Wednesday, March 1

Falling Off the Climate Curve

This fascinating quote below from a PBS / Scientific American article about the ‘Little Ice Age’ caught our attention so we decided to Google around a bit based on some associations from memory and curiosity.
It was only a few hundred years ago that the earth experienced its last ice age. Global temperatures started falling during the 1300s and hit their lowest points in the late 1700s and early 1800s. New Yorkers could walk from Manhattan to Staten Island across a frozen harbor, while Londoners held "Frost Fairs" on a solid Thames River. Glaciers advanced in China, New Zealand, and Peru, and snow covered Ethiopian peaks.
The Monumentum Adulitanum describes another cold era of Ethiopian history centuries before. It is an anonymous inscription in Greek, which was the lingua franca of Axum’s trading partners and ultimately of her elite, that survives in a copy made in the early sixth century AD by Kosmas Indikopleustes at Adulis. In the context of the great challenges faced by the Empire of Axum in its efforts to expand while using its relative great wealth, military prowess and access to resources over some of the world‘s roughest terrain, the author describes
inaccessible mountains covered with snow where tempests and cold are continuous and the snow so deep that a man sinks up to the knees
The “the snow and frost of the Semien mountains” is specifically noted, all leading us to realize that the Ethiopian climate back then was rather different. Or was it? Anyone who has visited Ethiopia’s highlands is not surprised to find that today
The cool zone consists of the central parts of the western and eastern sections of the northwestern plateau and a small area around Harer. The terrain in these areas is generally above 2,400 meters in elevation; average daily highs range from near freezing to 16°C, with March, April, and May the warmest months.

Throughout the year, the midday warmth diminishes quickly by afternoon, and nights are usually cold. During most months, light frost often forms at night and snow occurs at the highest elevations.
Throughout much of Ethiopia heavy coats or thick cotton traditional blankets / robes are a must at night and routine in the day depending on the season. After all while it is near the equator it is also at a high altitude. The story does not end there thought. The periods during the Little Ice Age and the one noted centuries before in Axum’s history where certainly far colder than what Ethiopians experience today. In addition the Ethiopian climate is certainly quite changeable.

“Present and Past Extreme Climate events in Ethiopia” is a noteworthy paper from the Department of Geology at AAU. First a definition, the Holocene epoch is a geological interglacial period that extends from the present back about 10,000 radiocarbon years, a period that encompasses all of human civilization. The paper notes that
“Extreme climate events in Ethiopia occurred at different time scales over the Holocene.” Particularly, during recent years the country has been the subject of major news due to the recurrent drought which has caused the loss of numerous human and livestock life. In the second half of the last century alone, droughts occurred in 1957-58, 1964-65, 1972-73, 1983-84, 1990-92 and 1993-94. The 1972-73 and 1983-84 events have attracted global attention.
Famine has now become regular as clockwork while drought may also be more common. More on that connection later but for now back to the AAU paper: there have been centuries long arid periods noted in Rift Valley Lake levels and lake sediment levels.
In the last millennium the occurrence and impact of climate during the "Medieval Warm Epoch" and the "Little Ice Age" have been the subject of research. Equatorial east Africa was significantly drier than today during the Medieval Warm Period from AD 1000 to 1270, while it was relatively wet during the Little Ice Age from AD 1270 to 1850.

Data from neighboring Kenya has however shown that this latter period was interrupted by three periods of prolonged dryness: AD 1390-1420, 1560-1625 and 1760-1840 which had profound societal impact. The latter two overlap with historical droughts in Ethiopia which occurred in 1543-1562, 1618, 1828-29, 1864-66 and suggested to coincide with the ENSO events.
ENSO is the (El Niño-Southern Oscillation) and a global coupled ocean / atmosphere phenomenon thought to be responsible for much climactic variation over time. The oscillations involved seem to be on a 3-8 year cycle with a variety of associated inter-decadal results far beyond ethiopundit’s ken and we suspect that of climatologists as well.

Anyway, probably much like the rest of the planet Ethiopia has been through some profound climactic changes during the era of human civilization. It can’t be assumed that they are more dramatic today or that they are accelerating. After all, people certainly noticed changes in the past but only kept records in the last third or so of the Holocene while overall after a generation or so few probably knew that the climate had ever been different.

We repeat - a large part of all issues revolving around global climate changes is that we have started to pay attention in only the last microscopic bit of geologic time and the last tiny portion of human time. Science and research provide many clues to the past but what is really interesting to us is the experience of the changes themselves.

During the Little Ice Age, Northern Europe changed from a wine culture to a beer and hard liquor one. (All cultures are defined in a sense by their relation to alcohol but that too we will deal with another time.) Formerly favorable conditions for the exploration of the Atlantic and presumably North American disappeared. Certainly manners, customs and farming methods changed as well along with modes of social organization that either created or accentuated the differences between North and South in Europe.

