Floods, Hurricanes, Droughts… When Climate Sets the Agenda

By Baher Kamal

ROME, Sep 11 2017 (IPS) - When officials and experts from all over the world started the first-ever environmental summit hosted by China, they were already aware that climate and weather-related disasters were already seriously beginning to set the international agenda – unprecedented floods in South Asia, strongest ever hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and catastrophic droughts striking the Horn of Africa, among the most impacting recent events.

In fact, Ordos, China has been the venue of the 13th summit of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which has been focusing over the period 6-16 September on ways to further mitigate and prevent the steadily advancing desertification and land degradation worldwide.

Officials and experts from 196 countries attending the UNCCD 13th session –known as COP 13- are now expected to agree on a 12-year Strategy to contain runaway land degradation that is threatening global food and water security.

Countries are also expected to announce their targets for land restoration, to agree on measures to address the related emerging threats of forced migration, sand and dust storms, and to agree on actions to strengthen the resilience of communities to droughts.

Desertification Everywhere

No wonder—globally, as many as 169 countries are affected by desertification, with China accounting for the largest population and area impacted, UNCCD warns.

Desertification is not just photogenic images of oceans of sand and dunes – it is a silent, invisible crisis that is destabilising communities on a global scale, according to UNCCD.

“As the effects of climate change undermine livelihoods, inter-ethnic clashes are breaking out within and across states and fragile states are turning to militarisation to control the situation.”

 

“If we are to restore peace, security and international stability in a context where changing weather events are threatening the livelihoods of more and more people, survival options are declining and state capacities are overburdened, then more should be done to combat desertification, reverse land degradation and mitigate the effects of drought. Otherwise, many small-scale farmers and poor, land-dependent communities face two choices: fight or flight.“

Famine in Africa, Again

Meanwhile, the most impacted continent by climate change and weather induced disasters – Africa, which contributes only 4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions – is now experiencing a scenario in its Eastern region of consecutive climate shocks causing back-to-back droughts that have left at least 8.5 million people in Ethiopia in dire need of food aid.

At the same time, severe drought has deepened in Somalia with the risk of famine looming on about half the population.

The death of livestock in the impacted areas has caused a breakdown in pastoral livelihoods, contributing to soaring hunger levels and alarming increases in malnutrition rates.

This is just a quick summary of the dramatic situation facing these two East African countries, which are home to a combined population of 113 million people (101,5 million in Ethiopia and 11,5 million in Somalia), and which are in need of additional urgent resources to prevent any further deterioration.

The situation has rapidly deteriorated, and the heads of the three Rome-based United Nations food agencies, at the conclusion of a four-day visit to the affected areas, called for greater investment in long-term activities that strengthen people’s resilience to drought and the impacts of climate shocks.

“This drought has been going on for a long time and we have lost much of our livestock… If we didn’t get food assistance, we would be in big trouble – but this is still not enough to feed us all,” Hajiji Abdi, a community elder, last week said to José Graziano da Silva, director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Gilbert F. Houngbo, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP).

Drought Does Not Need to Become an Emergency

The three UN food agencies chiefs made their plea after they visited projects that treat dwindling herds to limit further livestock deaths and met drought-affected people receiving food rations.

“It is essential to invest in preparedness and provide farmers and rural communities with knowledge and tools to safeguard themselves and their livelihoods. We’ve witnessed here that saving livelihoods means saving lives – it is people’s best defense against drought,” said Graziano da Silva.

“A drought does not need to become an emergency,” said Houngbo, president of IFAD. “We know what works.” In the Somali region, where there is investment in irrigation systems, water points, rural financial institutions, health and veterinary services and other long-term development projects, the communities can better sustain themselves and their livestock through this devastating drought. “This is what we need to build on,” he added.

“We have seen clearly here that working together the three UN food agencies can achieve much more than alone,” said Beasley, head of WFP.

‘Hunger Knife-Edge’

In Ethiopia, it is estimated that 9,5 million are hungry. There, drought has dented crop and pasture output in southern regions. In the specific case of Somalia, the United Nations reports that 3,3 million people—that’s one third of its estimated 11 million inhabitants—are now on a ‘hunger knife-edge.’

In Somalia more than six million people are affected, of whom only about three million have been reached with food rations. See: Drought Pushes 1 in 3 Somalis to a Hunger Knife-Edge

Africa is prey to a steady process of advancing droughts and desertification, posing one of the most pressing challenges facing the 54 African countries, home to more than 1.2 billion people.

Right now, it is estimated that as much as two-thirds of Africa is already desert or dry lands.

While this land is vital for agriculture and food production, nearly three-fourths of it is estimated to be degraded.

The Killing Drought

According to the United Nations, droughts kill more people than any other single weather-related catastrophe, and conflicts among communities over water scarcity are gathering pace. Over 1 billion people today have no access to water, and demand will increase by 30 per cent by 2030.

The consequences are there: widespread poverty, hard socio-economic conditions, and many people dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods.

