Climate Cast: Is climate change destabilizing Iraq?

The link between what we see as news events and climate change is often obscure. Does a particular extreme weather event, flood, or drought have it's roots in climate changes?

That question is increasingly being asked as the worst drought on record unfolds in California, even as extreme rainfall events set all time rainfall records  in nearby Phoenix.

Talk about weather whiplash. Or maybe weather envy?

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Many climate scientists now increasingly connect the dots between extreme weather and climate change.

The idea is simple enough. When you increase the "base state" of the atmosphere through more warmth and increased water vapor you are influencing weather systems. When you warm the arctic twice as fast as the equator, you may change the jet stream that delivers the weather we are accustomed to.

Here's what Nobel Prize winner Dr. Kevin Trenberth says about extreme events, weather and climate change.

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The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be….

The air is on average warmer and moister than it was prior to about 1970 and in turn has likely led to a 5–10 % effect on precipitation and storms that is greatly amplified in extremes. The warm moist air is readily advected onto land and caught up in weather systems as part of the hydrological cycle, where it contributes to more intense precipitation events that are widely observed to be occurring.

Kevin E. Trenberth, senior scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research, in the journal Climatic Change, released under a Creative Commons-Attribution license (PDF here, HTML here)

Drought and climate change

One thing becoming clear is that climate changes like drought -- and it's consequences -- are increasingly on the U.S. national security community and military radars.

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One of the most devastating droughts in decades hit Syria and Iraq in 2007-2008. Scientists have linked the drought to climate change. NASA/Slate

A prolonged severe drought in the Mideast has been tied by some observers to rising conflict in Iraq and Syria. Does the rise of ISIS have it's roots in climate change? Is it possible to say that we might be witnessing the first real '"climate change war" in Iraq and Syria?

Slate's Eric Holthaus penned this eye opening look this summer about how years of drought may have sewn the seed of conflict in Syria and Iraq.

Here's an excerpt.

A punishing drought hit most of Syria and northern Iraq during what’s normally the wettest time of the year. In the mountains of eastern Turkey, which form the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, snow and rain were less than half of normal. The region has seen one of the worst droughts in decades.

Drought is becoming a fixture in the parched landscape, due to a drying trend of the Mediterranean and Middle East region fueled by global warming. The last major drought in this region (2006-2010) finished only a few years ago. When taken in combination with other complex drivers, increasing temperatures and drying of agricultural land is widely seen as assisting in the destabilization of Syria under the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Before civil war broke out there, farmers abandoned their desiccated fields and flooded the cities with protests. A series of U.N. reports released earlier this year found that global warming is already destabilizing nation states around the world, and Syria has been no exception.

With the ongoing crisis in Iraq seemingly devolving by the day, it’s not a stretch to think something similar could already be underway just next door.

Could there be a connection between climate change and the emerging conflict in Iraq?

The short answer is a qualified yes, according to Frank Femia of the Center for Climate and Security, a Washington-based policy institute advised by senior retired military and national security leaders. He explained in a phone interview:

It’s far too early, considering this is happening in real time, to figure out what is motivating ISIS and its members. Certainly, the natural resource stresses in the region make things worse. Terrorist organizations can try to control those resources and gain significant influence and power. You can’t say climate change is causing ISIS to do what it’s doing, but it [climate change] certainly has a role to play in the region.

Some in the national security sphere are more alarmed about the effect rapid climate changes may have on global security.  One is Republican Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army officer and former chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Here's an excerpt from an interview this summer with OpEdNews.

R.K.: Okay so we need to wrap this up. I have one last question for you. You teach courses on National Security. What's your appraisal of, what are the important national security issues now?

L.W.: Number one is planetary climate change. It is going to produce, is producing so many spin offs that are going to be inimical to our and Europe and our allies interests that if we don't start dealing with it we are going to get behind it to the extent that we can't even play catch up. That is to say it's going to be a juggernaut and it's just going to roll over us. And it's going to produce things that are right now unseeable.

