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Is it a result of climate change or something else? Part 2.

By Moises Velasquez-Manoff / July 30, 2009

In June, Naranerdne (right), a 19-year-old nomadic livestock tender, and his family sat in a Mongolian pasture field facing rapid desertification.



Editor's note: This is a continuation of yesterday's post. The writer looks at some of the week's environmental news –  the UN climate chief visited Mongolia, a semiarid country undergoing rapid desertification, and the New Scientist reported that the Fertile Crescent "will disappear this century" – and asks the question: How many of the changes we see happening around us are really attributable to climate change?

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He's not denying that human-released greenhouse gases are changing Earth's climate. "At this point, the science points overwhelmingly in that direction," he says. But are there other factors involved in attributing some changes to global warming/climate change? To try to answer that question, he looks at two more incidents:

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon visited land-locked Mongolia on Monday. The AFP reports:

The theme of Ban's visit to Mongolia is the importance of helping communities adapt to the effects of climate change so they can become more resilient in the face of extreme weather and other environmental problems. ... Mongolia's grassland is rapidly turning into desert, the environmental ministry warned last month. Grassland is thinning in three quarters of the country, while seven percent of the steppe has already become desert.

Mr. Ban said: "You are part of the one-third of the world's population -- 2 billion people -- who are potential victims of desertification."

There's no doubt about that. The question is: Why does desertification occur? Yes, scientists predict that many dry areas will become drier in a warmer world. But in many cases, land-use practices have more to do with desertification than a changing climate.

In Mongolia, for example, overgrazing is a huge problem. By most estimates, the primary driver of desertification is too many animals grazing, not climate change.

In 2001, China's People's Daily reported on a survey by Mongolia's Ministry of Food and Agriculture. One finding: "Mongolia's livestock grew by one third during the period of 1993 and 1997 to reach nearly 33.5 million heads." (It fell to 30.2 million in subsequent bad years.)

It's human population growth that's behind the growth in livestock. The country is still greatly dependent on animal husbandry. In 2001, half the population depended on animals, according to the People's Daily article. That represented 30 percent of the gross domestic product.

Also, Mongolia's population exploded in the 20th century. According to Wikipedia, in 1956, Mongolia had 845,481 people; in 1979, 1,538,980; and in 2007, 2,601,789. In 50 years, the population tripled.

The semiarid landscape may have easily sustained the number of livestock grazing in Genghis Khan's time (the 13th century) and even the number in the 1950s, but now it simply can't. Sure, climate change will likely make things worse. But at least in the short-term, changing land-use practices will go much further than halting CO2 emissions in fighting Mongolia's desertification problem — something that the AFP story does, by the way, allude to.

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