Which endures — passports or humans?

David Zetland thinks passports will become more important. The interesting question is if they will make you more important.

The first passports were issues centuries ago, but it wasn’t until after World War I that travelers needed them to cross borders, prove their identity, and protect their rights as citizens, both domestically and abroad.

Passports allowed their holders to “pass through the port [gate]” of new diplomatic and bureaucratic walls. People without passports could not pass from their original country to another country. (Illegal crossings could only go so far before they were prevented.)

Passports are valuable precisely because they separate humans into two groups: those who may pass, and those who may not.

In many cases, people do not worry about this difference because they do not care to leave their countries of origin, but there are numerous examples of people taking dramatic risks or paying exorbitant sums when they want to leave their countries but lack the “proper paperwork.”

Humans in the not-too-distant past did not need passports to leave poor prospects for hope.

Migrants face costs of all kinds. They leave behind their families, friends, and place in the world. They are willing to bear those costs because they think the benefits of their new “home” to be worthwhile.

pportThe cost of moving has increased as passport (and visa) requirements have tightened over the past century. During World War I, refugees could flee violence for safer places. During the 1920s and later, they were trapped behind bureaucratic walls that could not be breeched without the right papers.

The entire plot of the 1942 movie, Casablanca, depends on the heroes getting the right visa, but the movie’s happy ending was denied to the millions of refugees and political prisoners (most famously, the Jews) who died (or were murdered) through government action or neglect. The situation is not much different today for the people who want to flee cruel and deadly places (North Korea, Eritrea, Syria, etc.) but lack “papers.”

Some people might think that the suffering of would-be migrants is a price worth paying to protect their own homes from being overrun and pockets emptied to help refugees, but those people (usually members of the “lucky sperm club” born with the right papers) miss the obvious middle option of allowing migration without the gold-plated protections they expect themselves. Most migrants are less interested in handouts than in safety and the opportunity to work and contribute to their adoptive communities.

Passports will become more valuable in a climate-changed world as disruptions (failed crops, miserable weather, sinking cities, violence, etc.) increase the value of moving. Refugees — human and animal — will seek to cross borders as their domestic prospects deteriorate. Some of these refugees will have more money (those fleeing record temperatures in the Persian Gulf or abandoning beachfront houses on tropical islands), but most refugees will be the poor who cannot feed or protect themselves.

The increased importance of passports will mean that those with “good passports” will be very interested in ensuring their identity is protected. People with “bad passports,” on the other hand, will be willing to pay more to get forged passports (or obtain real passports via fraud). Those forces will complement each other in driving governments to increase the security of their passports.

A few months ago, I was extremely upset when I opened the washing machine to find my passport. We were leaving to South America in a week, and there was no time to get a replacement, so I took a chance. Luckily, the damage was too small to affect the passport’s function, but I really thought a lot about how vulnerable I was without that document to “protect my rights.” No border guard, soldier or police officer is interested in my charm, blog or business card. The only thing that stood between me and deportation was a 32-page booklet.

Passport controls and identity are going to get very sophisticated, very quickly if even half the predictions of climate change come to pass (let alone the chaos that leaders create on their own!). To me, that implies that we are going to replace passports with technology that’s harder to forge or lose, such as implanted RFC chips, tattoos (yes, I’m saying it), DNA-registration, and other technologies that can pass through the wash without losing their validity.

Is this inevitable? Not exactly. Passports were put into widespread use over 100 years ago at the behest of governments that wanted to control who went where. The balance of costs and benefits has kept that system in place, but that balance could tip entirely over if enough pressure is applied. The arrival of numerous “undocumented aliens” in the US and EU (and China’s breaking documentation system) suggests that controls are fragile, just as the rise of digital currencies (and continuing attraction of gold) has shown people’s mistrust of government motives.

In the future, we may all need to scan ourselves to the authorities on a daily basis, to prove that we have the right to be where we are — or we may just need to find ways to live among a variety of people.

Will we value humans or paperwork? If your answer depends on what passport you’re holding right now, then I suggest you imagine how you’d answer that passport was gone.

dz_smDavid Zetland is an assistant professor at Leiden University College, where he teaches various classes on economics. He received his PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics from UC Davis in 2008. He blogs on water, economics and politics at aguanomics.com, has two books (The End of Abundance: economic solutions to water scarcity and Living with Water Scarcity), gives many talks to public, professional and academic audiences, and writes for popular and academic outlets. David lives in Amsterdam.

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A Vietnamese village’s uncertain future

Tran Thi Kim Lien reports on the threats to the communities of her childhood.

