Copenhagen’s missing ingredient: water


Climate change conjures up factory smoke, corn ethanol, cap-and-trade, hybrid cars. It also evokes Al Gore, drowning polar bears, African famine and Hurricane Katrina. All these triggers and the issues they invoke, backed by mounting evidence of irreversible risks to humankind, will converge next week in Copenhagen.

Our collective political will may yet secure the Earth’s equilibrium through an overarching deal -- though short of a treaty -- by the end of the U.N. climate-change conference there. Or it could all come unglued. Delegates from around the world chosen to decide our fate have deliberately removed the one element that can tip the scales.

We know fossil fuel emissions matter immensely. But the most volatile chemical compound isn’t methane, nitrous oxide or even carbon dioxide. It’s water.


Scientists stress water’s profound link with climate change, and how wise water management could bind global efforts to cool our warming planet with local efforts to absorb its unavoidable shocks. Even the public gets it. Yet our delegates wallow in denial. In a misguided effort to avoid dissent, they have erased water from their working draft, forgetting how water is the planet’s one common denominator.

Start with the atmosphere. Climatologists differ on some science but agree on this: The most potent greenhouse gas -- more than double the impact of carbon dioxide -- is water vapor. As CO2 begins to concentrate, global warming rapidly evaporates more surface moisture. Up there, rapidly accumulating water vapor magnifies the greenhouse effect.

Back down here, water is also the medium for adapting to those greenhouse effects that are well underway. Virtually every effect we dread -- urban heat waves, melting snowpack, longer droughts, increased wildfires, drying reservoirs, rising sea levels, desiccating soils -- boils down to the loss of fresh water. Even regions feeling more sudden, torrential rain can’t use their extreme runoff; to absorb unpredictable floods, dam operators must empty their reservoirs.

So whenever we say climate volatility, we really mean water volatility.

That truth goes beyond semantics. The lack of secure water unravels development as billions lose access to clean, healthy lifelines. Unstable water undermines food security because of drier farms, eroded topsoil and diminished irrigation. And it cripples energy security, with less water to turn turbines, cool nukes, pump oil or boil into steam for generation by coal, solar and geothermal plants.

Geopolitical concerns alone should compel Copenhagen’s delegates to make water adaptation strategies their top priority. But rather than defuse it as a threat multiplier, or integrate it in coping mechanisms, negotiators surgically deleted all references to water from the draft text.

To grasp what (or if) Copenhagen’s delegates are thinking, consider their backgrounds. For decades climate warriors fought hard to reduce carbon pollution, and to do so their officials silenced all talk of water adaptation as a “lazy,” “skeptical” and “fatalistic” distraction. That legacy lingers. Some estimate that for every thousand clean-energy and carbon-mitigation obsessed delegates descending on Copenhagen, fewer than a dozen deal with adaptation through water. Having dehydrated the negotiations, no one can discuss how all the planet’s thirsty species, including 6.8 billion humans -- will cope with the water volatility that is inevitable even if all emissions ended today.

Yet even as delegates repress water’s strategic import, the world does not. A Pew Research poll found that, over the last 18 months, Americans’ concern about climate change has evaporated from 44% to 35%; a GlobeScan/Circle of Blue international survey found 87% of those polled worried about increasing freshwater shortages, up five points from 2003. The inverted priorities reveal three things.

First, to regain public trust and reestablish their democratic legitimacy, climate delegates must restore water to its rightful place at the fulcrum of decisions. If voters don’t fully value the invisible, silent and delayed effect of burning coal and gasoline, they definitely grasp how humans both affect and depend on an increasingly volatile water cycle. In the face of extreme instability, society demands a route to resilience.

Second, climate resilience can’t be regulated from above, but it can be encouraged to emerge from below -- through water. Water can be more securely stored in the efficient “natural infrastructure” of flood plains, groundwater and aquifers, rather than sacrificed to the sun in shallow evaporation reservoirs. Human ingenuity can be tapped through judicious conservation incentives that instill a stronger sense of local water ownership in us all.

Finally, water must be the delegates’ most compelling political catalyst. Even climate skeptics see the risks of scarcity, and the virtue of securing water for human use. By embracing water as the tangible link between global vapor up there and local river basins down here, delegates could forge a more integrated, meaningful treaty that endures.

It’s not too late. Water remains a magically cohesive element without which all life withers. To replenish the Earth, in the next round of negotiations, Copenhagen delegates must just add water.

James G. Workman has advised national water ministers around the world and is the author of “Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought.”