Here’s how oil, population, and trade affect disaster aid flows

Damage in the Irrawaddy Delta after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma on May 2, 2008 (courtesy of OCHA).

Damage in the Irrawaddy Delta after Cyclone Nargis hit Burma on May 2, 2008 (courtesy of OCHA).

Earlier this month, I wrote a piece for Vox that examined how media coverage of certain natural disasters – or the lack thereof – can significantly affect both the likelihood of a country getting relief assistance and, if it does, the amount it receives.

I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that media coverage is the only, or even the primary factor driving disaster aid decisions; far from it. In fact, there is a fair amount of research that shows how political considerations may be the key issue dictating aid considerations.

Disaster relief is a two-way street

One important factor to consider, as I alluded to in my Vox piece, is that relief aid decisions are a two-way street. Just as donor countries determine whether or not they want to provide support, affected countries can also control whether or not they request it. Without this formal request, the United Nations cannot issue a Flash Appeal, and donor countries will have no way of getting their financial, logistical, and human resources on the ground.

So why would a country hit hard by a disaster actually refuse to accept help? In a 2010 study (gated), Travis Nelson, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, argued that, for countries transitioning from autocratic systems to more democratic ones – known as anocracies in political science parlance – “aid refusal…is at its core a political act” meant to show that the country’s leadership is able to handle the disaster recovery process on its own.

A recent example of this phenomenon happened in Burma, which I detailed in a 2013 paper (PDF). Cyclone Nargis struck the southern portion of the country in May 2008, killing more than 138,000 people. But rather than accepting offers of support from the international community, the country’s ruling military junta went to great lengths to keep the humanitarian community out. It waited several days to accept international assistance, and even then it only did so on the condition that it strictly control every aspect of the process. It took a full 3 weeks for then-leader Than Shwe to allow the international community to conduct a relief and recovery effort.

Why Burma’s leaders rejected humanitarian assistance

If you view this episode in a vacuum, the junta’s actions make no sense. Why on earth would they actively refuse support, given their clear inability to help their own people?

But, when placed in context, as Nelson argues in his study, things become clearer. Burma, which had existed on the fringes of the international community for nearly two decades at that point, had valid reasons to be wary of offers of support from Western states. These same states had spent years actively undermining and isolating the junta. Moreover, Western leaders took a number of provocative steps in the days after the cyclone that likely delayed the response effort further. The United States anchored a Navy battleship just miles off the Burmese coast, and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner threatened to invoke the principle of the Responsibility to Protect as a means to forcibly initiate a response effort.

One can almost – almost – forgive the junta for fearing that Western governments might use humanitarian actions as a cover for furthering regime change. As Burma expert Andrew Selth has written, “Even paranoids have enemies.”

It’s important to point out that, in accordance with Nelson’s study, the Burmese government had recently initiated a political reform process. Nargis hit just one week before a long-anticipated referendum on the country’s new constitution, a critical part in the junta’s years-long process to slowly and partially democratize the country.

I should also note that, regardless of how irrational the junta’s fears of foreign influence may have been, they actual proved to be somewhat prophetic. Thein Sein, the country’s current president, headed up the regime’s response effort and worked closely with the United Nations and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This positive interaction between Sein and his international counterparts likely hastened the country’s political transition.

The politics of disaster aid

But now we need to consider the political concerns behind the other side of the equation – donor decisions. What accounts for the fact that the US provides relief after less than 1 out of every 5 disasters?

In a 2009 working paper for the World Bank1, Guenther Fink, an international health economics professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Silvia Redaelli, a senior economist at the Bank, explored these factors.

As the authors note, humanitarian aid is often seen as a different animal than official development assistance (ODA). Whereas donor countries have always attached political conditions to ODA, that rule has not applied for emergency aid. Instead, “donor governments perceive emergency aid as political unconditional.” In principle, it should be apportioned according to the greatest need.

But, as Fink and Redaelli demonstrate, donor countries have consistently failed to live up to these principles. In the study, they explore the factors driving the delivery and amount of aid after 449 rapid-onset disasters. They explored the amount of aid provided in the aftermath of these events based on information from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affair’s (OCHA) Financial Tracking System. To control for political considerations, they add a number of independent variables, including population size, GDP per capita, Freedom House rankings, trade openness, the distance between donor and recipient state capitals, whether or not the recipient country exports oil, and how closely the donor and recipient country’s UN voting patterns line up.

Population density, oil exports, and trade openness all affect aid

They find that both the number of people affected and killed increases the likelihood of aid delivery, by 10-13% and 20%, respectively. But, more than that, political factors seem to drive the decision making process. Donors are 25-30% more likely to support their former colonies, and Western countries are far more eager to support oil producers.

Interestingly, donor countries appear more apt to contribute to disaster-affected countries that are not already aligned with their political interests. Unlike with ODA, which donors seem to use to reward their allies, humanitarian aid seems to be a tool to build better political relations. As the authors note, “If the acquisition of international consensus is on donors’ political agenda, emergency aid may well be a more visible, cheaper and more flexible tool to reach such a consensus than traditional development assistance.”

These political issues also mediate the amount of aid provided. When disasters occur at least 1,000 kilometers away, aid values are halved. In contrast, politically non-aligned states see 200% more aid, while former colonies can expect to receive 5 times more.

The correlation between the current allocation of aid and the actual humanitarian losses associated with natural disasters is surprisingly low.

But Fink and Redaelli dig further into the data and find that the five major donor countries – the US, Germany, Japan, Norway, and the United Kingdom – are all motivated by different interests. While the US tends to support democratic regimes, Norway is actually 14% more likely to support more autocratic countries. Germany, for its part, is 66% more inclined to provide aid to neighboring states, while Japan shows an interesting affinity for densely populated countries. And, reminding us all that the sun never set on the British Empire once, former colonial bonds increase the UK’s aid probability by nearly 30%.

The study includes two additional findings. First, the US, UK, and Norway are more likely to support oil exporters by 24%, 35%, and 39%, respectively. Secondly, the authors note evidence for a “bandwagon” effect – when more of these big 5 donors contribute to the relief effort, the total number of donor countries increases significantly.

Unlike other research, the paper also explores what factors drive private disaster aid flows. Nongovernmental donors appear more inclined to support poorer countries and are 16% less likely to provide aid to countries that get high marks for trade openness. Interestingly, private donors do not seem responsive to either the number of fatalities or whether the disaster-affected country exports oil.

Ultimately, as Fink and Redaelli conclude, “While the evidence of the various biases varies significantly across countries, the correlation between the current allocation of aid and the actual humanitarian losses associated with natural disasters is surprisingly low.”

I should note that note everyone agrees with this thesis. Nelson, for his part, authored a 2012 study (gated) that found while these types of political variables do play a role in aid discussion, “humanitarian variables are consistently significant predictors of disaster aid provision.”

So while this debate may not be entirely settled, the fact remains that the international community has a long way to go before it meets the principles laid out in the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and reiterated the 2011 Busan Partnership. If we hope to shift from a donor-recipient relationship to a true partnership, developed countries will need to more closely balance their underlying political considerations when apportioning disaster aid.

* Dr. Fink published a version of this paper (gated) in the May 2011 edition of the journal World Development.