In one study in my hometown – a mountainous area in North Central Region of Vietnam, we considered Huong Lam commune – one of the vulnerable areas of climate change in Ha Tinh province. The commune is home to 6,673 people in 1,636 households with an average population density of 400 people/km2. Their main livelihood activities are agriculture, small industries, trades and services. Our study found that this commune faces risk from floods, droughts, cold and storms.

The most immediate impact of drought is a reduction and even loss in crop production (paddy rice, peanut, maize, etc.) due to inadequate and poorly distributed rainfall. Another severe impact of droughts is water shortages (Overseas Development Institute, 1997 PDF). Lower pasture production from droughts may also decrease fodder supplies. With little land available, the people cannot reduce risk through diversification (Beckman, 2011). The unusual dry conditions since the end of 2015 (allied with El Niño) have led to severe droughts around the country (IFRC, 2016).

The worst agricultural losses are from floods that arrive with typhoons. Floods destroy both standing crops (paddy rice and fruit trees) and stored food. They also increase fungal infections that destroy seeds for the next planting. Floods of 2-3 days cause serious health problems for people (in particular, the disabled and elderly) who live in poor conditions with limited food sources, polluted water sources, and poor sanitation (Few, Ahern, Matthies, & Kovats, 2004 PDF).

The author standing on a road that nearly flooded after torrential rains raised the river level by 2m.
The author standing on a road that nearly flooded after torrential rains raised river levels by 2m.

The Vietnam Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment projects that medium emissions climate change scenarios (B2) will increase annual rainfall by 2-7 percent by 2100, with less rain in the dry season and more in the rainy season. Maximum daily rainfall may double in the North Central zones (including in Ha Tinh). Typhoons can uproot crops, damage trees, and destroy housing and animal shelters (Few, Ahern, Matthies, & Kovats, 2004). Climate change will change the intensity, frequency and (un)predictability of storms. In Ha Tinh, storms that normally occur from August to October are sometimes showing up in April, causing greater damage due to their unpredictable frequency and intensity.

The people of Huong Lam will not find it easy to adapt.

Tran Thi Kim Lien [email] holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in Forest Science and Management from Vietnam and Australia, respectively. After earning her first degree, she spent 13 years working in forestry and rural development in North Central Vietnam. Her Masters degree has widened her knowledge to include environmental management and climate change adaptation. She now focuses on helping local people understand their vulnerabilities and adapt to climate change.

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The beach that ate Silicon Valley

Jennifer LaForce has noticed that the residents and workers of Silicon Vally treat climate change like they treat homelessness — not their problem.

Silicon Valley, California. You can admire; you can hate it. Most of the world’s leading edge technology either comes from here or is made usable here. Tucked into the northern reaches of the San Francisco Bay, you will find an old quai in the tiny towns of Alviso and Milpitas [now best seen at a local park]. Here the bay is shallow: 85 percent of the water is less than 30 feet deep. Circulation depends on strong tidal action, river inflow, winds and storms. From a wildlife perspective, the salt marshes are highly productive and very valuable. When the tide is high, many fish species forage for food along the shore. Once the tide goes out, water birds feast on those unfortunate enough to get stuck.


Not too long ago, the Milpitas quai was a destination. Standing on the old pilings, a little imagination takes you on unday boat rides in 1915 or even farther back to a Native American fishing for dinner.

Now there is a new kind of production on the quai. Not quite sky scrapers, new commercial buildings full of valuable equipment and more valuable ideas indicate that the recession is over and Silicon Valley is pushing at the edges of its geography yet again. Water treatment plants responsible for most of the usable water in the Bay area dot the marsh shores. Highway 237 is a critical connection between continental California and the San Francisco peninsula, connecting the states two major highways, 880 along the eastern side of the bay and 101 along the western side.

Two meters of sea level rise will inundate the Bay Area’s coastline

A sea-level rise of 2 meters has all of Milpitas and Alviso completely underwater. Highway 237 will belong to the sea creatures as will much of Highway 101.

Such a sea-level rise will inundate both developed and natural areas, cause salinity contamination of groundwater aquifers and rivers, damage ports and recreational beaches. The cost of protecting against sea-level rise is large, but often below the value of the property protected. Preventative (“Hey! Don’t build there!”) and/or defensive actions taken today can prevent large damages in the future

Numerous studies have been done and there is no need to reproduce their conclusions. What is strangely remarkable about the rise in sea-level and the corresponding results is how we, as California communities, respond to it in almost exactly the same way we respond to homelessness.

Study after study, proof after proof – If you don’t know by now that it costs less to house a homeless person than to leave them on the streets, you just don’t want to know. Between jail time and emergency room visits, it costs about $30,000 a year for a homeless person to be on the streets. Add business loss, shelter costs and the figure increases to a staggering $40,000 a year. Guess what, they could be in a home for a lot less.