Because when you get this kind of chaos theory if you will in operation, you get spin offs that you never contemplated, indeed that no science or technology ever contemplated. They just happen and they happen because of a confluence of a thousand little events and suddenly you have it upon you. So that's the number one threat. Interestingly, the one element of the Federal Bureaucracy that gets this is the Pentagon.

The Pentagon is doing more right now than any other federal element to deal with, to strategize against, to think about, to build plans, ships planes, tanks and other things to deal with the problems that are going to be generated by climate change. And the Navy is probably the lead force, sailing on the oceans you might know it would be because it understands what the oceans are going to go through in the next fifty to sixty years. It also understands that it is going to have a hundred year storm every ten years. And understands that that means ten times as many humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations like the tsunami in Indonesia in 2005, like the tsunami and earthquake in Japan, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe and so forth. It understands that these things are going to happen ten times as often as they used to because of climate change and so you have the lead element in the federal bureaucracy, counter-intuitively if you will, is the military in trying to get the government to waken to the fact that we have got a real problem, a real challenge down the road.

More Climate Stories:

NASA: Hottest August on record globally

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Minnesota and the eastern United States continue to buck the global warmth trend this year. NASA confirms August 2014 went down as the hottest August on record globally. Climate Central has more.

While this summer may have felt like fall across much of the eastern half of the U.S., worldwide the overall picture was a warm one. This August was the warmest August on record globally, according to newly released NASA temperature data, while the summer tied for the fourth warmest. 

Central Europe, northern Africa, parts of South America, and the western portions of North America (including Alaska) were just some of the spots on the globe that saw much higher than normal temperatures for the month. Large parts of the oceans were also running unusually warm. “For the past few months we've been seeing impressive warmth in large parts of the Pacific … and Indian Oceans in particular,” said Jessica Blunden, a climate scientist with ERT, Inc., at theNational Climatic Data Center in an email. This warmth was a large factor in August’s chart-topping temperature, which was 1.3°F higher than the 1951-1980 average for the month according to NASA data. NCDC also calculates how much a given month’s temperature varies from average, but their August data won’t be released until Thursday.

Lake Mead plummeting to record lows:

Lake Mead's now infamous "bathtub ring" shows how far water level has dropped. Image: Paul Huttner/MPR News

The implications of a prolonged drought and drier climate in the West, and a disappearing Lake Mead stretch far beyond Vegas. Here's a sobering perspective from the Las Vegas Sun.

Lake Mead, which when full hovers at 1,220 feet above sea level, has declined more than 100 feet to its lowest point since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s. When it approaches the elevation of our lowest intake — which sits at 1,000 feet — the situation will be critical. With the completion of the community’s newest intake and pumping structure, Southern Nevada will be able to draw water as low as 860 feet above sea level. What is not understood by many is that when Lake Mead hits 900 feet no amount of water can be released from Hoover Dam to users in Arizona, California and Mexico. So while almost 30 million inhabitants in the United States and some of the country’s most productive agricultural lands will be facing empty reservoirs, Southern Nevada will still be able to draw from whatever water is left in Lake Mead, although possibly at significantly reduced amounts.

Wall Street eyes sustainable investments

Follow the money. That's one of my mantras on our Climate Cast shows. Many of the brighter companies are trying to stay ahead of climate change curve.

Thompson Reuters has this interesting piece on how Morgan Stanley’s Sustainable and Responsible research team, is driving a strategy to incorporate long term environmental, social and governance issues into the firm’s equity research analysis. Here's a brief clip.

Absolutely.  We would call these “ESG opportunities”. For example, we would look at whether a utilities company has exposure to an expanding green energy market or “smart energy” technology. In our most recent report, we identified 7 sustainability themes that present opportunities for companies:

  • Climate Change – the challenge to achieve the 2 degree scenario

  • Water Scarcity – demand to exceed supply by 40% within 16 years

  • Waste Management – urbanisation to drive waste generation to 2.2bn tonnes by 2025

  • Food Availability – agriculture under strain due to population growth and rising incomes

  • Health & Wellness – ill-health a growing burden while safety regulation increases

  • Improving Lives – breaking down inequalities and raising standards of living

  • Ageing Population – specific needs and demands of the over 65s