During the Little Ice Age
average global temperature dropped only one to two degrees Celsius below what they are today, the cold spell nevertheless drastically affected life at this time
Between 800 and 1200, Europe basked in a warm spell known as the "Medieval Warm Period" (MWP); temperatures were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius higher than they are today.
What has been discussed popularly recently in terms of Global Warming involves a one degree change in temperature over the last century which many believe is caused by human activity that has produced greenhouse gases that bounce heat back down instead of letting it escape into space.

Without any greenhouse gases we wouldn't be here to begin with - that and tectonic / volcanic activity help to make this planet warm enough to live on so it is all a matter of degree and very subtle changes. Imagine if you will, we are all on the third rock from the sun in the endless cold of space.

On this planet we can only survive with any degree of reasonable comfort on a thin layer no more than a few miles thick. Much of that and more than 3/4 of the surface is either really hostile or salt water. So we do need to be careful with our home but there certainly have been many climactic changes that had nothing to do with any human ability to influence the environment in the recent past and beyond.

We repeat - it is certainly a good idea to keep our planet as unpolluted as possible and we therefore consider ourselves to be environmentalists but we have a hard time accepting that somehow the one climate change we humans have happened to seriously document is also the one necessarily caused by us. That is a bit egotistical at least and also a little inconsiderate of geologic and human history.

Temperature like any other stream of data from a complex system from ground hog populations on the Great Plains of North America to the activity of Pacific volcanoes is noticed when there are changes but best examined as a curve examined in varying amounts of detail. The earth has been around for billions of years. A temperature curve that took that into account would leave out not only any given year but also any given epoch like the Holocene.

A tighter focus would reveal changes over thousands of years and on and on until we get down to centuries, then years and then down to seasons. The appearance of the curve at any level of focus would not be much different once the earth had cooled down to any temperature where biological events such as the creation of an oxygen atmosphere mattered at all.

We would bet, and we guess that we would bet accurately that the oscillations seen at a daily level defined as ‘weather’ would seem random then take on familiar curves defining seasons and at some level if we could sit by God as he graphed it all out there would be familiar patterns defining curves over millennia and epochs and even longer periods.

What we are so consciously experiencing today is like those cartoon stream of images that go from the microscopic to the cosmic where instead of seeing the whole thing we are sitting on one piece of one curve that could be a dip on the way up temperature wise or a brief rise on the way down. Basically we have no idea if we are just experiencing the ‘background noise’ of all data streams or not but we may be beginning to appreciate what that statistical noise can mean to us puny humans.

We don’t know what caused the Little Ice Age or any of the others or the warming periods either. Sunspots and more strongly volcanic activity are suspected but human activity was not at issue back then.

Again it makes sense to take care of the planet one way or the other but be wary of all hyper-certainty on this subject, either way, from those who would define morality and human ‘goodness’ by the degree to which one accepts the teachings of one school of environmentalism or another. It is hard to imagine that as the economies of India or China approach a level of polluting familiar to the First World that greenhouse gas levels will not rise far faster than ever before.

Even though constitutions like that of Ethiopia’s make hip concessions to the environment by promising to limit development (one promise Meles Inc. is keeping) that promise is about as meaningless as the rest of the document. You see, in the Ethiopian context today development has been abandoned for eternal aid dependence but that is no good for anyone in the end either.

No normal country will sacrifice its economic growth for the sake of global warming in the end. Political pressure in Europe and the US (and nowhere else except maybe Japan) makes it all a rather noisy issue but even world attacks on the US are predicated on the fact that no one else ever intended to obey the Kyoto Agreement anyway. America’s outright refusal simply makes it an easier target than those who made all the right noises but absolutely none of the hard political and economic decisions that those noises would naturally lead to.

Actually, rapid development may be the way out of the environmental trap but more on that another time.

Returning to the original subject of the experience of climate changes what happened in Europe those centuries past was dramatic. Those two or three degrees led to centuries of relative malnutrition evidenced by shorter populations on one level and social tension on another as governments tried to take shrinking harvests from their people.

This BBC article 'Ethiopia's food aid addiction' has this distressing litany of facts
Like a patient addicted to pain killers, Ethiopia seems hooked on aid. For most of the past three decades, it has survived on millions tonnes of donated food and millions of dollars in cash.

It has received more emergency support than any other African nation in that time. Its population is increasing by 2m every year, yet over the past 10 years, its net agricultural production has steadily declined.
"Droughts have always been a fact of life in this region," says economist Dessalegn Rahmato of the Forum for Social Studies in the capital, Addis Ababa.

"But it used to be on a cycle of 25 to 30 years. Now, that has been reduced to four or five years. Yet we still don't seem to be able to cope with that basic fact of life."
The reasons discussed are varied. The distorting effects of aid and the economic results that aid has on incentives are highlighted along with the aforementioned change in climate. The answer to the government seems to be the dream of 'Agricultural Development Led Industrialization' which sounds good in discussions with reporters and apparently World Bank officials but is really a meaningless concept.