Perhaps because the costs are not easily seen by an individual or because the costs are spread out over service areas, we can’t seem to respond to these facts.

Likewise the value of property threatened by sea-level rise in Silicon Valley is extremely high because of past development and getting higher every day because of new development. Around the perimeter of the Bay, existing commercial, residential, and industrial structures threatened by a two-meter sea-level rise is valued at $100 billion.

Perhaps because of the slow rate of increase of sea level or perhaps because the individual can’t see it, there is little advanced planning and an inadequate response to these facts.

I’ve worked in disabled and disadvantaged communities for 30 years. I understand emotional response. I understand bias. But I have yet to figure out why my peers cannot step beyond both when presented with undisputable fact. If we could figure this out, we could address the fact that the sea level is rising without over or under reacting. We could address homelessness and probably every other polarizing issue. For me, that’s the task to undertake.

laforceJennifer LaForce is a Business Consultant in Silicon Valley, missionary, author & traveler with the grandiose goal of understanding why we do what we do.

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Coastal freshwater aquifers join the sea

Nazli Koseoglu points out that higher sea levels also mean more saltwater penetration into coastal freshwater aquifers.

Global sea level is rising at an accelerating rate in response to global warming. As temperatures increase, ice growth in winter falls behind ice melt in summer resulting shrinkage of nearly all surveyed glaciers worldwide. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, decline in ice cover increases amount of freshwater lost to the oceans and has already added about eight inches to the average sea level since Industrial Revolution. The IPCC forecasts [pdf] continuation of this trend in increasing sea levels over the course of this century with 0.4 to 0.8 metre additional increase only if the zero emissions are achieved as a result of historical emissions. On the other hand a more pessimistic  realistic scenario by the World Bank predicts up to 2 metres increase in the sea level assuming global carbon emissions remain unabated. A 2-metre rise in sea levels means an extreme reshaping of coastlines, possible flooding of many low-lying and coastal cities, and severe inundation of several islands.

Next to the well-documented concern for coastal and lowland flooding risk, another yet under-reported impact of sea level rise will be on the freshwater systems. When the freshwater level drops lower than the equilibrium in coastal aquifers, saltwater with higher density, thus pressure, is allowed further in land and salinize groundwater resources. This phenomenon is defined as salt intrusion (Johnson, 2007). Moreover as the sea level goes up beyond tolerable level, the interface between ground and seawater changes and intrusion risk increases, significantly impacting local drinking water availability of coastal communities. Basement and septic system failures and detrition of marshland ecosystems fed by coastal aquifers are other further hazards of the sea level rise associated with coastal aquifers are. How the sea level rise will affect in the coastal aquifers in schematised in the figure below taken from US Geological Survey sources.


Climate-related hazards threaten human-environment systems and their vulnerability increase with amplified exposure. There are wide variety of physical mitigation and social adaptation options of varying effectiveness that could be combined in dealing with reducing the pressure of sea level rise on the coastal aquifers. While physical measures are mainly barriers insulating and recharging aquifers or removing saltwater, socials measures are more about adapting behaviour such as changing or limiting withdrawal patterns from coastal aquifers. However each measure requires a definite level expertise for implementation and comes at a certain capital, operation or opportunity cost to communities at risk that are not always able to afford them [pdf]. This adds up to the immense external costs and injustices of global warming that we do not account for.


As elaborated in Chang et al. multiple factors affect the vulnerability to salt intrusion in coastal aquifers of different geological characteristics at different altitudes and sea level-groundwater dynamics has a high level of inherit uncertainty due to this complexity. The occasional mismatches in sea level rises at local and global scale also adds to the challenge of determining a rule of thumb indicator or transferable decision support tool to assess vulnerability to sea level rise and type of mitigation measure to be chosen.

nazliNazli Koseoglu is a PhD student from the School of Geosciences of University of Edinburgh, UK. Her PhD looks into the valuation and optimization of water use in Scotland to increase total social return. Prior to her current studies in environmental economics, she received MSc degree in Environmental Studies and BSc in Environmental Engineering. She thinks groundwater systems can not be considered in isolation from rest of the water systems and therefore wanted to contribute Life Plus 2 Meters project to highlight the linkages between sea level rise and groundwater dynamics.

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It’s about time!

