With America’s national debate on global warming going bipolar between President Obama’s grand entrance at Copenhagen and the surreality of Sarah from Alaska going rogue on world environmental science by championing the climate deniers, those committed to doing the planet’s serious business should stay focused on one, often overlooked but trackable key factor of climate change–the pivotal role of water. It is through water that global warming destabilizes civilized societies. At Copenhagen last week, Bill McKibben of 350.org warned of a looming, water-related doomsday tipping point that could render future climate change efforts moot–if warming temperatures thaw the permanently frozen Arctic soils to release its methane greenhouse gasses.
Water’s central role was colorfully highlighted in the run up to Copenhagen by cabinet members from the sea level Maldives islands and mountainous Nepal who separately held meetings underwater and at the base of Mount Everest’s shrinking glaciers. They are desperate because they are on the front lines of the global warming battle. Along with the billions of other water-distressed people around the planet, climate change is exacerbating today’s mounting crisis of freshwater scarcity by radically altering hydrologic patterns to produce overwhelming flooding, droughts, storms, rising coastal sea levels, as well as the unprecedented melting of Arctic icecaps and mountain glaciers visible in Sarah’s own backyard. While the impacts are complex, they fall unevenly and are further dividing human society–with water rich regions generally getting wetter and arid ones drier.
With the growing scarcity of irreplaceable freshwater overtaking oil as a critical driver of world affairs, as narrated in my forthcoming “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization” (HarperCollins January 5, 2010), no climate change policy can succeed without parallel policies that help water-stressed partner societies endure the destabilizing shocks to their existing water supplies, and infrastructures. Climate change thus makes global citizens of us all.