With a seriously, no - catastrophically - underperforming agricultural sector where is the money supposed to come from to do anything? Presumably foreign aid that has been a constant in the setting of exploding levels of fertilizer usage per hectare along with falling yields. The article and so much other analysis leaves out the obvious.

No one in Ethiopia owns the land they farm which means that the government and ruling party control it and use its distribution as a means of political and economic control. Everyone knows that model will produce starvation but the trade-off is control if their are cooperative foreigners around willing to feed the people and fatten up the ruling party.

How does this go along with our previous assumption that we are all on a temperature / climate curve but don’t know where? Especially in light of reports like this one, Recent Drought Tendencies in Ethiopia and Equitorial Sub-Tropical Eastern Africa (pdf) (via Meskel Square) that
Multiple sources of evidence converge on a post-1997 tendency towards lower rainfall, especially during the Belg (March-May) season. This finding appears to hold for many parts of eastern Africa. Rainfall conditions have been stable in the relatively water-secure northwest of Ethiopia, and declining in parts of the water-insecure southeast, northeast and southwest of Ethiopia.
Well, Mother Nature is apparently doing her thing, sure, and that is not always nice for humans. However, that is being used as an excuse by successive despotic governments to surrender the very concept of rural development in favor of letting foreigners feed Ethiopians and letting them remain eternal sharecroppers and serfs of the state and ruling party.

You see, if the idea is abroad that Ethiopians can do no better because the land is somehow cursed by drought then the real curse that is Ethiopia’s government gets a pass and is even seen by some favorably in comparison. Destroying the same incentives and guarantors of security that ownership has always meant to any people will of course lead to their suffering.

In Ethiopia’s case that means the enrichment of a few who control all aid, all agricultural marketing, all fertilizer sales, all indebtedness and own all the land. If we are all riding a curve that may be on the way up or down in terms of climate and temperature then the Dergue and Meles Inc. are doing their very best to throw as many people off of the curve so they can rule without challenge.

Do not forget that without changes in climate or any environmental reasons whatsoever that totalitarian governments like those that inspire Ethiopia's Revolutionary Democracy have starved their people as a matter of routine.

Stalin, Mao, Ho-Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Mengistu, Mugabe and too many other tyrants have caused famines taking tens of millions of victims in the absence of drought. Just as in Ethiopia's current reality basic totalitarian policies such as the absence of private property rights and brutality led to mass suffering and death as a matter of very purpooseful political and economic policy.

The issue is not that Ethiopia or the world present a challenging environment. The real issue is that Ethiopia's government prevents its people from overcoming those challenges, makes them far worse by design and fits into a long and dismal tradition of destitution and destruction utterly independent of global warming or cooling.

So even if Ethiopian greenhouse gases will not be an issue for the foreseeable future because of the planned destitution of government policy - that same government policy will result in every climactic change being experienced by Ethiopians in the worst possible way. The drought article mentioned above notes that areas that receive sufficient rainfall could feed the others given rational distribution and incentives and that given the same the whole nation could forestall cyclic famines.

Remember this fact: anyone can experience drought but only the utterly powerless experience famine. In countries with rational and civilized governments on every continent the two are not necessarily related concepts at all.

Indeed, the former province of Gojjam - by itself - could feed all of Ethiopia and much of the rest of East Africa. However, a neo-Stalinist hostility to alleged kulaks (successful farmers) and politically and corruption determined redistributions of land deter commercial investment and even small local individual improvements.

Meanwhile peasants are chained to whatever piece of land repressive local party officials determine and in some regions like Oromia one must seek permission to go beyond the boundaries of nearby farms. All this to control and to suck the peasants dry.

The crisis caused by climactic change is ongoing and its social and historical implications are becoming ever clearer now. We don’t know which way the climate curve is really headed but the curve defining the fortunes of Ethiopians is heading straight down with a bullet.

However much or little we may influence our planet we can always make Mother Nature’s works far worse. Given a social contract essentially defined as ‘do exactly as we say and we will let ferenjis feed you’ things will get far worse under this government.


Here are a few past posts on related subjects: Those Tigabugna Greens, Genetically Modified Crops and Ecological Footprints. Also Axum or Axum and A Warrior Society and its Weapons.


Where else would an essay on global climate over time turn into criticism of Ethiopia’s dictatorship? Unless something really big happens (or one of us just feels like it) there will be no posting on this blog for most of the month of March except for some much needed tinkering with the archives - mainly sorting them out by subject and source. In the meantime there are numerous links to many routinely excellent blogs on the right side of this page along with more than a year and a half worth of our posts.

Above all - Don't Believe the Hype!

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