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Tilting at Windmills

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July 17, 2009
By: Hilzoy

Global Warming: Even More Bad Consequences Than You Thought

This is not good news at all. "Ninety percent of Pakistan's agricultural irrigation depends on rivers that originate in Kashmir." There is a treaty in place dividing Kashmir's waters between Pakistan and India, and it "has survived three wars and nearly 50 years." But guess what:

"The treaty's success depends on the maintenance of a status quo that will be disrupted as the world warms. Traditionally, Kashmir's waters have been naturally regulated by the glaciers in the Himalayas. Precipitation freezes during the coldest months and then melts during the agricultural season. But if global warming continues at its current rate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates, the glaciers could be mostly gone from the mountains by 2035. Water that once flowed for the planting will flush away in winter floods.

Research by the global NGO ActionAid has found that the effects are already starting to be felt within Kashmir. In the valley, snow rarely falls and almost never sticks. The summertime levels of streams, rivers, springs, and ponds have dropped. In February 2007, melting snow combined with unseasonably heavy rainfall to undermine the mountain slopes; landslides buried the national highway -- the region's only land connection with the rest of India -- for 12 days. (...)

Water is already undermining Pakistan's stability. In recent years, recurring shortages have led to grain shortfalls. In 2008, flour became so scarce it turned into an election issue; the government deployed thousands of troops to guard its wheat stores. As the glaciers melt and the rivers dry, this issue will only become more critical. Pakistan -- unstable, facing dramatic drops in water supplies, caged in by India's vastly superior conventional forces -- will be forced to make one of three choices. It can let its people starve. It can cooperate with India in building dams and reservoirs, handing over control of its waters to the country it regards as the enemy. Or it can ramp up support for the insurgency, gambling that violence can bleed India's resolve without degenerating into full-fledged war. "The idea of ceding territory to India is anathema," says Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University. "Suffering, particularly for the elite, is unacceptable. So what's the other option? Escalate."

"It's very bad news," he adds, referring to the melting glaciers. "It's extremely grim."

Bear in mind that Pakistan is fairly poor, and its population is increasing fairly rapidly. It badly needs serious economic development, but the combination of corruption, official lack of interest, and the burden of its army make that difficult. Moreover, while it seems obvious to an outside observer like me that Pakistan ought to find some way of making peace with India, and while a lot of Pakistanis seem to agree, the conflict with India is part of the raison d'etre of the army, which will not easily give up one of its main justifications for getting lots of money from the government, and holding a lot of political and economic power. That makes a sane resolution to this problem a lot less likely than it would be otherwise.

As I said: bad news -- and one more reason to try to get serious about dealing with global warming.

***

Special Pakistan bonus: a video about their amazing decorated trucks and buses. Watch it. The trucks and buses really are that marvelous, and almost all, in Karachi at least, are decorated like this. (h/t)

Hilzoy 1:18 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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Comments

It would be bad enough if it were just Pakistan, but a quarter of the world depends on water from the either Himalayas or the Tibetan Plateau. Add in Bangladesh, half of India, half of China, half of Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. This threatens some big rivers like the Ganges, the Yangtze, and the Mekong. Think there might be a problem if those people start starving?

Posted by: fostert on July 17, 2009 at 1:44 AM | PERMALINK

I don't see the problem here. We can blame the Chinese, Indians, etc. for not controlling their greenhouse gas emissions fast enough; meanwhile the US agriculture and coal industries will be making lots of money under something we can call a climate stabilization law that doesn't make anyone do any real heavy lifting.
If our people are making money, the rest of us can drive anything we want anywhere we want and park free when we get there, and we can blame foreigners for bad stuff, what more can you ask? It's a perfect state of affairs...and you are whining about trivia like possible wars as the Pakistanis starve, the Bangladeshis look for a dry place to live, and the Gulf Stream stops? Have you no sense of proportion?

Posted by: Michael O'Hare on July 17, 2009 at 2:08 AM | PERMALINK

Same thing is happening in California. I'm slightly more worried about that, but you got to start somewhere.

Posted by: tomj on July 17, 2009 at 2:19 AM | PERMALINK

Wow. I generally believe the IPCCs predictions, as they're really conservative, and their methods and assumptions transparent. (I believe, also, that it is possible to accept the science but not accept the conclusions of the cost/benefit and discounting analysis. And yet, STILL, to support drastic action outta a kind of precautionary principle. So I support action but not from the conclusions of the IPCC, which seem relatively small and slow-evolving, with reduction costly compared to such mitigation's marginal effects.