Cleveland is finally raising its parking rates, but they’re still way too low

cleveland parking meters

Parking meters in downtown Cleveland (courtesy of

William F. Buckley, the legendary publisher of The National Review, famously wrote that “a conservative is someone who is standing athwart history, yelling Stop.” If that’s the case, I guess that makes Councilman Zack Reed a dyed in the wool conservative – at least when it comes to parking – as he continues his crusade to keep Cleveland’s parking policies trapped in the 1960s.

If you recall, Councilman Reed is the person who pushed through legislation in 2008 to make on-street parking free on Black Friday throughout Cleveland, depriving the city of thousands in forgone revenue, year in and year out. Well, he’s at it again.

At its weekly meeting last night, Cleveland City Council approved legislation to raise parking rates in the city, as Leila Atassi explains. The legislation will increase downtown parking meter rates to $1 per hour from $0.75 per hour and raise the daily and hourly fees at city-owned parking lots by $1. Additionally, the city now has the ability to charge up to $30 per day for special event parking, up from the current $20 rate.

Every member of the City Council voted in favor of the bill, save one. Yes, Councilman Reed played the role of self-appointed champion of the people by voting no, arguing that the rate hikes are just another way to “gouge” the “hardworking, middle class folks” of Cleveland. Councilman Reed’s one-man battle to stand athwart history might be noble, if it had any basis in reality.

According to Michael Cox, the Director of Public Works, Cleveland has not raised parking fees in the city since 1989. Our parking policies are, quite literally, a relic of the Cold War era. The city’s parking rates are dramatically lower than those of comparable cities. Compare Cleveland’s rates to Pittsburgh, for instance. Effective January 1, Pittsburgh has charged $4 per hour for on-street meter parking in the downtown core; rates throughout the rest of the city vary from $1-3 per hour (with the exception of the Carrick neighborhood, where the hourly rate is $0.50).

Even with the new increase, Cleveland will only charge $0.75 per hour near hospitals and schools and $0.50 per hour in neighborhoods with meters. Pittsburgh has also had a residential permit parking system in place for 34 years, something that Cleveland has only recently even begun considering. Cincinnati, for its part, charges anywhere from $1.75-2.25 per hour in its central business district.

Cleveland’s failure to increase its rates in a quarter century has significantly decreased their real value. Due to inflation, the $0.75 a Clevelander paid to park in 1989 would be worth just $0.40 today. In fact, the new increase still fails to keep up with the rate of inflation. For the hourly rate to have the same value as $0.75 did in 1989, we would need to charge $1.42. It’s no wonder that the Division of Parking has been running in the red for years.

If Councilman Reed was really concerned about protecting the interests of working families in Cleveland, this should outrage him. The fact is that, because we have failed to raise parking rates, the City has had to prop up the Division of Parking by spending money out of its general fund. Every dollar that we spend to keep parking rates at below-market value is a dollar we cannot spend on our crumbling roads, improving our schools, or shoring up public safety services.

Moreover, approximately 75% of people attending Browns, Cavs, and Indians games hail from not just outside of Cleveland proper, but from outside of Cuyahoga County. This was a major issue in last year’s Sin Tax renewal campaign. Accordingly, by artificially suppressing parking rates, Cleveland residents are effectively being forced to subsidize the suburban sprawl that has hollowed out this region for decades. Cleveland simply cannot afford not to raise the cost of parking in our city.

This legislation is a step in the right direction, and I applaud the 16 Council members who voted in favor of it. But we still have a long, long way to go if we hope to rationalize parking policy in this city.

Water is life, but have you ever thought about what that really means?

Cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.


World Water Day 2015 is coming up this Sunday, March 22. This year, in advance of this September’s UN summit to create a set of Sustainable Development Goals, World Water Day will focus on the links between water and sustainable development.

The axiom that “water is life” has become something of a cliche. But have you ever actually sat down and considered, even for a few moments, just how central water is to essentially every aspect of your life? Let’s consider a hypothetical day to demonstrate this effect, shall we?


7:00am: Your alarm clock goes off. You step out of your bed and head for the bathroom. About that bed – is it made from cotton? Well, cotton is one of the most water-intensive crops on the planet. It is the single largest consumer of water in the apparel industry, accounting for more than 40% of total water use. It takes more than 700 gallons to produce one t-shirt alone. Much of this impact stems from the fact that cotton is widely farmed in some of the driest areas of the world, including India, Pakistan, and Central Asia (we’ll return to this issue later).

7:05am: You step into the shower to get ready for the day. Well, this one is pretty straightforward. But do you know how much water and energy you’re using? According to the EPA’s WaterSense program, the standard showerhead uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute. As a result, the average American family uses 40 gallons of water per day in the shower, accounting for 17% of total household water use. If we waste roughly 20% of water in each shower, as the EPA estimates, that means we are washing more than 200 billion gallons of excess water down our drains each year.

7:30am: You sit down in the kitchen to eat breakfast. Do you drink coffee? Each cup of coffee has a water footprint of 37 gallons, meaning it takes the equivalent of 37 gallons of water to grow, process, roast, ship, and brew your morning caffeine fix. Are you eating cereal with milk? That requires 22 gallons of water. But it’s still better than eggs, which have a water footprint of 37 gallons each. And that morning glass of orange juice is another 53 gallons.

7:50am: You head out the door and start your morning commute. Are you driving? Well, it takes roughly 39,090 gallons of water to manufacture a new car and its four tires. How far is your commute? If you’re driving the average 12.6 miles each way in a car with average fuel economy (23.6 miles per gallon), then your gas tank is consuming 6.89 gallons of water on your way to work. Round trip, that will add up to 13.77 gallons (not to mention more than 19 pounds of carbon emissions).

Work Day

8:15am: You arrive at work and head into the building. But what is the building made of? Steel? That’s 62,000 gallons of water per ton used. Concrete? Try 1,360 gallons per ton. While the totals will vary by the type of materials used, there’s also water embedded in every window, square foot of flooring, gallon of paint on the walls, desk, chair, and trash can. Every step you take is dripping in water.

9:07am: You check your email and start answering the flood of requests that came in since you left work yesterday. Are you using a desktop computer? It probably took around 42,000 gallons of water to produce. A laptop fares better at around 10,500 gallons, given its more compact size. But let’s not forget that you need electricity to power that computer, along with your phone, desk lamp, and the building’s HVAC system. Where you live matters, as different energy sources have different water footprints. Here in Ohio, we get roughly two-thirds of our electricity from coal, along with 15% from natural gas generation, and another 12% from nuclear power plants. Every kilowatt hour of electricity produced from these three fuel sources requires 7.14 gallons, 2.99 gallons, and 1.51 gallons of water, respectively. Assuming that the average Ohio household uses 750 kWh of electricity per month, that means that your electricity use will consume 4,170 gallons per month, or nearly 140 gallons of water per day.

10:12am: You’re eventually going to need to use the restroom. The average toilet requires around 3.5 gallons per flush. And don’t forget to wash your hands, which may take up to 5 gallons per minute, depending on the faucet.

12:00pm: Lunch time. Maybe you’re a carnivore and have a hamburger; that will take a whopping 634 gallons. Or perhaps you’re eating healthy these days and opt for a salad, which has a considerably smaller footprint (31 gallons).

2:53pm: Hitting that mid-afternoon lull? You run out to the nearest coffee shop and grab a latte. All that extra milk and sugar adds water to the coffee, requiring a total of 52 gallons.


