July 19, 2010

This Weekend’s News: From Heatwaves to Proverbs to Transnational Crime

There was plenty of news this weekend after BP announced that the cap that was put in place on Thursday to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf appeared to be holding steady. One report from The New York Times offered a rather sobering outlook on the long-term implications of the oil spill, highlighting scientific findings from other oil spills, including from the Exxon Valdez, another off of France, and another in the Gulf off of southern Mexico several decades before the Deep Horizon oil spill. The assessment: hidden damage can last for years, affecting everything from the ocean food chain to the mangrove forests that protect otherwise vulnerable coastline. (Also worth checking out is this piece in The Washington Post’s Sunday Outlook section on why Louisiana is America’s petro-state.)

Moving in a different direction, however, there were several reports that were buried beneath the BP oil spill headlines that I think are worth noting as they highlight some important natural security trends.

Reuters reported over the weekend that a record-breaking heatwave that has plagued Russia since June is responsible for nearly a billion dollars in agricultural losses. With devastating wild fires that have burned four times more peat this year than last and severe, ongoing drought, the Russian government has declared a state of emergency in 17 regions, with two other regions on alert. According to Reuters, “As of Thursday crops on a combined area of 9.6 million hectares have been destroyed. This comprises some 12 percent of all lands sown to crops in Russia, or a territory roughly the size of Hungary.”

The impact on the agricultural sector may also affect Russia’s inflation rate: “Analysts have said that after months of low inflation Russia may again miss its 2010 target as food prices are set to rise toward the end of the year, but Deputy Economy Minister Andrei Klepach said it was too early to review the inflation forecast.” The heatwave is expected to continue through at least next week. And for me, the larger, long-term question is could climate change make these types of heatwaves more frequent and potentially more severe for Russia and other countries where these heatwaves occur?

On Sunday, The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof wrote on the melting Himalayan glaciers in an aptly titled op-ed, “Our Beaker is Starting to Boil.” What’s most interesting is Kristof’s commentary on why we’re so slow to react to climate change. As Kristof noted:

Some research in social psychology suggests that our brains are not well adapted to protect ourselves from gradually encroaching harms. We evolved to be wary of saber-toothed tigers and blizzards, but not of climate change — and maybe that’s also why we in the news media tend to cover weather but not climate. The upshot is that we’re horrifyingly nonchalant at the prospect that rising carbon emissions may devastate our favorite planet.

For me, is this not the proverbial boiling frog (which Kristof notes, as well)? Toss a frog in a beaker of boiling water and he’ll jump out; place a frog in cold water and bring it to a slow boil, and he’ll sit there and boil alive. “From our own beaker, we’ve watched with glazed eyes as glaciers have retreated worldwide,” Kristof writes. “Glacier National Park now has only about 25 glaciers, compared with around 150 a century ago. In the Himalayas, the shrinkage seems to be accelerating, with Chinese scientific measurements suggesting that some glaciers are now losing up to 26 feet in height per year.”

Global temperature increase is only one reason for the receding Himalayan glaciers, Kristof writes: “Second, rain and snow patterns are changing, so that less new snow is added to replace what melts. Third, pollution from trucks and smoke covers glaciers with carbon soot so that their surfaces become darker and less reflective — causing them to melt more quickly.”

Going back to the climate and security connection, Kristof highlights how the melting Himalayan glaciers are affecting food security for nearly 60 million downstream residents who rely on glacial runoff to sustain agricultural development. Kristof concludes by warning that just like the Gulf oil spill was a lesson in our hubris on deep sea drilling, so to are melting glaciers a warning of our hubris with our inaction to stem global climate change.

In a story that crosses over with the project on transnational crime that CNAS Senior Fellow Bob Killebrew is working on, ranchers and drug barons are threatening the rainforest in northern Guatemala, The New York Times reported on Sunday. According to the Times:

A recent State Department report said that “entire regions of Guatemala are now essentially under the control” of drug trafficking organizations, mainly the Mexico-based Zetas. Those groups enjoy a “prevailing environment of impunity” in “the northern and eastern rural areas” of Guatemala, the report said. The drug organizations have bought vast cattle ranches in the Petén to launder drug profits, as well as to conceal a trafficking hub, including remote, jungle-shrouded landing strips. Cattle ranching in the Petén has quadrupled since 1995, with herds totaling 2.5 million cattle, according to Rudel Álvarez, the region’s governor. “Organized crime and drug traffickers have usurped large swaths of protected land amid a vacuum left by the state, and are creating de facto ranching areas,” Mr. Álvarez said. “We must get rid of them to really have conservation.”

This is one of those stories that demonstrates the complexities of environmental challenges, and how environmental trends interact with other global trends; in this case, transnational crime. But crime is just one trend affecting the Guatemalan reserve. The Times’ piece highlights other trends, including the presence of squatters trying to etch out a way of life (it’s worth reading at length).

For more weekend news you didn’t see here, don’t forget to check out our news feed on Facebook.

The Week Ahead

On Monday, July 19, at 12:30 PM, the Women’s Foreign Policy Group will host, The UN's Humanitarian Resposne to Haiti (waiting list only). On Wednesday, July 21 at 2:30PM check out Leveraging Climate Data and Services to Manage Climate Change at CSIS. Then on Thursday, July 22 at 9:00 AM, don’t miss CSIS’s Outlook for the Energy Sector in Venezuela. Also on Thursday at 9:30 AM, head over to the Wilson Center for Emerging Trends in Environment and Economic Growth in Latin America and the Caribbean. Then at 12:30PM, the Cato Institute will have a meeting on The Implications of the U.S.-India Nuclear Agreement. Finally, at 2:00 PM, finish off a busy Thursday with a trip to CSIS for China and India’s Energy Policy Directions.