In such a dire situation, the choice is either to fight or flee. In fact, UNCCD estimates that some 135 million people may be displaced by 2045 as a result of desertification. See: Climate Migrants Might Reach One Billion by 2050

Drought is among the most devastating of natural hazards – crippling food production, depleting pastures, disrupting markets, and, at its most extreme, causing widespread human and animal deaths, according to FAO.

In recent years, droughts have resulted in some of the most high-profile humanitarian disasters – including the recent crises in the Horn of Africa (2011) and the Sahel (2012) regions, which threatened the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.

A Chinese Case

Meanwhile in China, participants in the Ordos summit are expected to announce their targets for land restoration, to agree on measures to address the related emerging threats of forced migration, sand and dust storms, and to agree on actions to strengthen the resilience of communities to droughts.

For now, the Asian giant, China, has set a target: to reduce by 50 per cent all of its desertified areas by 2020, said Zhang Jianlong, Chinese Minister of State Forestry Administration. “A fire burns harder when we all add some tinder.”

China has developed industrial models to combat desertification, and reported “the area affected by desertification has declined for three inventory periods in a row, since 2004.”

The world’s most populated country has managed to avert the desert in some areas. In fact, only 20 years ago, the summit’s venue, Ordos, the city and burial place of Ghengis Khan was an empty desert. Today it is a green, modern city.

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Annex: Conspiracies, Corruption and Climate

 

Paul Krugman – The New York Times

 

After the devastation wreaked by Harvey on Houston — devastation that was right in line with meteorologists’ predictions — you might have expected everyone to take heed when the same experts warned about the danger posed by Hurricane Irma. But you would have been wrong.

On Tuesday, Rush Limbaugh accused weather scientists of inventing Irma’s threat for political and financial reasons: “There is a desire to advance this climate change agenda, and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it,” he declared, adding that “fear and panic” help sell batteries, bottled water, and TV advertising.

He evacuated his Palm Beach mansion soon afterward.

In a way, we should be grateful to Limbaugh for at least raising the subject of climate change and its relationship to hurricanes, if only because it’s a topic the Trump administration is trying desperately to avoid. For example, Scott Pruitt, the pollution- and polluter-friendly head of the Environmental Protection Agency, says that now is not the time to bring up the subject — that doing so is “insensitive” to the people of Florida. Needless to say, for people like Pruitt there will never be a good time to talk about climate.

So what should we learn from Limbaugh’s outburst? Well, he’s a terrible person — but we knew that already. The important point is that he’s not an outlier. True, there weren’t many other influential people specifically rejecting warnings about Irma, but denying science while attacking scientists as politically motivated and venal is standard operating procedure on the American right. When Donald Trump declared climate change a “hoax,” he was just being an ordinary Republican.

And thanks to Trump’s electoral victory, know-nothing, anti-science conservatives are now running the U.S. government. When you read news analyses claiming that Trump’s deal with Democrats to keep the government running for a few months has somehow made him a moderate independent, remember that’s it not just Pruitt: Almost every senior figure in the Trump administration dealing with the environment or energy is both an establishment Republican and a denier of climate change and of scientific evidence in general.

And almost all climate change denial involves Limbaugh-type conspiracy theorizing.

There is, after all, an overwhelming scientific consensus that human activities are warming the planet. When conservative politicians and pundits challenge that consensus, they do so not on the basis of careful consideration of the evidence — come on, who are we kidding? — but by impugning the motives of thousands of scientists around the world. All of these scientists, they insist, motivated by peer pressure and financial rewards, are falsifying data and suppressing contrary views.

This is crazy talk. But it’s utterly mainstream on the modern right, among pundits — even anti-Trump pundits — and politicians alike.

Why are U.S. conservatives so willing to disbelieve science and buy into tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories about scientists? Part of the answer is that they’re engaged in projection: That’s the way things work in their world.

Some disillusioned Republicans like to talk about a golden age of conservative thought, somewhere in the past. That golden age never existed; still, there was a time when some conservative intellectuals had interesting, independent ideas. But those days are long past: Today’s right-wing intellectual universe, such as it is, is dominated by hired guns who are essentially propagandists rather than researchers.

And right-wing politicians harass and persecute actual researchers whose conclusions they don’t like — an effort that has been vastly empowered now that Trump is in power. The Trump administration is disorganized on many fronts, but it is systematically purging climate science and climate scientists wherever it can.

So as I said, when people like Limbaugh imagine that liberals are engaged in a conspiracy to promote false ideas about climate and suppress the truth, it makes sense to them partly because that’s what their friends do.

But it also makes sense to them because conservatives have grown increasingly hostile to science in general. Surveys show a steady decline in conservatives’ trust in science since the 1970s, which is clearly politically motivated — it’s not as if science has stopped working.

It’s true that scientists have returned the favor, losing trust in conservatives: more than 80 percent of them now lean Democratic. But how can you expect scientists to support a party whose presidential candidates won’t even concede that the theory of evolution is right?

The bottom line is that we are now ruled by people who are completely alienated not just from the scientific community, but from the scientific idea — the notion that objective assessment of evidence is the way to understand the world. And this willful ignorance is deeply frightening. Indeed, it may end up destroying civilization.

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