But 2035 is soon - I thought effects that soon are already "baked in" - even zero further increases in CO2 would still do this harm.

Suck!

Posted by: flubber2035 on July 17, 2009 at 2:23 AM | PERMALINK

This doomsday scenario, like most liberal doomsday scenarios, will most likely never come to fruition.

If it did, Pakistan could simply use some of the money it spends on nuclear weapons for desalination plants. Swords for plowshares and whatnot.

Posted by: Al Jr. on July 17, 2009 at 7:20 AM | PERMALINK

Over the past several months I've wondered more and more often why no one will address a big part of the issue here - global overcrowding. The Chinese of course have been trying to address overpopulation within their own country for several decades now...but doesn't it seem like it would be a good idea for all governments to address the issue and at least offer some incentives to their people to have only one child? Slowing or even reversing population growth would help mitigate the worst effects of the warming that has already occured or will occur regardless of what we do now - fewer people need less water, less intensive agriculture, less industry, etc. Of course such an idea is anathema to capitalist economics, which depend on ever-expanding markets but...there is a limit to how many of us this planet can support, and we're close to that now. Even if not for global warming, we'd be doing ourselves and the planet a favor if we'd all get on board with the idea of reducing human population with fewer births.

Posted by: Jennifer on July 17, 2009 at 7:25 AM | PERMALINK

So long Hizoy, another great find. We'll miss you!

Posted by: JM on July 17, 2009 at 7:28 AM | PERMALINK

Don't go, Hilzoy! OK, I know you'll do what you have to do, but is there any hope for us . . .?

Posted by: SqueakyRat on July 17, 2009 at 7:34 AM | PERMALINK

Jennifer has a good point about population control. Slowing/stopping/rolling back the human tide would at least buy some time-a few generations, fifty years-to do SOMETHING.

Unfortunately the world's fanatical religions (the Catholic church, for example) are dead set against any limits on fertility.

Posted by: DAY on July 17, 2009 at 7:35 AM | PERMALINK

"Unfortunately the world's fanatical religions (the Catholic church, for example) are dead set against any limits on fertility."
DAY on July 17, 2009 at 7:35 AM

Oh, absolutely! The Roman Magesterium has untold power to influence the political centers in Beijing, New Delhi, and Islamabad. They are puppets in the hands of Benedict16.

The Chinese already have the one-child law, there must be albino Taoist monks running around the Politburo.

I support the right of Day to fertilize his/her Maggie Sanger asshat (and racist) delusions and euthanize his/her common sense.

Posted by: tao9 on July 17, 2009 at 7:55 AM | PERMALINK

tao9 - I don't understand your sarcasm. DAY correctly points out that the Catholic Church is a proponent of population growth. More Catholic babies = more Catholics = more power & revenue. Doesn't mean it's the only force promoting an ever-burgeoning population - as I pointed out, capitalism itself favors infinite growth in population. And you pointed to China and India, which have cultural biases towards large families. All of these contribute to the problem.

For years, those of us in developed Western nations have adopted a "we've got our growth under control; it's up to you in the developing world to control galloping overpopulation" type of attitude. But even we have population growth. Sure, it's slower than in a lot of countries, but in terms of global warming impact, population growth in developed nations has a multiplier effect, because we're the ones who use more fuel - 5 - 10 times more - for our industrial lifestyles. So a population increase in a developed industrial nation has a far greater impact on global warming than a population increase in an undeveloped nation where subsistence farming is the main way of life.

You're not wrong, but neither is DAY.

Posted by: Jennifer on July 17, 2009 at 8:08 AM | PERMALINK

*

Posted by: Al Jr. on July 17, 2009 at 8:13 AM | PERMALINK

Al Jr. - you're a brainless turd with poor reading comprehension skills.

Posted by: Jennifer on July 17, 2009 at 8:21 AM | PERMALINK

Al Jr, you really should have developed more of a sense of humor from your father, Al Sr. You appear to channeling Dick Gregory.

fostert is correct in his depiction of the future.

Posted by: berttheclock on July 17, 2009 at 8:25 AM | PERMALINK

The Catholic Church is a proponent of life. "Power and revenue" is a most cynical and bigoted projection on your part.

Who decides re: who gets to develop and who gets to eat sticks? Presumably JenniferTheWise and Ban ki-Moon, along with an army of NGO empaths getting fatter than Napoleon the Pig.

BTW: the Pope's latest encyclical agrees to a point with re: capitalism.

