Can a Green Economy Save a Drying Planet?
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
It turns out that you don't want to be a former city dweller in rural parts of southernmost Australia, a stalk of wheat in China or Iraq, a soybean in Argentina, an almond or grape in northern California, a cow in Texas or almost anything in parts of East Africa right now. Let me explain.
As anyone who has turned on the prime-time TV news these last weeks knows, southeastern Australia has been burning up. It's already dry climate has been growing ever hotter. "The great drying," Australian environmental scientist Tim Flannery calls it. At its epicenter, Melbourne recorded its hottest day ever this month at a sweltering 115.5 degrees, while temperatures soared even higher in the surrounding countryside. After more than a decade of drought, followed by the lowest rainfall on record, the eucalyptus forests are now burning. To be exact, they are now pouring vast quantities of stored carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas considered largely responsible for global warming, into the atmosphere.
In fact, everything's been burning there. Huge sheets of flame, possibly aided and abetted by arsonists, tore through whole towns. More than 180 people are dead and thousands homeless. Flannery, who has written eloquently about global warming, drove through the fire belt, and reported:
"It was as if a great cremation had taken place.... I was born in Victoria, and over five decades I've watched as the state has changed. The long, wet and cold winters that seemed insufferable to me as a boy vanished decades ago, and for the past twelve years a new, drier climate has established itself.... I had not appreciated the difference a degree or two of extra heat and a dry soil can make to the ferocity of a fire. This fire was different from anything seen before."
Australia, by the way, is a wheat-growing breadbasket for the world and its wheat crops have been hurt in recent years by continued drought.
Meanwhile, central China is experiencing the worst drought in half a century. Temperatures have been unseasonably high and rainfall, in some areas, 80 percent below normal; more than half the country's provinces have been affected by drought, leaving millions of Chinese and their livestock without adequate access to water. In the region that raises 95 percent of the country's winter wheat, crop production has already been impaired and is in further danger without imminent rain. All of this represents a potential financial catastrophe for Chinese farmers at a moment when about 20 million migrant workers are estimated to have lost their jobs in the global economic meltdown. Many of those workers, who left the countryside for China's booming cities (and remitted parts of their paychecks to rural areas), may now be headed home jobless to potential disaster. A Wall Street Journal report concludes, "Some scientists warn China could face more frequent droughts as a result of global warming and changes in farming patterns."
Globe-jumping to the Middle East, Iraq, which makes the news these days mainly for spectacular suicide bombings or the politics of American withdrawal, turns out to be another country in severe drought. Americans may think of Iraq as largely desert, but (as we were all taught in high school) the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the "fertile crescent," are considered the homeland of agriculture, not to speak of human civilization.
Well, not so fertile these days, it seems. The worst drought in at least a decade and possibly a farming lifetime is expected to reduce wheat production by at least half; while the coutry's vast marshlands, once believed to be the location of the Garden of Eden, have been turned into endless expanses of baked mud. That region, purposely drained by dictator Saddam Hussein to tame rebellious "Marsh Arabs," is now experiencing the draining power of nature.
Nor is Iraq's drought a localized event. Serious drought conditions extend across the Middle East, threatening to exacerbate local conflicts from Cyprus and Lebanon to Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, where this January was reported to have been the hottest and driest in sixty years. "With less than 2 months of winter left," Daniel Pedersen has written at the environmental website Green Prophet, "the region has received only 6 to 50 percent of the annual average rainfall, with the desert areas getting 30 percent or less."
Leaping continents to Latin America, Argentina is experiencing "the most intense, prolonged and expensive drought in the past fifty years," according to Hugo Luis Biolcati, the president of the Argentine Rural Society. One of the world's largest grain exporters, it has already lost five billion dollars to the drought. Its soybeans--the country is the third largest producer of them--are wilting in the fields; its corn--Argentina is the world's second largest producer-- and wheat crops are in trouble; and its famed grass-fed herds of cattle are dying--1.5 million head of them since October with no end in sight.
Dust Bowl Economics
In our own backyard, much of the state of Texas--97.4 percent to be exact--is now gripped by drought, and parts of it by the worst drought in almost a century. According to the New York Times, "Winter wheat crops have failed. Ponds have dried up. Ranchers are spending heavily on hay and feed pellets to get their cattle through the winter. Some wonder if they will have to slaughter their herds come summer. Farmers say the soil is too dry for seeds to germinate and are considering not planting." Since 2004, in fact, the state has yoyo-ed between the extremities of flood and drought.
Meanwhile, scientists predict that, as global warming strengthens, the American Southwest, parts of which have struggled with varying levels of drought conditions for years, could fall into "a possibly permanent state of drought." We're talking potential future "dust bowl" here. A December 2008 U.S. Geological Survey report warns: "In the Southwest, for example, the models project a permanent drying by the mid-twenty-first century that reaches the level of aridity seen in historical droughts, and a quarter of the projections may reach this level of aridity much earlier."