5:00pm: Finally, the work day comes to an end. Are you going straight home? If so, don’t forget about the water you’ll use on your commute. Or do you meet some coworkers for a drink afterwards? Choose carefully. That pint of beer requires 20 gallons of water. Wine fares even worse at 31 gallons.

6:00pm: Dinner time. Every pound of beef demands nearly 2,000 gallons of water. And that baked potato will add another 34 gallons per pound. Thinking about dessert? Chocolate will cost you an incredible 2,061 gallons per pound (though I doubt you’re eating that much chocolate in one sitting).

7:45pm: You head to the laundry room to do a load of laundry. That standard, top-loading washing machine will use 40-45 gallons of water per load. Efficient, front-loading machines can halve that total.

11:00pm: You brush your teeth and head to bed. Hopefully you remembered to shut off that faucet, as Americans waste more than 1 trillion gallons of water each year from leaking sinks, toilets, and sprinkler systems.


All told, the average American uses approximately 2,167 gallons of water per day, more than double the global average of 1,056 gallons. But because most of this water is embedded in the manufacture and transport of the products we consume, we rarely, if ever, consider the true scale of our water footprint. Instead, we tend to focus on just the amount of water we actually use each day (i.e the amount of we drink or use to shower, flush the toilet, brush our teeth etc.). This number – roughly 90-100 gallons per person, per day – is a (pun intended) drop in the bucket of our total footprint. And Americans tend to vastly underestimate even this number.

Unintended consequences

Clearly, there is a disconnect here, one that can have unintended consequences. It builds a wall of ignorance between our decisions and their downstream effects. Consider the Aral Sea, one example of how our actions can drastically alter the world around us.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union decided to turn the steppes of modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan into vast fields it cotton. In the 1960s, engineers constructed a vast network of dams, canals, and irrigation ditches to divert the water of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers and channel it to the world’s largest cotton plantations.

Until this point, all of the unused water in these rivers – the lifeblood of the dry region – flowed into the Aral Sea. Prior to this, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth largest lake. It surface area spanned more than 25,500 square miles. Its average depth was 52 feet, though the water reached a depth of 223 feet at its lowest point. The sea supported a thriving fishing industry among the various communities located along its shore. More than 40,000 people fished its waters.

All of that changed. Once completed, this irrigation system captured more than 90% of the water flowing into the Aral. As the sea began to shrink, it grew ever shallower. This process facilitated surface evaporation, hastening the process. As the surface are constricted, the land formerly covered by several feet of water turned into a dry, salt-caked desert crust; this reflected the sun’s radiation, causing surface temperatures to rise and evaporation to speed up. Wetlands and other aquatic vegetation dried up and died. The loss of these plants allowed stronger breezes to flow across the shallower water, which exacerbated surface evaporation even further.

Today, the Aral has lost more than 90% of its original volume. NASA reported last October that the entire eastern basin of the sea is now dry for the first time in at least six centuries. The Aral has entered a death spiral, and experts project that it may disappear forever in the next few years. It is, perhaps, the worst man-made environmental catastrophe of all time.

This is why Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc. exists. Our work, including our annual World Water Day events, seeks to reconnect people with water and illustrate the essential role it plays in every aspect of our lives. Hopefully by bringing people closer to water, we can stave off the next Aral Sea-type disaster before it is too late.

El Niño is here. What will it mean for Great Lakes ice cover?

lake erie ice

Over the weekend, temperatures finally climbed over 40ºF in Cleveland. Given the fact that the average temperature in February was all of 14.3ºF – by far the coldest February in our history – the mid-40s felt like a heat wave.

My fiancée and I decided to venture outside and headed down to Edgewater Park on Cleveland’s West Side. Edgewater, as the name suggests, sits along Lake Erie. We wanted to take an opportunity to see the lake before the ice really began to melt. Due to the frigid winter, the Great Lakes were once again covered in a thick layer of ice this year. Though we will likely remain just shy of last year’s mark, ice cover reached a peak of 88.8% on February 28. As set to continue running at or above normal, this number should continue dropping until the lakes are ice free sometime in late Spring. It has already fallen by more than 20% in the past 10 days.

We were far from the only people with this idea. While neither of us planned to actually head out onto the ice, we eventually decided to follow the pack. Someone had even decided to set up a tent on the ice a few hundred feet off shore to serve soup and coffee to passersby. At the time, I had no idea what the actual thickness of the ice we were walking on was. I flippantly estimated that it was several feet thick – a testament to my ignorance. I have since discovered, from the map below, that we were likely standing on a sheet of ice roughly 40 centimeters thick. Fortunately, that is thick enough to support a car.

lake erie ice thickness march 9, 2015

Courtesy of NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

El Niño arrives – finally

Just as the forecast was beginning to take a turn for the better last week, NOAA made headlines by announcing that El Niño had finally arrived. Forecasters had been warning about its impending onset for more than a year, so the announcement wasn’t exactly a surprise. As I stood on the ice last weekend, I couldn’t help but wondering how this phenomenon might affect ice cover next winter.

El Niño is the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), during which a band of water water forms in the mid-tropic Pacific Ocean. The phenomenon is characterized by high air pressure in the western Pacific and low air pressure in the eastern reaches of the ocean. As Eric Holthaus notes at Slate,

Technically, for an official El Niño episode, NOAA requires five consecutive three-month periods of abnormal warming of the so-called Nino3.4 region of the mid-tropical Pacific, about halfway between Indonesia and Peru. It usually takes a self-reinforcing link-up between the ocean and the atmosphere to achieve this, and it finally appears the atmosphere is playing its part.

Generally speaking, El Niño brings above average temperatures to the Great Lakes region. Moreover, because the oceans have been storing vast amounts of heat over the past decade-plus, helping to limit the rate of global warming, a particularly strong El Niño could lead to a dramatic transfer of stored heat from the oceans to the surface. As a result, many observers are predicting that 2015 will be the warmest year on record.

El Niño and Great Lakes ice cover

It would be logical to assume that the onset of El Niño will limit the amount of ice that forms on the lakes. According to a 2010 NOAA study, from 1963-2008, 11 out of 16 El Niño winters saw below average ice cover. During these 16 winters, ice covered an average of 47.8% of the Great Lakes, considerably lower than the long-term annual average of 54.7%. As Raymond Assel, a scientist with NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) wrote in 1998 (emphasis from original):

On average, the average annual regional temperature is likely to be higher (approximately 1.2ºC and the annual regional maximum ice cover is likely to be less extensive (approximately 15%) during the winter following the onset year of a strong warm ENSO event.

But the connection between El Niño and ice cover is not quite so straightforward. In fact, three winters – 1970, 1977, and 1978 – saw above average ice cover, despite occurring during El Niño events. Ice cover during the latter two years exceeded 80%.

So what else is at play? Well, according to the literature, three factors must combine to produce a particularly mild winter for the Great Lakes region and, by extension, lead to extremely low ice cover like we saw in 1998, 2002, and 2012: the strength of the El Niño event and the modes of the Arctic and Pacific Decadal Oscillations. Let’s take a look at three these indicators to get a sense of what might be in store.

El Niño strength

Multiple studies have found that the relationship between these two factor is highly nonlinear. As this chart from Bai et al. (2010) shows, the scatter plot for ice cover and El Niño strength follows a parabolic curve. Accordingly, El Niño does tend to limit ice formation, but its effect is only significant during strong events.