Posted by: tao9 on July 17, 2009 at 9:06 AM | PERMALINK

Al Jr., you've been reading too much of these stupid "Left Behind" books pal.
Don't you think if desalination plants were viable, they'd be in full scale production by now? The technology isn't there, and even if it was, a poor country like Pakistan would hardly be able to capitalize.

That's the one thing that unnerves me the most about right wing nut jobs; they are so egocentric. They actually do believe the world revolves around them, and when a global catastrophe is on the precipice, they just muse about the very simple solutions that are readily available.

They are in a totally different reality.

Posted by: citizen_pain on July 17, 2009 at 9:26 AM | PERMALINK

tao9 - honestly, I don't understand what's crawled up your butt. I made an observation - that limiting or reversing population growth would cure a lot of what ails us. I also indicated that it should be an endeavor undertaken by all nations - in other words, fewer American and European births as well. The fewer children we have, the more room there is for development in currently underdeveloped nations without tipping us over into global catastrophe.

Fewer people, worldwide, sharing a larger pool of resources.

As for who decides, if every government on earth adopts the position that they will incentivize couples having only one child, or at most only two...well, again, I really don't know what your issue is here, other than butthurt over an observation about the Catholic Church which happens to be true.

Posted by: Jennifer on July 17, 2009 at 9:26 AM | PERMALINK

Perhaps I misspoke when I referred to Catholicism as a "fanatical" religion. After all, the Inquisition and the forced conversion of much of South America are distant memories.

And, they DID appologize to Galileo. . .

In deference to the papist sensitivities of "tao9", I'll change 'fanatical Catholic' to 'fanatical Taliban'. After all, the Catholic church never endorced death by stoning.

Burning at the stake, yes, but stoning? No, that is a barbaric custom. . .

Posted by: DAY on July 17, 2009 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK

Yeah, desalinization, that's the answer. Producing fresh water from sea water with only the application of a lot of electricity at huge cost. Maybe build a bunch of coal or oil burning plants to make the electricity. Problem solved. Seriously, making fresh water out of ocean water is only economically feasible for producing drinking water for wealthy people. Certainly not for agricultural use, unless those poor people in Pakistan want to pay way more for their crops. Which would make them unsaleable on the world market, not to mention unaffordable locally. So, starve, cooperate and build dams (and maybe use water more efficiently with modern and more expensive irrigation technology), or kill people. Hmmm, wonder which choice they will make.

Posted by: emjayay on July 17, 2009 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

Hilzoy quoted: "But if global warming continues at its current rate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates, the glaciers could be mostly gone from the mountains by 2035."

So far, what we are seeing is that global warming is progressing faster, and its effects are more rapid and more extreme, than the IPCC's projections. Indeed, current observations exceed even the worst-case IPCC projections of even a few years ago.

So, I would tend to be "skeptical" of that 2035 date. The glaciers will probably be "mostly gone" well before that, and well before that, the glacier-fed water supply will have been severely disrupted.

Given current levels of anthropogenic warming, which are irreversible on time scales of decades to centuries, let alone the additional warming that will certainly result from our continued, increasing GHG emissions, I am skeptical that we have much more than 10 years before we are into large-scale, catastrophic losses of fresh water supplies for hundreds of millions of people.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on July 17, 2009 at 11:12 AM | PERMALINK

Best wishes Hilzoy; thanks for some great posts. We really enjoyed your work.

Posted by: robota on July 17, 2009 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

emjayay: Maybe build a bunch of coal or oil burning plants to make the electricity. Problem solved. Seriously, making fresh water out of ocean water is only economically feasible for producing drinking water for wealthy people.

You can use the waste heat from power plants and other industrial facilities already constructed (19 projects planned for the California coast alone.) There is also solar power. Desalination is widespread and increasing.

Posted by: MatthewRMarler on July 17, 2009 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

"You can use the waste heat from power plants and other industrial facilities already constructed (19 projects planned for the California coast alone.) There is also solar power. Desalination is widespread and increasing."

Yeah, but low delta-T (temperature differences) from use of waste heat mean large areas needed for heat exchange. So the waste heat processes are barely more economical than reverse osmosis.

Posted by: Sock Puppet of the Great Satan on July 17, 2009 at 1:21 PM | PERMALINK

Hilzoy,
Heard from Kevin Drum you might be getting out of blogging. If so, best of luck with whatever you do. You did great.

Posted by: rbe1 on July 17, 2009 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK
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