Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

The Looming Threat of Water Scarcity

From The Worldwatch Institute, The Looming Threat of Water Scarcity:

Some 1.2 billion people—almost a fifth of the world—live in areas of physical water scarcity, while another 1.6 billion face what can be called economic water shortage. The situation is only expected to worsen as population growth, climate change, investment and management shortfalls, and inefficient use of existing resources restrict the amount of water available to people, according to Worldwatch Institute’s Vital Signs Online service ( It is estimated that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, with almost half of the world living in conditions of water stress.

World population is predicted to grow from 7 billion to 9.1 billion by 2050, putting a strain on water resources to meet increased food, energy, and industrial demands. But there are many other pressures, including increased urbanization and overconsumption, lack of proper management, and the looming threat of climate change. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and UN Water, global water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century.

Climate change will affect global water resources at varying levels. Reductions in river runoff and aquifer recharge are expected in the Mediterranean basin and in the semiarid areas of the Americas, Australia, and southern Africa, affecting water availability in regions that are already water-stressed. In Asia, the large areas of irrigated land that rely on snowmelt and high mountain glaciers for water will be affected by changes in runoff patterns, while highly populated deltas are at risk from a combination of reduced inflows, increased salinity, and rising sea levels. And rising temperatures will translate into increased crop water demand everywhere.

As I so often say online and in my presentations, the primary vector for the impact of of climate change on human beings will be water. Rising sea levels that threaten coastal cities and farmlands; droughts; floods; warmer oceans fueling more severe storms; lack of sufficient cooling water for thermoelectric power plants, etc. It often seems like the cruelest of jokes — we and our economies cannot live without continual control over water, from the vast supply we use for personal, agricultural, and industrial purposes to our need to keep it at bay(!) when nature is at its most violent or simply least convenient. And at the root of our growing problems is our profligate use and emissions of carbon — the basis for life on earth, including us — most notably in the form of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane.

One of the great mysteries we face regards the timing of our collective epiphany about water and climate. There is no question that this link exists and has very grim consequences for humanity; the question is when will enough people connect those dots and realize that global warming or climate change or climate chaos means much more than air temps a few degrees higher than “normal”, it means severe disruptions to the world’s water cycle and thereby the invalidation of many of the assumptions underlying much of our infrastructure. Notions about there “always” being enough water in a river to cool a nuclear power plant or the ocean “never” rising enough to poison farmland via salt intrusion or simply flood cities suddenly seem painfully quaint. We are changing the world to a state we’ve never seen — Bill McKibben’s Eaarth — one that is no longer compatible with how over seven billion of us currently do almost everything. Through our shortsightedness and greed and blind adherence to ideology and simple ignorance we’ve traded away “forever” for short-term gain.

Is it too late to change course? Absolutely not, which is why so many of us are in this fight. But we’re still in that car, accelerating toward the cliff. We’ve passed the point some distance back when we could have made a comfortable change in speed and direction to avoid a catastrophe, and now must brake and swerve very hard. We might even be at the point, thanks to the thermal disequilibrium we’ve created (the “in the pipeline” warming people always talk about) and our locked-in future emissions[1] of having to take scary, painful, and truly drastic steps, like diving out of the car.[2]

[1] As I write this, at about 10:00AM, I am confident that locally people are busy shopping online or in dealerships for immense, unneeded SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks, which will help lock in years worth of unnecessarily high emissions. And I would bet that in the areas hit by drought in the US Midwest and West, or crushed by Sandy, similar purchases are being planned and executed.

[2] What would “diving out of the moving car” mean, exactly, in the real world of a changing climate? I’ll leave that one as an exercise for you, Dear Reader.

9 comments to The Looming Threat of Water Scarcity

  • Sasparilla

    It is rather staggering to consider adding another 2 billion to the 7 billion we have now as the temperature goes up – don’t think we’ll keep 9 billion for very long – but you’re right Lou, water will be a focus on many levels.

    Lack of water is something that can focus the senses like few other things (other than basic needs – food, money, gasoline/oil availability & pricing) watching the Mississippi go down so much over 2012 to where they were contemplating having to stop barges brings to mind alot of questions of what a couple of 2012 like dry years in a row would do to us here in the midwest U.S. – that kind of drought might be the most likely climate change action kicker out there (just impossible to predict).