Relationship between El Niño strength and Great Lakes ice cover (from Bai et al. 2010).

Relationship between El Niño strength and Great Lakes ice cover (from Bai et al. 2010).

But the current signs do not point to a strong event. As Brad Plumer explained for Vox,

Back in the spring of 2014, it really did look like a strong El Niño would emerge later in the year…

But then… things got messy. Atmospheric conditions over the Pacific Ocean didn’t shift as expected. Specifically, scientists weren’t seeing the change in atmospheric pressure over both the eastern and western Pacific that you’d expect during an El Niño.

As a result, NOAA appears to be tempering expectations about the strength and duration of this event. It is likely to be relatively weak and last through the summer, potentially limiting its impacts on the Great Lakes.

Arctic Oscillation

The Arctic Oscillation (AO) is among the most important factors that determines the severity of winter in the Great Lakes. The AO is “a climate pattern characterized by winds circulating counterclockwise around the Arctic at around 55°N latitude.” During its positive phase, strong winds around the North Pole effectively lock Arctic air in the polar region, helping to moderate winters. But in its negative phases, these westerly winds weaken, allowing Arctic air to travel further South; this is the phenomenon that caused the polar vortexes we have seen in the past two winters.

Accordingly, during the positive phase of the AO, less ice cover forms on the Great Lakes. From 1963-2008, positive AO winters have been 0.9-1.8ºC warmer than normal and seen a mean ice cover of 49.2%. The combination of an El Niño and a positive AO produced the five lowest ice cover totals during this period.

So where does the AO stand? Currently, it is in a positive phase. Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine whether this phase will persist, as the AO can fluctuate widely. But if this oscillation does remain in a positive phase next winter, it would amplify the effect of the weak El Niño.

Pacific Decadal Oscillation

Winter weather is also influenced by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), “a long-lived El Niño-like pattern of Pacific climate variability” that helps determine sea surface temperatures in the North Pacific. Rodionov and Assel (2003) concluded that the PDO helps to modulate the impact of ENSO on the Great Lakes. Warm phases of the PDO tend to amplify the impact of El Niño and reduce ice cover.

Last year, the PDO emerged from its prolonged weak phase to reach record high levels. If it continues to remain strong, it will likely lead to warmer temperatures not just next winter, but potentially for the next 5-10 years. This would seem to suggest that the PDO will enhance the impact of the El Niño event next winter.


Overall, the picture is still a bit murky. It does not appear that the El Niño will be strong enough to produce the type of least ice cover event that we saw in 2012. Yet, at the same time, the combined effects of El Niño, a positive AO (should it remain that way), and a warm PDO (if the trend continues) will likely ensure that the Great Lakes region avoids another brutal winter, like the ones we’ve seen two years running. If this is the case, lake ice cover should regress closer to the long-term mean of approximately 50%.

But if the indicators strengthen in the next several months, the winter weather could moderate even more; this would have clear impacts for lake levels, lake-effect snow, harmful algal blooms, and local temperatures during the Spring and Summer months.

How focusing on climate could make us miss the forest for the trees

mosul dam
mosul dam

Iraq’s Mosul Dam (courtesy of the AP).

If you haven’t read my last post on why we need to integrate climate change into disaster risk reduction, read that first. I’ll wait. And, while you’re at it, read my other post on including DRR into the sustainable development goals. 

As you’ll recall from my last post, I outlined new research arguing that we need to integrate climate change into disaster risk reduction. In this post, I want to explore Syria within this context.

Last week, PNAS released a major study linking climate change (paywalled) to the historic drought that may have contributed to the ongoing violent conflict in Syria. Unsurprisingly, the study has generated a lot of attention, garnering significant coverage from The New York TimesNational Geographic, Slate, Mother Jones, and the Huffington Post, among other outlets.

The debate over the Syria study

Given the highly contentious nature of the climate change and conflict debate (see more from me on this here and here), there has been some blowback, most prominently from Keith Kloor at Discover. In his second post on this debate, Kloor finds some dissenting voices on the study, including Edward Carr from the director of the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab (HURDL) at the University of South Carolina. Carr objected to the general view within the media that this study represents proof of the connection between climate and Syria’s violence. As he noted,

I think the translation of this drought into conflict is pretty weak. Basically, they plumb the conflict literature to support really general statements like “The conflict literature supports the idea that rapid demographic change encourages instability.” No kidding – not sure a citation was needed there. But the causal change between climate change, drought, displacement, and conflict is long and crosses several bodies of data/evidence, all of which are uncertain. The compounding uncertainty in this causal chain is never addressed, so I can’t tell if it is offsetting (that is, some parts of the causal chain address weaknesses in other parts, thereby making the connection throughout the chain stronger) or compounding. I doubt the authors know, either. Basically, I don’t understand how you can get any real understanding of the likely contribution of climate change to this conflict via this mechanism.

Some members of the media who covered the study objected to the criticisms lobbied against them. And, to be fair, both sides make fair points. The media coverage of this study has been far more measured and accurate than in the past. At the same time, the critics are also correct that this study does not prove that climate change caused the Syrian civil war and that we need to be careful when saying it did.

Because I tweet entirely too much, I waded into this debate in the form of a lengthy exchange with Kloor, Neil Bhatiya from The Century Foundation, and Brian Kahn of Climate Central. In it, Kahn asked an important question: Does discussing the role of climate change really detract from focusing on the other drivers of the conflict?

It is in this context that I want to discuss the Kelman, Gaillard, and Mercer paper. In the paper, KGM argue that the extensive focus on climate change sometimes allows it to “dominate” other drivers of vulnerability and disaster risk. Climate change can drive both hazards and vulnerabilities, two of the components in the disaster risk triad, but the question of whether climate “is a more significant or a less significant contributor than other factors…depends on the specific context,” and we should not focus on it to the detriment of other contributors. We cannot miss the forest for the trees.

What KGM means for the Syria study

Here I want to turn to another issue – the policy implications of the PNAS study. For the most part, none of the media coverage of the paper discusses what policymakers are supposed to do with this information. How should it shape their interventions in Syria? What lessons can should they glean for the future? Carr’s colleague at HURDL, Daniel Abrahams, noted the problem therein, saying “I would guess policy makers see this paper as a distraction; something that fills their inbox with people tangentially paying attention to climate issues.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question over the past week, and I would argue that it is here that the KGM study’s emphasis on placing climate change in its proper context can be particularly valuable. Let’s assume for a minute that USAID wanted to operationalize the Syria study as the basis for an intervention in the region. If the agency focused on the role that climate change played in driving the conflict, it may conclude that it should invest in projects that can provide reliable clean energy and drinking water to Syria’s crowded urban centers and irrigation water to its hard-hit farmers. What project meets all of those criteria? Why a dam, of course.

USAID actually has a track record of funding the construction of a dams in drought-affected, fragile states within the region, including Iraq’s Mosul Dam and the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan. Accordingly, funding this type of project would not be out of the realm of possibility, and it would likely make sense when viewed from a climate lens. So what could go wrong wrong?

