Topic: Energy and Environment

Current Wisdom: Did Human-Caused Climate Change Lead to War in Syria?

The Current Wisdom is a series of monthly articles in which Patrick J. Michaels, director of the Center for the Study of Science, reviews interesting items on global warming in the scientific literature that may not have received the media attention that they deserved, or have been misinterpreted in the popular press.

Did human-caused climate change lead to war in Syria?

Based only on the mainstream press headlines, you almost certainly would think so.

Reading further into the articles where the case is laid out, a few caveats appear, but the chain of events seems strong.

The mechanism? An extreme drought in the Fertile Crescent region—one that a new study finds was made worse by human greenhouse gas emissions—added a spark to the tinderbox of tensions that had been amassing in Syria for a number of years under the Assad regime (including poor water management policies).

It is not until you dig pretty deep into the technical scientific literature, that you find out that the anthropogenic climate change impact on drought conditions in the Fertile Crescent is extremely minimal and tenuous—so much so that it is debatable as to whether it is detectable at all.

This is not to say that a strong and prolonged drought didn’t play some role in the Syria’s pre-war unrest—perhaps it did, perhaps it didn’t (a debate we leave up to folks much more qualified than we are on the topic)—but that the human-influenced climate change impact on the drought conditions was almost certainly too small to have mattered.

California Outliers

Today’s Washington Post story by Darryl Fears on California drought frequency in a warming world compelled me to take a look at the Golden State’s temperature history. In my 2011 book Climate Coup,  I showed that the alarm over California warming was rather odd, as most of the changes had taken place thirty years previously. 

That was then, and this is now. But what about history?

Repeating News Story: Eroding Shorelines and Imperiled Coastal Villages in Alaska

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell was in Alaska last week at the invite of the Alaska Federation of Natives to discuss climate change and other issues. During her visit, she made a side trip to the 400 or so person town of Kivalina, located on a low-lying barrier island along Alaska’s northwest coast. The settlement sprung up about a century ago when the Interior Department decided to erect a school there under a program to promote the “education of natives in Alaska.” The same program established schools in other coastal location such as Golovin, Shishmaref, and Barrow.

Now these locations are in the news (see this week’s Washington Post story for example) because they are being threatened by coastal erosion coming at the hands of global warming—and are discussing relocating and who should be responsible for the footing the bill (incidentally, the courts have ruled out the energy industry).

With or without human-caused climate change, bluffs and barrier islands along the coast of northwestern Alaska are inherently unstable and not particularly good places to establish permanent towns. This is probably one of the reasons the natives were largely nomadic.

“Were,” we say, because ironically, as pointed out by the Post’s Chris Mooney, research indicates that the abandonment of the nomadic ways was encouraged/hastened by the establishment of government schools!

CEQ: Talk about Climate Change, Just Don’t Talk about Climate Change

The White House Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ) has released a draft of revised guidance that “describes how Federal departments and agencies should consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change” under reviews governed by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)—an act which basically requires some sort of assessment as to the environmental impacts of all proposed federal actions.

Under the revised guidance, the CEQ makes it clear that they want federal agencies now to include the impact on climate change in their environmental assessments.

But here’s the kicker, the CEQ doesn’t want the climate change impacts to be described using measures of climate—like temperature, precipitation, storm intensity or frequency, etc.— but rather by using the measure of greenhouse gas emissions.

Basically, the CEQ guidance is a roadmap for how to circumvent the NEPA requirements.

Why Is the International Environmental Movement Silent about the Nicaragua Canal?

Nicaragua’s plan to build an Interoceanic Canal that would rival the Panama Canal could be a major environmental disaster if it goes forward. That’s the assessment of Axel Meyer and Jorge Huete-Pérez, two scientists familiar with the project, in a recent article in Nature. Disturbingly, the authors point out,

No economic or environmental feasibility studies have yet been revealed to the public. Nicaragua has not solicited its own environmental impact assessment and will rely instead on a study commissioned by the HKND [The Hong Kong-based company that has the concession to build the canal]. The company has no obligation to reveal the results to the Nicaraguan public.

In recent weeks we have seen similar opinions aired in the Washington Post, Wired, The Economist, and other media. In their article, Meyer and Huete-Pérez explain how the $50-billion project (more than four times Nicaragua’s GDP), would require “The excavation of hundreds of kilometres from coast to coast, traversing Lake Nicaragua, the largest drinking-water reservoir in the region, [and] will destroy around 400,000 hectares of rainforests and wetlands.” So far, the Nicaraguan government has remained mum about the environmental impact of the project. Daniel Ortega, the country’s president, only said last year that “some trees have to be removed.”  

Interestingly, despite this potential massive threat to one of the most pristine environmental reservoirs in the Americas, none of the leading international environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth or the Sierra Club, has issued a single statement about the Nicaragua Canal.

We know for a fact that this is not out of lack of interest in Central America. After all, some of these organizations were pretty vocal in their opposition to CAFTA. Why isn’t the Nicaragua Canal proposal commanding the attention of these international environmental groups?

You Ought to Have a Look: Antarctic Ice, Summer Thunderstorms, and Cold Winters

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

In this week’s You Ought to Have a Look, we’re going to catch up on some new climate science that hasn’t gotten the deserved attention—for reasons soon to be obvious.

First up is a new study comparing climate model projections with observed changes in the sea ice extent around Antarctica.

While everyone seems to talk about the decline in the sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere, considerably less discussion focuses on the increase in sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere. If it is mentioned at all, it is usually quickly followed by something like “but this doesn’t disprove global warming, it is consistent with it.”

But, even the folks delivering these lines probably realize that the latter bit is a stretch.

In fact, the IPCC and others have been trying downplay this inconvenient truth ever since folks first started to note the increase. And the excuses are getting more involved.

A new study pretty much exposes the emperor.

Suing Governments for their Environmental Policy under International Law

Some folks over at Heritage have a new Issues Brief in which they argue for including an Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism in the U.S.-EU trade deal being negotiated right now.  In a nutshell, ISDS lets foreign investors sue host country governments in an international tribunal when they feel certain of their rights have been infringed.

I’ve been critical of ISDS.  I do see the potential that such international rules have for protecting property rights, but I worry about other aspects of the rules.  One issue is that these rules protect the rights only of foreign investors.  Using Venezuela as an example, there’s an assumption that the courts there can’t help much with protecting rights. To some extent, ISDS is a response to that. So, if Exxon feels its operations there have been badly treated by the Venezuelan government, it can use the ISDS mechanism to have recourse to an international tribunal.  However, if a small Venezuelan dry cleaner is being subject to governmental abuse, it’s just out of luck.  To me, that seems problematic.  Focusing on the wealthy seems like a fundamentally unbalanced way to protect property rights.

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