    Definitely off topic but have to mention this since it seems so out there. Was talking to my mom, whose 66th birthday it was yesterday. She’s plugged into a bit of the right wing black helicopter crowd thinking the government is having airplanes lay “chem trails” up in the atmosphere for “geo-engineering”. Asking what it might be for doesn’t elicit an answer other than “geo-engineering” but she doesn’t really know what the word means. Go to Google and YouTube and there’s a whole group thinking this is happening and real – as if our government was with it enough to be doing that (which it sure isn’t and you wouldn’t use aircraft to do it since they fly too low).

  • Diving out of the car would mean shutting down all GHG emissions overnight.

    I don’t think we need to do that – swerving hard and then driving in the other direction would make more sense. That would mean levying very high carbon and GHG taxes, and then paying for sequestration: burying charcoal, paying tree owners for the existence of their trees (Brazil would make out well), blowing up mountain faces to expose the correct minerals for capturing CO2, etc.

  • Lou

    This highlights one of the truly ugly aspects of our situation: We don’t know how bad things are, despite the constant drumbeat of pessimistic discoveries and political events.

    The reason I say we don’t know is simple: Feedbacks. Everyone is basically guessing about how soon the twin monsters under our bed will awaken — those being methane hydrates and permafrost melt. Both contain such immense stores of carbon that even the release of a very tiny portion of either in the form of CO2 or methane every year would be catastrophic. With all the reports of methane bubbling up from places like Siberia, we might be right on the cusp of taking the brake off the runaway train completely (assuming we haven’t yet and just haven’t seen the evidence); or we could be lucky and still have decades of breathing room left. Climate scientists are working very hard on solving these mysteries, but they’re not there yet.

    • JV

      I do know. Very bad. Worst issue is drawing far more water than the recharge rate in the Middle East, China, and the United States. I don’t have data on western European countries, Africa, or Australia, but there was a significant drought in Spain and Portuagl a couple years ago. Large sections of the U.S are heavily irrigated and would be a dustbowl under any moderate drought conditions without irrigation. They will turn into a dustbowl even with heavy irrigation under a short severe drought of a few years, as looks set to happen.

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Lou – it’s good to see more posts here – as there are pathetically few sites where discussions question the grossly failed received wisdom on climate.

    You’re right to focus on water as the prime vector and the unknown multipliers as the ugly part of the threat we face. Yet for all permafrost (with its unknown methane fraction) and clathrates (with the de facto news blackout on ESAS events) are clearly majors, I’d question whether they are the most urgent, for two reasons.

    First, while permafrost melt was reported to be under way, with 1970s Russian photos, in Dr John Gribben’s book “Hothouse Earth” in 1990, and reports of current clathrate outgassing at novel depths proliferate, other feedbacks are also accelerating. E.g.:
    - Water vapour (from rising global air temps since before 1900),
    - Albedo loss (from cryosphere decline since 1950),
    Microbial Peat Bog decay and CO2 outgassing (rising at 6%/yr since 1962 due to rising CO2ppm fertilizing particular microbial ecology)
    - Forest Combustion (rising since 1985 due to intensifying drought, heatwaves and dieback from pollutants and pest-booms)
    - Soil Carbon outgassing (due to increasing climate volatility between drought and flood, as well as to heat-driven acceleration of soil microbial metabolism).

    It needs saying that some of these are both potentially massive, and are also very advanced – e.g. Albedo Loss was reported in GRL in 2010 to be already imposing a forcing equal to about 30% of current anthro CO2 output. With the loss of arctic sea ice and snow cover, this looks set to accelerate quite rapidly. While this will exacerbate the destabilization of the NH Jetstream and the weather of all nations under its broadening influence, I’d emphasize the point that all the feedbacks are interactive indirectly (via timelagged warming) and many are interactive directly via dynamic phenomena (such as warming airs from the arctic ocean reportedly accelerating permafrost melt 1,500kms inland.

    From this perspective, the ugliest bastards are not those with the largest potential, but those with the earliest potential for radical direct effects on some other feedbacks and for major indirect (timelagged) warming, by which all other feedbacks are empowered.