Syria’s complicated hydropolitics

Well, in a word, lots. The climate lens fails to account for the geographic and political environment in which Syria sits. Syria is the midstream party for the Euphrates River, sitting between its upstream neighbor (Turkey) and its downstream neighbor (Iraq). Additionally, the Tigris River forms the border between Syria and Turkey as it heads southeast into Iraq. Disputes over water allocations from the rivers have undermined relations among the three parties for decades.

The complicated hydropolitics within the region are often centered around the Kurds. Turkey has embarked on a massive river basin development scheme, the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), which will see it complete 22 dams and 19 power plants. Turkey’s Kurdish minority sees GAP as just another attempt to drown their cultural identity and weaken the Kurdish People’s Party (PKK). Turkey’s dam building has long been a point of contention for Syria and Iraq. Syria has supported the PKK as a proxy battle over water allocations, while Turkey invaded northern Iraq in 1997 to attack Kurdish rebels stationed there. Syria and Iraq have also fought among themselves over water issues, with both countries dispatching troops to the border in 1975.

Clearly, the construction of one or more dams could further exacerbating the region’s hydropolitics. Furthermore, the dam itself may become entangled in the conflict. The Taliban has launched a number of attacks on the Kajaki Dam against American and British forces. ISIS, for its part, has made Iraq’s dams major targets. Its capture of the Mosul Dam, which observers have dubbed “the moment IS ascended from a dangerous insurgent group to an existential threat to Iraq,” was among the major factors that drew the US into the conflict. Any militants who remained in Syria would likely see our hypothetical dam in this same light.

Lastly, new dam projects in the region would likely create widespread, deleterious consequences for Syrians and Iraqis living downstream. Large dams have displaced 40-80 million people worldwide and created a whole host of social and environmental problems. One need look no further than Iraq to see how dams can destroy livelihoods. Following the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein used dams to drain the Mesopotamian Marshes in order to punish the Ma’dan people. The UN Environment Programme has called this episode “a major environmental catastrophe that will be remembered as one of humanity’s worst engineered disasters.”

While it’s true that climate change will alter conflict dynamics and act as a threat multiplier going forward, we cannot allow this risk to blind us to other the critical considerations at play.

Why we need to link disaster risk reduction to the sustainable development goals

disaster mortality since 1990
disaster mortality since 1990

Trends in disaster mortality since 1990 (courtesy of the Global Assessment Report 2015).

I know I said that my next post would be on the Syria climate change & conflict paper; that’s coming next, I promise. But I wanted to finally get around to cross-posting this piece I wrote for the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction first, because it completes the logical chain I started in my last post – climate change feeds into DRR which feeds into sustainable development.

As we enter the year 2015, we approach the final target date for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In many regards, the MDGs have been successful. The number of people living on less than $1.25 per day fell from 47% to 22% by 2010; the global burden from HIV/AIDS and malaria has been ameliorated significantly; and more than 2 billion people have gained access to clean water.

Despite these successes, the international community has been unable to halt environmental degradation. Though MDG 7 called for integrating the principles of sustainable development and reducing biodiversity loss, the destruction of critical ecosystems, such as wetlands and tropical forests, continues apace. Additionally, global carbon emissions have increased by 34% since 1990. Failing to stem this tide will could reverse many of the gains made through the MDGs. As Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said last April, “Climate change is the single greatest threat to a sustainable future.”

It is for this reason that the international community proposed developing a set of so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the Rio + 20 Conference. These SDGs will pick up where the MDGs left off and further embed the principles of sustainable development and environmental protection.

But, just as we cannot hope to promote sustainable development without addressing climate change, we cannot expect to achieve the SDGs without tackling the threat posed by disasters. The number of disasters worldwide has spiked in recent years, increasing from roughly 100 disasters per decade during the first half of the 20th century to 385 per year from 2000-2010.

Strangely, a consensus appears to have emerged among some economists that disasters may have limited macroeconomic impacts and can actually be beneficial in the long-run. According to this theory, disasters tend to have a stimulative effect for economies by sparking large-scale reconstruction efforts and attracting financial support from the international community.

From an economic perspective, there are several shortcomings to this theory. It assumes that disasters are exogenous events, rather than part of the normal political and economic order. It is also assumes that disasters significantly alter the existing economic order. Yet, low- and middle-income states lack the capacity to replace their productive capital on a broad scale. Moreover, most developing countries lack the necessary human capital to maximize such new technologies. Accordingly, even when disasters provide a boost in the short-term, economies should ultimately return to their pre-disaster state.

More importantly, this theory ignores the political economy of disasters, which disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable. Disasters tend to undermine the social, political, and natural capital upon which vulnerable groups depend to make their livelihoods. For one, they can severely damage the natural capital upon which most low-income households rely. It can take years, if not decades, for this capital stock to regenerate. The specter of frequent disasters also makes low-income agricultural households more risk averse. In Ethiopia, this threat has reduced economic growth by more than one-third. And disasters can create significant, long-term consequences for the most vulnerable groups. Women living in camps for disaster survivors may find themselves at an elevated risk of physical and sexual violence. After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, the rate of rape among women living in FEMA trailer camps was 53.6 times higher than the rate before the storm.

Taken together, disasters can undermine the vital coping mechanisms of low-income households. Consequently, they may become locked into debilitating poverty traps. Households need to maintain a minimum asset threshold in order to provide for their needs and retain the ability to move up the economic ladder. Evidence suggests that a large number of households fell below this threshold as a result of asset destruction during Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and the 1998-2000 droughts that affected Ethiopia. Such environmental shocks may lock poor households into spirals of poverty and degradation from which they may never escape.

It is for these reasons that the international community must embed the principles of disaster risk reduction into the SDGs. Failing to account for the deleterious impacts of disasters would undermine this enterprise and risk stymieing further progress on poverty alleviation. Moreover, as we enter a greenhouse world, the risk from climate-related disasters and environmental change will only become more apparent. The time has come for the world to mainstream disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation into development planning. The risks of not acting are too great to ignore.

Climate overshadows disaster risk reduction. Here’s how to change that.

sendai earthquake tsunami damage
sendai earthquake tsunami damage

Fires rage in Sendai, Japan, following the devastating earthquake & tsunami that hit the area in 2011 (courtesy of the AP).

Next Saturday, the Third Wold Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) kicks off in the coastal city of Sendai. Never heard of it? You’re not alone. Disaster risk reduction (DRR) has been on international agendas for decades, but it tends to get overshadowed by climate change. DRR is the broader, less famous, older sibling of climate change; think of it as the Frank to climate’s Sylvester Stallone.

The WCDRR is a follow-up of the 2005 conference in Kobe, Japan, which produced the Hyogo Framework for Action, a 10-year plan to reduce disaster risk and enhance resilience worldwide. That, in turn, served as a successor to the 1994 Yokohama Conference, the first international meeting on DRR, which led to the development of the landmark Yokohama Strategy and Plan for Safer World. (If you’re noticing a theme here, you’re right; Japan is more or less the center of the world when it comes to DRR. It is highly vulnerable to a number of natural hazards and has, accordingly, become a leader and innovator in this space. The 1995 Kobe earthquake, which killed more than 5,000 Japanese, served as a catalyst to place DRR onto policymakers’ agendas. Sendai, for its part, has the unfortunate distinction of being the epicenter of the 2011 earthquake/tsunami that triggered the Fukushima nuclear crisis, which is the costliest disaster in history at $235 billion.)

