Winding up a month traveling through India and Myanmar, it seems the entire subcontinent is covered in a hazy blanket of pollution. Reports from Beijing a thousand miles to the north press the limits of belief. But air pollution can be cleaned by stopping emissions. Much more difficult is the problem with water.
Here is my take-away: tourism and rapidly growing economies are already colliding head-on with climate change.
In south India, a massive drought is interrupting electricity supplies at the same time local economies are experiencing rapid growth. One way or another, the 24/7 world-wide web has created a global village where massive wealth transfers – from the West, East – have enabled hopes, dreams and prosperity that was unimaginable only a few decades ago. (Tom Friedman recently coined the term, ‘the virtual middle class’, and he is not wrong.)
In the United States, we mired both in the fog manufactured by fossil fuel industries and right wing extremists and in ineffective efforts by environmentalists to advance a rational transition away from fossil fuel based economies. Whatever one’s persuasion, climate change is occurring at a far faster pace than we are adapting.
In Myanmar, on the Irrawaddy River – one of the world’s great rivers – the vessel from Mandalay to Bagan ran aground on sandbars due to dramatically low water levels. At Inle Lake, a water body that is as shallow and formerly grand as Lake Okeechobee, low water levels will soon strand tens of thousands of rural poor who live on reed shacks built over the lake.
The cause is altered rain cycles. Over the last decade rainfall patterns have broken from the seasonal norms that sustained civilization in Asia for millennium. The changes follow the same pattern we are seeing in US: extremes at both ends of the spectrum. This is exactly as climate change scientists have predicted; the consequence of extraordinary additions to the atmosphere of man-made gases including carbon dioxide. Last season’s monsoon was short in south Asia, leaving water supplies at extremely low levels as the hot months approach for a billion people.
As hard as it is to grasp what is happening – although the fact of climate change is visible for all to see – what is even more perplexing is the notion that civilized nations have been unable to alter a course for humanity that points in the direction of catastrophic impacts.
Clearly, the poor – who have lived for centuries and thousands of years – through subsistence economies will be the first to be displaced. For a while, the news will be clear of famine reports, because even poor nations like Myanmar can organize the distribution of rice and basics for elemental nutrition. Successive years of severe drought will bring catastrophe, home. But, here, at Inle Lake, the impacts are at the door. Fishermen and their families – already coping with huge algae blooms for the same reasons as Lake Okeechobee – will no longer be able to access fishing grounds from homes on canals left high and dry by dropping water levels. Nor will tourists, who cannot access locations to visit except by long propeller boats. For all these, climate change is here and now.
As climate change accelerates, these stories are bound to pile up. The risk is that Western nations, with industrial scale food and energy distribution, will be lulled into imagining that our bunkers and silos are hardened. Those attributes, however, will prove far less durable in the long run. Under the pressure of climate change, the skills of the village people of Asia, accustomed to thriving through the resource and ingenuity of their own hands, could prove more durable than all the prizes of the industrial revolution.