Entries tagged with “climate”.


Chris Albon copied me on a retweet today from World Concern that said:

A beautiful sight: things growing in #Somalia. This is what’s possible in the #HornofAfricatwitpic.com/7c8y24

For those not inclined to click the link, it went to this picture:

I have mixed feelings about this tweet and this picture.  On one hand, it expresses what I am sure is genuine relief from an organization that is concerned with the well-being of people living in the Horn of Africa.  On the other hand, the phrase “this is what is possible” suggests that this does not usually happen . . . except, of course, now we are in the Dayr, the October to December rainy season.  Though the Dayr is the shortest rainy season in this part of the world, wet fields and new growth do in fact usually happen right about now.  Further, the phrase “things growing in Somalia” suggests that nothing was growing before.  This was not the case – things have been growing, even in famine-struck parts of southern Somalia.  Not enough has been growing in some places, and this shortage has been compounded by all sorts of political challenges that have created a widespread problem.  Finally, there is a bit of tone to this – as if we are out of the woods in the Horn.  Well, maybe – but it will be months until a real harvest comes in, and much longer than that before accountable governance and functioning markets return, so we have a ways to go.  And given that this famine was not caused by drought (the drought exacerbated other underlying factors), the fact that we are having trouble addressing those underlying factors means the next drought (and there will be another one relatively soon) may create a very similar set of circumstances and challenges.

In summary, I believe in hope.  That is why I call myself an optimist.  But at the same time, we have to be careful about conflating hope with triumph . . . which is why I call myself a hopelessly realistic optimist.

 

 

 

After reading a lot of news and blog posts on the situation in the Horn of Africa, I feel the need to make something clear: the drought in the Horn of Africa is not the cause of the famine we are seeing take shape in southern Somalia.  We are being pounded by a narrative of this famine that more or less points to the failure of seasonal rains as its cause . . . which I see as a horrible abdication of responsibility for the human causes of this tragedy.

First, I recommend that anyone interested in this situation – or indeed in food security and famine more generally, to read Mike Davis’ book Late Victorian Holocausts.  It is a very readable account of massive famines in the Victorian era that lays out the necessary intersection of weather, markets and politics to create tragedy – and also makes clear the point that rainfall alone is poorly correlated to famine.  For those who want a deeper dive, have a look at the lit review (pages 15-18) of my article “Postmodern Conceptualizations, Modernist Applications: Rethinking the Role of Society in Food Security” to get a sense of where we are in contemporary thinking on food security.  The long and short of it is that food insecurity is rarely about absolute supplies of food – mostly it is about access and entitlements to existing food supplies.  The HoA situation does actually invoke outright scarcity, but that scarcity can be traced not just to weather – it is also about access to local and regional markets (weak at best) and politics/the state (Somalia lacks a sovereign state, and the patchy, ad hoc governance provided by al Shabaab does little to ensure either access or entitlement to food and livelihoods for the population).

For those who doubt this, look at the FEWS NET maps I put in previous posts (here and here).  Famine stops at the Somali border.  I assure you this is not a political manipulation of the data – it is the data we have.  Basically, the people without a functional state and collapsing markets are being hit much harder than their counterparts in Ethiopia and Kenya, even though everyone is affected by the same bad rains, and the livelihoods of those in Somalia are not all that different than those across the borders in Ethiopia and Kenya.  Rainfall is not the controlling variable for this differential outcome, because rainfall is not really variable across these borders where Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia meet.

This is not to say that rainfall doesn’t matter – it certainly does.  But it is not the most important thing.  However, when we focus on rainfall variability exclusively, we end up in discussions and arguments that detract from understanding what went wrong here, and what we might do going forward.  Yes, the drought reflects a climate extreme . . . but this extreme is not that stunningly anomalous in this part of the world – we are getting similar (but not quite as bad) results quite often these days.  Indeed, these results seem to be coming more frequently, and appear to be tied to a shift in the climate of the region – and while it is a bit soon to say this definitively, this climate shift is very likely is a product of anthropogenic climate change.  So, one could indirectly argue that the climate change (mostly driven by big emitters in the Global North) is having a terrible impact on the poorest and weakest in the Global South.  It will take a while to make this a firm argument, though.

On the other hand, it is clear that politics and markets have failed the people of Somalia – and the rainfall just pushed a very bad situation over the precipice into crisis.  Thus, this is a human crisis first and foremost, whatever you think of anthropogenic climate change.  Politics and markets are human inventions, and the decisions that drive them are also human.  We can’t blame this famine on the weather – we need to be looking at everything from local and national politics that shape access and entitlements to food to global food markets that have driven the price of needed staples up across the world, thus curtailing access for the poorest.  The bad news: Humans caused this.  The good news: If we caused it, we can prevent the next one.



While I have my doubts that a global climate agreement is actually in the best interest of the planet (mostly because I think local adaptive management is likely to yield locally-appropriate, more accountable outcomes), it is worth remembering why there is so much debate about such an agreement.  Many people still fail to grasp why the developing world thinks it absurd that places like the US, Canada and Germany feel justified in demanding big cuts of them – there are two reasons:

1)Big cuts close the door to historical development pathways.  Most of the OECD countries went through a major industrialization phase that was hugely polluting.  China is going through this today on an unprecedented scale. While I think these pathways are, by and large, dead ends for development anyway these days, the fact is that a global climate deal more or less demands that currently poor countries abandon the very methods that we in the wealthier countries used to get to our current status.  This, by the way, is why there is a transfer of money and technology being built into the agreement – because the wealthy countries are not completely hypocritical, and therefore recognize that creating new development pathways will be expensive and beyond the means of most currently-poor countries.  If we are going to demand they change what they are doing, we should at least contribute financially to those changes.  So the next time you hear this deal called a huge wealth transfer, feel free to remind the speaker that the age of exploration, through colonialism, through the first 40 or so years of free trade was a giant wealth transfer from poor to rich.  We are only partially answering for that, no matter how large the transfers built into a climate agreement.

2) While we in the US like to point at China’s and (to a lesser extent) India’s total emissions as an argument they have to accept big cuts, and use the argument that 80% of future emissions growth will come from poorer countries to argue for cuts to all emissions, these demands fail to account for the per-person production of these emissions.  The Washington Post has two graphics, which they ran on their front page on December 10th, that capture this issue perfectly.  First, the total emissions graphic:

Yeah, that looks pretty bad – China produces more emissions than we do, and India is catching up quick.  Man, we’d better get those people under control . . . right?  Well, no . . .

Yep, per capita we in the US are big emissions hogs – per person, we crank out 385% of the average Chinese person, and a boggling 1333% more emissions than the average Indian.  Hell, Iran looks bad compared to China when we get down to per-person use.  This is the sticking point – what right do we in the US have to be sloppy with our emissions, yet demand cuts of everyone else?

Building a global deal that addresses both of these issues is damn near to impossible – we need to control total emissions, but at the same time recognize that not everyone emits equally.  Addressing the first of these is politically unpalatable for the poorer countries.  Addressing the latter is unpalatable here in the US and in many other wealthy countries. The result: weak global agreements that address neither.