DRR in context & why 2015 matters

The Hyogo Framework defined it as a strategy to bring about “the substantial reduction of disaster losses, in lives and in the social, economic and environmental assets of communities and countries.” Minimizing the risks and damages wrought by disasters is critically important, given their dramatic costs in blood and treasure. According to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), the world lost a combined 42 million life-years annually as a result of disasters from 1980-2012. On average, disasters cause at least $250 billion in economic losses each year, a number that UNISDR expects will climb considerably due to economic growth, demographic changes, and climate change.

DRR encompasses more issues than climate change, generally speaking. While climate change will generally influence climatic and hydrometeorological disastes, DRR includes all types of disasters, including geological ones like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. While the former varieties tend to get a lot of the attention, the latter types are often far deadlier and more destructive. 2015 marks the anniversaries of a few of these severe disasters, including the aforementioned Kobe earthquake, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. These three disasters alone killed more than 306,000 people, affected over 9.3 million, and caused more than $113 billion in damages, according to EM-DAT.

More broadly, 2015 is shaping up to be a landmark year for the international community. The WCDRR is taking place in conjunction with this September’s UN Summit on the Sustainable Development Goals and December’s Paris Conference on climate change. Unsurprisingly, given the scale of what’s yet to come, the Sendai Conference has largely stayed below the radar. You won’t see any major world leaders giving speeches like you will in New York, and the conference won’t produce a document with binding targets like we may get out of Paris. Instead, as the zero draft makes clear, WCDRR will lead to a voluntary agreement that sets global metrics for disaster impacts, defines progressive international principles for DRR, and outlines actions that governmental and nongovernmental actors can take at all levels.

WCDRR & the climate question

Interestingly, even though many observers expect the Sendai Conference to help set the table for the SDGs and Paris Conference, these issues, particularly climate change, have thus far been nearly absent from the conversation. As RTCC noted yesterday, climate is more or less morphed into Sendai’s version of Voldemort – that which shall not be named:

But compared to a planned UN climate change deal in Paris this December, or the Sustainable Development Goals process, this is not making headlines. In part that’s because the proposals – which are still under negotiation – are non-binding and will not require countries to make any financial pledges. It’s also due to the decision by the UN office for Disaster Risk Reduction – conscious or otherwise – to delink the talks from global warming, instead focusing on wider “natural disasters”. This UN body is desperate to avoid the toxic clash of developed and developing countries its climate cousin has suffered from since the early 1990s. Even mentions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN body which has a number of publications on disaster risk, are omitted from the draft text. Presenting the 2015 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction on Wednesday, its head Margareta Wahlström appeared at pains not to mention the ‘c’ word.

Decoupling DRR from climate change may prove to be something of a two-edged sword, however. While keeping the two issues separate may help shield WCDRR from some of the political controversy that has tended to overshadow the UNFCCC process, it also limits opportunities to link DRR to climate change and, more broadly, the SDGs. Keeping these three critical processes on parallel tracks that rarely, if ever, intersect reduces opportunities to find commonalities. As a result, we may miss ways to use interventions or funding streams to address them at the same time. Worse yet, keeping these topics siloed may lead us to pursue projects that appear beneficial in one area, but are actively harmful in another.

Making climate change part of DRR

What’s the international community to do? Fortunately, researchers Ilan Kelman, JC Gaillard, and Jessica Mercer have just released a paper (open access) that outlines a strategy to bring these three topics together. It’s well worth reading the whole thing.

In the article, Kelman, Gaillard, and Mercer (herein referred to as KGM) explain how some actors have framed social vulnerability as the result of individual’s “double exposure” to the effects of globalization and climate change. But, as they note, these are just two of a variety of threats that people face on a daily basis; there are also poverty, inequality, social repression, gender roles, disaster risk, environmental degradation, and the burden of disease, among others. In this environment, our focus on globalization and climate change can crowd out these other crucial issues.

Moreover, as KGM notes, some governments are actively using these two issues to pursue their own political ends:

Research in Maldives shows how climate change and globalization are being used as excuses by the government to force a policy of population consolidation (resettlement) on outer islanders. Yet the government has long been trying to resettle the outer islanders closer to the capital using other reasons, such as that it is hard to provide a scattered population with services including health, harbors, and education. Both arguments have legitimacy and can be countered, but climate change is used as an excuse to do what the government wishes to do anyway.

So what’s the solution? The international community needs to adopt a broader “multiple exposure” model that considers climate change as one challenge among many. And, according to KGM, the best way to do this is treat climate change as a subset of DRR. While the authors note that linking climate change to DRR will not be easy to achieve in the current political environment – particularly before the end of this year – they stress the need to pursue this end. As such, they provide three key principles for considering climate change as a subset of DRR:

  1. The international community must treat climate change as one contributor to disaster risk, but not the only or even the most important one. Focus on climate cannot be allowed to dominate other factors, like population growth in floodplains or economic inequality.
  2. Climate change must be seen as one “creeping environmental change” among many, such as soil erosion and desertification. KGM define this term as “incremental changes in conditions that cumulate to create a major problem, apparent or recognized only after a threshold has been crossed.”
  3. We should harness climate change’s political salience as a tool to engage policymakers in a more comprehensive discussion on sustainable development. On this point, it’s best to see the climate-DRR-sustainable development like a nesting doll. Climate change fits within the larger topic of DRR, which, in turn, must be placed within the context of sustainable development. The authors provide a great example to illustrate this: “Little point exists in building a new school with natural ventilation techniques that save energy and that cope with higher average temperatures, if that school will collapse in the next moderate, shallow earthquake.” And, beyond this, building a green, earthquake-resilient school makes little sense if it is only open to boys or the children of the wealthy.

KGM explain how taking this three-in-one approach is the most effective way to harness the strengths of all three issues: the political and power of climate change, the historical perspective and theoretical strength of DRR, and the universal legitimacy of sustainable development. Climate may get all the attention – Lord knows I talk about it enough – but it’s important to recognize its proper place and role within a sustainable development agenda.

I think this framework holds a lot of practical power and value. In my next post, I will use it to consider the recent PNAS article on the role of climate change in the Syrian civil war.

The Opportunity Corridor is just business as usual for ODOT

ohio transit funding
ohio transit funding

From ODOT’s “Ohio Statewide Transit Needs Study”

Over at Rust Wire, Angie Schmitt has a detailed assessment of the Opportunity Corridor, which, as of Monday, has been fully funded. As a result, despite some tinkering on the margins over issues such as the location and nature of bike lanes, the road’s design is pretty much set in stone. ODOT plans to put phase 2, which involves the construction of the new boulevard from Quebec Avenue to East 93rd  Street (phase 1 will widen East 105th Street), out to bid later this month; phase 3, the extension of the boulevard west to East 55th, will go out for bid sometime thereafter.

Schmitt walks through the ways that the road has been improved (or made less worse) and the issues that remain, one by one. It’s worth reading the whole post, if you’ve been following this project over the past several years. Obviously, I have my views on the road, but the project is a fait accompli at this point. One of the issues that she raises is the way that the project will affect transit riders:

We learned late in the process of this project that RTA, after months of denials, was considering closing both the East 79th Street rapid stations, in the heart of the project area. The RTA board has since decided these stations will remain open. But it is unclear where the money will come from to perform the repairs — which will cost at least $20 million. RTA has a $300 million maintenance bill coming due on its rapid system altogether and it certainly doesn’t have the money in its operating budget. RTA was able to negotiate $3 million from ODOT through this project for the East 105th street station, but how it’s going to raise the money for those other stations remains an open question. That is a less than 1 percent concession to transit from ODOT in this project, although the road bisects neighborhoods where 40 percent lack access to a car. I don’t know how anyone can consider this a fair distribution of transportation resources, but everyone just seems to be resigned to the idea that ODOT won’t give anyone money for transit.