    There are thus at least seven ‘monsters’ already awake and gaining power. They will not go back to sleep unless and until we restore former planetary temperatures. Some will not do so for a long while after that: for instance the pulse of heat shown to be moving down into the permafrost will continue until it’s exhausted, regardless of our ending additional heating at the surface.

    The point at which the combined forcing of all active feedbacks offsets the natural carbon sinks’ intake of an average 43% of annual anthro-CO2 output is the point where they become self-fuelling, and where ending anthro emissions no longer has any effect on their continued acceleration. With Albedo Loss accounting for over 30% already, we are plainly fully committed to passing that threshold.

    This implies that beside ending emissions ASAP, we must also, simultaneously, begin the long global program of Carbon Recovery to return airborne CO2 to 280ppm, and also establish collective UN oversight of intensive Albedo Restoration research, and the conventions for collective UN decision on its deployment ASAP.

    This raises the second point mentioned above. Besides very obvious pressing deadlines for commensurate action to avoid the feedback running beyond any possibility of control, we also face a limited time window in which we can expect sufficient geopolitical stability to endure to negotiate and implement those changes. The best account I’ve seen of that geopolitical time window is a recent report by a Leeds Uni team (led by an IPCC lead writer)
    “Food Security: Near future projections of the impact of drought in Asia” – which can be seen in full in the ‘reports’ section at:

    From the press release:
    “Research released today shows that within the next 10 years large parts of Asia can expect increased risk of more severe droughts, which will impact regional and possibly even global food security.

    On average, across Asia, droughts lasting longer than three months will be more than twice as severe in terms of their soil moisture deficit compared to the 1990-2005 period. This is cause for concern as China and India have the world’s largest populations and are Asia’s largest food producers.

    Dr Lawrence Jackson, a co-author of the report, said: “Our work surprised us when we saw that the threat to food security was so imminent; the increased risk of severe droughts is only 10 years away for China and India. These are the world’s largest populations and food producers; and, as such, this poses a real threat to food security.”

    The report also highlights Turkey and Pakistan as being under similar threat, which brings to three the number of nuclear powers facing destabilization by serial intensifying food shortages.

    Given that this study was limited to Asia, and that the US is being hit by extreme climate impacts far harder than any comparable region, and that European farming is already in turmoil from the impacts here, plus the fact that many nations are deeply dependent on food imports, I suggest that destabilizing food shortages would not be limited to Asia in 2022 but would be global in effect.

    We’ve agreed in the past that the core of US intransigence on Climate since Cheyney took power has been its determination to await the climatic destabilization of China’s govt by food shortages and civil unrest, as the means by which Washington’s bipartisan paramount priority of maintaining US global economic dominance will be served. However, with Cheyney’s underlying assumptions in 2000 proving diametrically wrong – the US faces far harder impacts than China, and is far less well able to afford the damage and rebuilding costs – the outcome would predictably be nothing like his rosy (genocidal) expectations of a USSR-collapse mark 2. Nations go to war for far less than this level of injury.

    With regard to necessary action, the car and cliff analogy isn’t too helpful in implying an inevitable crash, when what is needed is an adroit handbrake turn. According to Prof. Salter (with 40yrs of wave energy research and now Cloud-Brightening research to his credit) Albedo Restoration could restore pre-industrial global temperature within 2 to 3 years using between 1,300 and 2,000 small wind-powered vessels – thereby ending the feedbacks’ acceleration and halting the threat to global food supplies. Notably this prospect would also transform nations’ calculi over agreeing rapid emissions control – by removing the prospect both of open-ended damages needing reliable compensation and of liability for the same.

    Turning the wheel and applying the handbrake hard is about ending the present US bipartisan policy of a Brinkmanship of Inaction with China, which means publicizing and protesting that inadmissible policy to the point where it is binned as both politically and climatically unsustainable.

    Getting recognition of the policy is easy around the world but far from easy within the US, for all there is a host of evidence that points directly to its operation. Being indoctrinated to a flag from childhood seems to have the perverse effect of blinding people to evil being done in the name of that flag. Yet the evidence is there to be collated and presented to those who will listen today, and as impacts worsen their number will grow.

