UN's World Food Program, "because of failure of crops, because of erratic and late rainfall and the protracted drought, the whole region has been suffering a food crisis... the main reason why the people are suffering is that because of the [typical August] lean season being this year longer than usual — imagine that being protracted for six months instead of three." The UN agency has been coordinating with other international and local aid organizations, as well as Niger's military, to provide emergency food aid. Despite the government and relief organizations raised concerns about a potential crisis back in November, a lack of funding has rendered the response inadequate to the scope of the problem. This lack of funds has forced the WFP to make tough decisions: according to the report, "only children younger than 2 and their families will receive protein-rich nutrition distributions from the agency."
This portending crisis should of course be of concern to the US government for moral reasons. But just as a slow humanitarian response in flood-ravaged Pakistan could ultimately become a security threat to the United States, weakening the central government and allowing insurgent and terrorist groups greater leeway to act, so could famine in Niger prove to be a greater problem for the United States. The government, installed this February after a military coup, has already failed to protect aid workers from attacks by an Al Qaeda affiliate. Floods, drought and other natural disasters this August have not only become humanitarian disasters in many cases, they have also caused a marked decrease in government control and security-as, for example, Pakistani citizens have accused their government of being unable or unwilling to act to avert the crisis following massive floods there. This should make climate change negotiations in Cancun this December-primarily focused around funding for climate mitigation and adaptation measures-all the more urgent.
Severe flooding throughout Pakistan is exacerbating anti-government anger in many parts of the country, including in Pakistan’s northwest region, particularly the Swat Valley where the Pakistani military has been engaging the Taliban and other Islamic insurgents seeking refuge from U.S. military and NATO forces in Afghanistan. On Sunday, The New York Times reported that the recent flooding, which has claimed at least 700 lives, is “the latest disaster to test Pakistan's already strained leadership,” a test that the Pakistani government appears to be struggling with. (An update from The Washington Post this morning puts the death toll between 730 and 1,100.)
According to The Washington Post, the government’s disaster response efforts have been hampered by sluggishness and disorganization, with authorities appearing “overmatched by the massive devastation.” The Post reported that “Provincial officials in the northwest [said] these floods have been the worst to hit the area since at least the 1920s, and they concede they have few resources with which to help victims.”
The destruction has been widespread, claiming coveted livestock and crumbling infrastructure. The effects have been felt throughout the country, but in particular in the Swat Valley where tensions between the government and the people have already been enflamed by recent fighting between the army and Islamic militants, where stability remains tenuous. As The New York Times reported:
Also hit hard was the Swat Valley, where the government has been working on reconstruction after last year’s military operation there to remove the militants; of the 65 bridges washed away by the rains, 25 were in Swat. A community awareness group in Swat called CARAVAN, which has a sprawling volunteer network, reported that up to 90 percent of area residents had lost their livestock. It also said that the floods topping the famed river Swat washed away 26 hotels that line the riverfront view, including the iconic Khyber and Honeymoon hotels.
Last week I rode Amtrak back home to Ohio for the first time, inspiring me to think a bit more about this means of displacing individual vehicle transport (and commensurate petroleum consumption and greenhouse gas emissions). I normally drive or fly. Driving was not an option for me this time; as it was about 2 days’ notice, flights were $550 and up, well out of my tolerable price range. I’m no stranger to the Acela, having fallen in love with it after about a dozen many-hour delays and frequent extra-personal body and luggage inspections while taking the shuttle to and from New York in the earlier years after 9/11. I also hopped the train from Chicago to Sandusky last year, and now honestly question whether I will ever again feel motivated to drive that route with its infamous traffic.
As usual, this train ride was comfortable and had all of the normally-nice qualities of taking the train: coffee, beer and munchies for sale; people hanging out, talking, watching movies, playing cards and reading; beautiful scenery; stairwells and corridors in which to get up and walk around. When my mom was dropping me off to head home, we met a nice couple who was embarking on a full-family train-transported trip to D.C. – they were meeting with eight of their children and grandchildren in the nation’s capital, coming from Sandusky, Cleveland, and Boston. In the sight-seeing car, I also spoke to a 23-year Navy vet who was train-riding from Florida to Pittsburgh for his mom’s 89th birthday. While catching up on my reading, I overheard the two people behind me debating whether high-speed rail would make the scenic views less of a benefit to train travelers. The only setback was the somewhat inconvenient timing. Riding from D.C. to Sandusky takes about 12 hours compared to a 7 to 7.5 hour drive. Trains only leave about once per day, so my only option involved arriving in Sandusky at 4:00 a.m. and departing back to D.C. at about 1:00 a.m.