Despite all the hype around how the Opportunity Corridor marks a shift for ODOT and would be some sort of model for future urban transportation planning in Ohio, this road is just business as usual from a state that puts cars ahead of people. ODOT has had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 1990s – forget the 21st century. The question of transit funding is emblematic of this larger trend.

Recall from last month my post on ODOT’s study on transit funding in the state. As I noted, the state of Ohio currently provides just $7.3 million per year for public transit from general revenue funds, equal to roughly 0.8% of total spending. Under Governor Kasich’s 2016-2017 budget, the state would increase that GRF contribution to $8.3 million, or a whopping 0.9% of spending. Accordingly, the Opportunity Corridor is just a variation on a theme – Ohio is apparently incapable of contributing more than 1% of funding for transit.

That ODOT study concluded that, within the next 10 years, the state of Ohio will need to increase its share of funding from 0.8% to 10%. That’s still a pittance compared to other states, which – as Greater Cleveland RTA CEO Joe Calabrese noted on WCPN – typically pitch in 20%. But it would a dramatic change of course here. If ODOT really cared about transit funding, perhaps it should have taken its own advice and increased the share of transit funding from the Opportunity Corridor to 10%. If the total project cost remained the same, that would have increased the money available to around $30 million, more than enough to offset the costs of upgrading the East 34th & 79th Street rapid stations. Of course, that didn’t happen, and it was never going to.

The more things change, the more they stay the same in this state.

It’s time to include climate change in the immigration debate

hanna lake dried up
hanna lake dried up

A man walks through the desiccated remains of Hanna Lake in Balochistan, which dried up during a decade-long drought in the region (courtesy of Al Jazeera).

Last month, The New York Times released the results of a poll, showing that Hispanics are far more likely to view climate change as a pressing issue that directly affects them. Fifty-four percent of Hispanics rated global warming as a extremely or very important, compared to just 37% of non-Hispanic whites. Moreover, nearly two-thirds (63%) of Hispanics said that the federal government should do a lot or a great deal to tackle climate change.

There are a number of reasons to explain this high level of concern, such as the fact that Hispanic households are far more likely to live in neighborhoods adversely affected by pollution. Minority communities are also more acutely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as heat-related mortality.

This increasing awareness about climate change among Hispanics may appear odd to some, at first glance. As Coral Davenport put it, “the findings of the poll run contrary to a longstanding view in politics that the environment is largely a concern of affluent, white liberals.” Timothy Matovina, executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, voiced this conventional wisdom in January, arguing,

Many Spanish-speaking immigrants are worried about surviving from one week to the next. Going to the latest rally on climate change or writing letters to their local chamber of commerce about some environmental issue that sounds to me more like something a middle-class person would do with time on their hands.

Climate change and drought in the American Southwest & Central America

What this argument misses, however, is the myriad ways that climate change is intertwined with other key issues, like immigration. Recently, NASA scientists released a study examining how climate change will affect drought conditions throughout the American Southwest and Central Plains. The study also investigated the impacts on Central America, particularly Mexico. As the map below illustrates, under a business as usual emissions scenario, there is a greater than 80% likelihood that the region will experience a megadrought of at least 30 years between 2050-2099. The historical risk of this type of megadrought is less than 12%.

This study was the first of its kind to compare projected drought trends to the historical record for the past millennium. While droughts of this type did occur during the Medieval Climate Anomaly, a warmer-than-average period lasting from 1100-1300 CE, future droughts will be exceptional. Even if the world takes steps to dramatically curb carbon emissions by mid-century,  climate change will lead to drought conditions that are “unprecedented” in at least the last 1,000 years.

nasa drought projection 2095

The portions of the continental US and Mexico that will be affected by extreme drought this century under a business as usual scenario (courtesy of NASA).

This latest study supplements earlier research showing the looming specter of drought for the region in question. A 2012 Nature Climate Change study by Aiguo Dai, for instance, concluded there would be “severe and widespread droughts in the next 30–90 years” through much of the world, particularly the US and Central America. And a 2011 study from Michael Wehner et al. found that an ensemble analysis “exhibits moderate drought conditions over most of the western United States and severe drought over southern Mexico as the mean climatological state.”

Climate change, drought, and immigration

So what does this research have to do with immigration and Hispanic Americans? Well, we have considerable evidence that droughts are a major driver of migration. As I wrote last January, high temperatures and declining rainfall significantly increase rates of migration in Pakistan. Males living in rural parts of the country, for instance, are 11 times more likely to migrate during periods of extremely high temperatures, while both men and women are more likely to leave their villages under drought conditions.

But the evidence linking climate-induced droughts and migration is not just contained to Pakistan. Because declining rainfall and elevated temperatures combine to lower crop yields in arid and semi-arid areas around the world, drought is likely to be a driver of out-migration in a number of regions. A 2010 study in PNAS found just such a link in Mexico. Declining yields of corn due to drought could increase rates of immigration from Mexico to the US by up to 9.6% through 2080.

Last week, Joe Romm connected the NASA drought study toUS immigration policy. In a post, which is somewhat inartfully titled “If We Dust-Bowlify Mexico And Central America, Immigration Policy Will Have To Change,” Romm writes:

But what are the implications for our poorer neighbors to the south? There will be virtually no part of their countries that are not in near-permanent Dust Bowl or severe drought. And of course their coastal areas (and ours) will be trying to “adapt” to sea level rise of perhaps 3 to 6 feet by 2100 (and likely faster rise after that). Again for all but the wealthiest coastal areas, the primary adaptation strategy will probably be abandonment.

Much of the population of Mexico and Central America — likely over 100 million people (Mexico alone is projected to have a population of 150 million in 2050!) — will be trying to find a place to live that isn’t anywhere near as hot and dry, that has enough fresh water and food to go around. They aren’t going to be looking south.

Romm calls this scenario “a humanitarian and security disaster of almost unimaginable dimensions.” Unfortunately, like all too many commentators before him, Romm makes broad statements about environmentally-induced migration, a topic that is incredibly complex and multi-layered. It’s exactly these types of sweeping generalizations that has led others to claim we would see up to 50 million “climate refugees” by the year 2010. Not quite.

Putting environmentally-induced migration in context

First of all, from a legal and academic sense, there’s no such thing as a climate refugee. But beyond that, it’s not helpful to reduce an issue as complex as migration to a string of simplified absolutes. Arguing that drought conditions will inevitably force people to abandon their villages, en masse, ignores a large collection of evidence to the contrary and effectively robs these people of their agency. We need to do better than that as a community of people who purport to care about the interests of individuals on the front lines of climate change.

Romm’s claim that abandonment will be the primary adaptation strategy has little support. Migration carries considerable costs and risks for individuals, so it is almost never the first choice people pursue. Environmental stress is one of many considerations that people have when deciding to migrate, but it is important to remember that this decision includes a number of social, economic, and political factors.