    In making the case one of the more cogent points I’ve found is this:
    - if the US policy since 2000 of inaction on a global climate treaty is only accidentally destabilizing Chinese agriculture, then it is probably the first empire in all of history to accidentally destabilize the food supplies of a rising rival empire.



    • Lou

      Wow, lots here to think about.

      Albedo Restoration could indeed be part of a geoengineering solution, but it has to be coupled with some kind of effort to reduce or even roll back ocean acidification, a.k.a. global warming’s “evil twin” as others have called it. I’ve long joked that we need to create immense floating mats of CD/DVD blanks in the ocean as a way to boost albedo. I’m sure there are several, if not many, reasons why that’s a truly dumb idea, but I also strongly suspect that whatever for of geoengineering we resort to will sound at least as ludicrous.

      And I think the odds that we’ll resort to employing at least one major geoengineering technology are essentially 100%. Humanity shows no signs of slowing down our global emissions in time to make any significant difference in avoiding hell and high water.

      My economics training tells me to watch for countries to become less interested in restraining their emissions once some kind of geoengineering is in place and appears to be working. That success will lessen the incentive countries to make unwanted changes, and the additional CO2 caused by that effect will simply feed ocean acidification, even if something like albedo restoration works perfectly.

      The notion that the US is indirectly playing with China’s food supply is perverse, evil, and simply bizarre, which is why I find it so believable. I can’t imagine that strategists wouldn’t connect those dots and seriously discuss trying to run China into a ditch at full speed. I imagine a future in which Canada grows wealthy by selling huge amounts of grain to China — after they find a way to grow wealthy by selling them tar sands oil, that is.

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Nick – with respect I’d differ with your comment above on the matter of paying states not to let their trees go up in smoke, for two reasons.

    First, I guess you’re as bitterly opposed as I am to protection rackets (gimme da money or your family could have a nasty acciden’ . . .). With govts from Russia to Canada to Brazil holding vast forest carbon stocks, any significant payment to them per acre would amount to a huge annual payoff being levied worldwide, and not being applied to fairer and more constructive ends. In addition, since all carbon acts the same in the atmosphere, every nation holding fossil carbon stocks (including the clathrates in their marine economic zones) would have clear precedent to demand an equal annual payoff per tonne not emitted. Which makes it a recipe for absolute stalemate at the negotiations.

    Second, there is a better means of conserving the forest carbon stocks that also resolves the question of nations’ responsibility for feedback emissions, including from wildfire. It reverses the payoffs approach by accounting nations’ total intentional emissions against their allocation of permitted emissions under the climate treaty’s annually declining global carbon budget. Those nations wanting to emit more than their entitlement have to buy in permits, while those achieving lower outputs than their entitlements have permits to sell.

    Given that no nation will rationally sign up to a fixed permit for 40yrs hence, permits’ tradability is an essential component of any treaty allocations regime. It also maximizes the carbon-efficiency with which the permits are applied, besides maximizing the rate of emissions control that nations are willing to negotiate.

    With regard to forest conservation, the holder nations can indeed gain income by conserving their forests, since this increases the stock of emissions permits they’re able to sell – for what they’ll fetch on the inter-governmental market. Also, by defining the allocations as being only of intentional CO2e emissions the issue of feedback outputs is resolved – which is a necessary sweetener for those nations with huge potential feedback emissions through no fault of their own. (Failure to control economically avoidable feedback outputs, such as the US leaving over 40m acres of forests killed by bark beetle to rot or burn, emitting over eight gigatonnes of CO2e, should in my view be accounted as intentional emissions).

    This approach is consistent with the global climate policy framework of “Contraction & Convergence” which is now the de jure or de facto negotiating basis of the large majority of the UN member states. If it’s of interest to you, more information on the framework is available at the Global Commons Institute site at



  • JV

    China > The U.S inadvertently (?) ran China (really they ran themselves into the ditch) into a ditch when China started copying the U.S pursuit of material wealth. The question is where will China’s citizens go when there’s nothing but dust there ? Ans: well, some are showing up in Finland already, and Italy.

    Obviously the U.S abandoned the policy of containment sometime in the 1960′s I guess they figured China just couldn’t be contained, or anything else.

  • JV

    Of course, you could say that the Americans copied the European model of material lifestyle, which was itself based off the Roman.