WASHINGTON – Nature is setting the deadlines now.
This paraphrase of a British diplomat’s remark sums up an instinctive reaction by local communities to the challenges of climate change. In northern China, where the population has tripled to 43 percent of the national population while the regional water sources still supply only 14 percent of the national need, the Yellow River is drying up as the developing cities along its banks boom with thirsty factories – in one, The New York Times reported, the number of factories has gone from four in 1998 to more than 400. Nomads, farmers and some 140 million people are at risk of water shortages, and native grasslands long ago began turning to desert; but Chinese scientists and researchers have found that an overburdened river is a secondary risk. They’ve tracked the river’s dwindling water volume from its lakes of origin to an underground system of feeder flows, and ultimately found that glaciers in the Yellow River source region have shrunk by 13 percent in 17 years. The Times reported that China’s official news agency stated the glaciers across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau are melting at a rate of 7 percent annually. The warming in the region has caused permafrost to soften under highways and railroad tracks.
In the Himalayan mountain country of Nepal, bordered to the north by Tibet, unprecedented rains have swept away farming terraces and irrigation systems built up over generations, while the month-early arrivals of an annual snowmelt have disrupted a growing season that had been settled for centuries. Lakes that collect glacial meltwater, meanwhile, are rising rapidly enough to “burst their banks within a decade,” repeating the disaster of 1985, according to an account in The Guardian Weekly newspaper. The Guardian further reported that Nepal has registered “some of the fastest long-term increases in temperature and rainfall anywhere in the world.”
And in Australia, drought has drained the Murray-Darling River System by 54 percent more than the previous minimum measure, which recorded its lowest-ever October inflows. The river system supplies three-quarters of the country’s consumed water, and its shortfall has provoked a political crisis.
In the United States, where as elsewhere global warming factors are becoming more and more part of the development planning process, voters on Nov. 7 delivered a series of setbacks to anti-environmental measures. In a major change on the political landscape, the West led the way, protecting public lands from a host of ballot initiatives and installing Democratic lawmakers at every level throughout the region. Governors can be particularly influential in national politics, and Democratic governors now hold office in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. Another, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, pursued a Democrat-friendly agenda as the price of re-election – a course he is recommending to other Republicans.