When examining migration patterns, we need to consider both the push and pull factors involved. Drought can be a major push factor that drives people from their homes, but there generally needs to be pull factors on the other end to attract people to destination communities. We have plenty of evidence of this from Mexico, where multiple studies from migration scholars at the University of Colorado have found that emigration to the US largely occurs among households that have previous experience with migration and/or have access to established migration networks. While declining rainfall does appear to drive households to migrate from Mexico to the US (especially for households living in dry portions of Mexico and during periods of extreme drought), the existence of social networks for potential migrants is “dominating” these flows. Whether or not households choose to migrate during dry spells is largely predicated on this factor.

None of this is to suggest that, as large portions of the Southwest and Central America enter persistent drought conditions, the number of people entering the US across the southern border (with or without legal approval) won’t increase. It almost certainly will. We have already seen spikes in migration from countries such as Guatemala, which is currently enduring an historic drought.

But, if we are proactive, things need not devolve into the worst case scenario Romm laid out. The US and our neighbors need to work together to both enhance the adaptive capacity of people living in Central America, so they can be better prepared to weather a changing climate in situ and to reform immigration policies to facilitate the movement of people throughout the region.

Migration has always been a vital adaptation in the face of external stress, and we should consider it through that lens. It is likely time for the international community to begin including migration and displacement in the broader discussion about climate change policy. Perhaps it can be couched under the national adaptation plans or the work program on loss and damage. But we need to be very careful not to let migration get subsumed within climate change. As I’ve noted, there could be significant unintended consequences of creating a special protected class for climate migrants. What about internally displaced persons who cannot access international assistance? What about the 40-80 million people who have been displaced by large dam projects worldwide?

We must also be careful about hyping waves of climate refugees. There is already enough backlash against immigrants worldwide, and pushing such doomsday scenarios may just serve to heighten that opposition. Rather than building figurative and literal barriers to immigration, we need to begin upgrading our domestic and foreign policy to support and protect potential migrants of all stripes. In a greenhouse world, we can no longer afford to consider immigration policy in a vacuum.

Geoengineering makes climate change less polarizing! It’s still a bad idea.

sardar sarovar dam
sardar sarovar dam

India’s controversial Sardar Sarovar dam, located on the Narmada River (courtesy of Mittal Patel).

About 20 minutes after I posted my piece yesterday arguing that we are nowhere near ready to begin researching geoengineering, the Washington Post‘s new Energy and Environment section ran its own piece on the topic. But this post, by Puneet Kollipara, took a vastly different tone.

Rather than delving into the NRC report, it looked at a study in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, which explored various tactics to make debate around climate change less polarizing. The researchers broke participants into three groups and laid out the reality about climate change. One was told that the best approach was to curb carbon pollution, the second heard a pro-geoengineering message, and the third group acted as a control. From the post:

Conventional wisdom might hold that telling people about geoengineering would make them less concerned about climate change’s risks by making them complacent about it; if geoengineering works, then maybe climate change isn’t such a big deal. But that’s not what the researchers found. The geoengineering group viewed climate change as posing a slightly higher risk than did the control group and a similar level of risk as did the anti-pollution group…

[W]hen it came to the scientific information on climate change that the researchers made all participants read, the geoengineering group was actually less polarized on whether the science is solid than the control group was…Not only was it a matter of conservative skepticism of climate science shrinking in the geoengineering group, but liberals in the geoengineering group became more likely to question the science.

This result really shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise, when you think about it. Conservatives have long been receptive to geoengineering as a way to address climate change. Newt Gingrich has pushed it as a solution for years, while the American Enterprise Institute endorsed solar radiation management as an “evolving climate policy option.” Geoengineering fits into the broader conservative mindset that pushes engineering solutions to environmental problems. As Clive Hamilton wrote in his book Earthmasters,

As the identity of conservative white males tends to be more strongly bound to the prevailing social structure, geoengineering is the kind of solution to climate change that is less threatening to their values and sense of self….they are consistent with the ideas of control over the environment and the personal liberties associated with free market capitalism.

Geoengineering represents just the latest iteration of this ethos. It’s the same worldview that says massive tree plantations can solve deforestation. Or that calls for building giant indoor, vertical farms as a way to address population and nutrition issues. Or that suggests we can address biodiversity loss by resurrecting species in a laboratory. Why address the causes of environmental degradation, when we can just use our ingenuity to treat the symptoms?

But while these kind of engineering solutions for environmental problems may sound great in the short-term, we really need to consider their long-term implications. As I noted in my previous post, geoengineering is different from these other examples for one key reason: once we go down that road, we are locked into it, forever.

Probably the closest analogue that I can come up with is dam building. Building large dams provides us an engineering solution to a variety of challenges – a lack of energy, unpredictable rainfall, disasters. We can create clean electricity to power cities and industry, easily irrigate our fields, mitigate the risk of drought, and hold back floodwaters. It seems like a great idea on the surface. Of course, megadams create a whole host of unintended consequences, from impeding the movement of fish to drowning villages. But, more than that, they lock us into the need to actively manage nature for the long run.

Jacques Leslie explores all of these issues, and more, in his book Deep Water: The Epic Struggle over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment. (I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a user-friendly primer on the major controversies over bid dam projects like Sardar Sarovar, Belo Monte, or Three Gorges.)

In the book, Leslie explores the consequences of Australia’s scheme to regulate the Murray River with thousands of dams, canals, and weirs. He spoke with Mike Harper, a former Australian natural resources manager turned activist, about the effort to save the endangered Chowilla floodplain. Before Australians began altering the landscape, the Chowilla experienced an irregular, but essential, cycle of floods and droughts that regulated the ecosystem. With the advent of the water management scheme, the water table rose several feet, bring salt deposits to the surface, effectively poisoning the land. The only way to address this crisis without jettisoning the entire system is for the Australian government to actively replicate this flood/drought cycle in perpetuity:

The ecosystem will have to become dependent on an artificial regime that must be applied forever, [Harper] said. “You might get a good manager for ten years, but the one after him might be a bad one. If we have to manipulate the environment all the time, we’re going to fuck it up sometime.”

Precisely. When you endeavor to play God and actively manage the environment, you are placing the well being of the system in the hands of a few bureaucrats. If Australia’s civil servants screw up, they may irreparably damage a critical ecosystem. If you think that’s bad, spread the risk to the entire planet and multiply it by a thousand.

This is where geoengineering stops being the libertarian panacea some conservatives apparently believe it to be. If we want to control our atmosphere to address climate change, we will need to amass an enormous array of scientists and civil servants who devoted to this task. Because of the global nature of the endeavor and the risks of sparking a geoengineering “arms race” I noted in my last post, no one state or small group of states can be entrusted with this responsibility. We will need to create a supranational organization, perhaps akin to a vastly more powerful UN Environment Programme or World Meteorological Organization. Given how shaky our track record has been on global governance to this point, I’m not particularly convinced that we can successfully regulate our climate for several hundred years. You thought cap and trade was a recipe for big government.

At the risk of being labeled a Tea Partier, I am much more inclined to support a free market approach to climate change like a carbon tax. Hell, you can even use the revenues to offset income taxes. Ultimately, let’s just say I am highly skeptical that geoengineering constitutes a silver bullet to depoliticizing the debate around climate change, let alone to the climate crisis writ large.