Chris Holdsworth explains how we’ve reached a Catch-22 where inevitable adaptation obviates the need for mitigation.

timeThe single biggest barrier of our understanding and concern about climate change is time. Time is something that dictates everything, from our day-to-day schedules to how our planet regulates itself, but one’s perception of time is entirely subjective. The recent film Interstellar beautifully demonstrated this concept, and it is at the core of the discussion surrounding climate change. Where’s the evidence, why can’t I see it, why aren’t our summers noticeably hotter, why aren’t cities underwater yet? Climate change is to the human eye often invisible. It is planetary processes responding to human activity. The difficulty is that the planetary responses operate on a geological or planetary timescale, something that far exceeds our concept of time. A useful method of illustrating this is to consider the entire history of Earth in 24 hours. Do this and humans first appeared on the planet at 23:58:43, in fact industrialisation only took place seconds ago.

So this is the problem with climate change, a problem that is of our own doing, but which the consequences far-outdate a single generation. However, the fact remains we live in a human world and the impacts of climate change need to be assessed in human terms. Considering a world where sea levels are two metres higher than today is concerning, not least because the science increasingly suggests it could be a possibility by the turn of the century. This is of course because of the complex interconnectivity of our planet’s natural regulatory systems, whereby one change in the colour of a surface can change the amount of energy available to weather systems and geochemical processes. Our planet regulates itself through a multitude of complex feedback processes of which we are forcing and changing at a rate rarely seen throughout Earth history. But again, we live in a human world so we must consider the problems human society will encounter. Professor Brain Cox highlighted this recently:

“The key point is can we respond to it [the clear evidence that our climate is changing]. Do we have the political institutions, the political will and the organisation globally to respond to this challenge, and that worries me immensely. I don’t think we do at the moment.”

This concern is the real danger of climate change. The science involved is not terminal for the Earth, it has survived much worse than us and will most likely long out-live us. Climate change is humankind making our way of life and day-to-day lives much more difficult than they currently are. What Professor Cox highlights is that to change this our governance systems and figureheads need to be motivated and concerned about this issue and put simply, right now they are not.

The idea of sea levels being two metres higher than they currently are has a certain element of catch 22 about it. There would be no reasonable way of ignoring the problem, particularly in government centres like London which would likely be at least partially submerged, because for the first time significant visual evidence of human caused climate change is a problem and seriously threatens our way of life. However, if and when we reach that level of sea level we will likely be beyond the point of easily reversing the change we have set into motion, because of the nature of how our planet regulates itself. It is if you like similar to approaching a waterfall in a boat. Turn the boat a safe distance from the waterfall edge and the financial and physical cost will be minimal, but the longer you wait and closer you get to the waterfall the more difficult it becomes to reverse the direction of the boat until the boat tumbles over the edge and the financial and physical cost exponentially increases and you lose any real control in reversing the direction of the boat.

It is all rather depressing, but infuriating too because governments, particularly following the financial crash of 2008 are overly cautious with government spending for fear of increasing national deficits and decreasing public ratings. However, the longer we delay in truly addressing the causes and threats of climate change the costlier it becomes to everyone, not just government budgets. What is even more tragic is that the threats and causes of climate change present an opportunity to empower and protect individuals, particularly the most vulnerable in society. Small scale, individually owned, energy production, a more regular exposure to the natural world, enhancing the world we live in rather than degrading it. It truly is a tragedy that too many of us are blind to and on current trend will continue to neglect or not even acknowledge until it is too late.

It is perhaps fitting then to finish on the news that at the end of August 2016 a specially commissioned group of scientists came to a unanimous decision that the Earth has now entered a new geological time epoch. An epoch in geological time is shorted than a ‘period’, but longer than an absolute date or event. The criteria for the progression into a new epoch is should geologists in millions of years look back into the rock record at rocks that formed today, is there a notable shift in factors like species numbers, radioactive particles, atmospheric temperatures and rates of erosion. The group found that we comfortably qualify in all of these criteria and hence agreed that the Earth has indeed entered this new period known as the Anthropocene, likely in the mid 20th century upon the dawn of nuclear weapon usage and exponential population growth. What is even more shocking is that many scientists believe we are currently living in the sixth major mass extinction event in Earth history, the famed extinction of the dinosaurs being one of them, because at current rates three-quarters of species could become extinct in the next few centuries.

Despite all of this the question remains, can we respond? Do we have the foresight and will to really tackle this problem head on and save ourselves so much financial and social expenditure in the future? Only time will tell. There is so much potential to change things that will benefit all, but right now the forecast is bleak

HoldsworthChris Holdsworth is a final year undergraduate student at The University of Glasgow where he studies Earth Science. Aside from his studies Chris is regularly involved in public outreach and science communication work, including writing for various online media sources such as Darrow and The Glasgow Insight to Science and Technology. Chris is also the environmental officer on the student representative council (SRC) at Glasgow and sits on the council of this body. He currently lives in Glasgow, but grew up in Teesside, north east England.

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