Unless you’ve been living in a hole in the ground or in a galaxy far, far away you won’t have missed media revelations about government security services snooping on our every communication.
Personal phone calls and e-mails are among the data routinely scooped up and stored for possible later scrutiny. It makes a mockery of the notion of personal privacy.
As private citizens we express, or suppress, our outrage and get on with our day-to-day lives. We call, text and mail our nearest and dearest with our most intimate secrets. In the back of our minds we hope that "someone" is there to prevent the descent into an Orwellian dystopia. Or we ignore it and reckon it doesn’t affect us.
When individuals snoop, it’s called ‘hacking’ and they are pursued to the ends of the Earth. When governments do it, it’s "surveillance" and they get off Scot-free.
Private and government communications compromised
Governments, too, rely on electronic communication to exchange their most intimate secrets and that includes their negotiating positions in international talks, such as those on climate change.
Decisions about cutting carbon pollution are serious business and impact on trillions of dollars of present and future investments. And vested interests have the upper hand if they know the positions of their opponents.
What’s the most likely outcome of a card game where your hand is on the table while other players hold their cards close to their chests?
The odds are already stacked against developing countries that face the brunt of climate change impacts. Their disadvantage in protecting themselves against the ‘dark arts’ of electronic eavesdropping makes them even more vulnerable.
Big Brother has been watching all along. For all we know, the outcome of the UN climate talks opening in Lima, on Dec. 1, may already have been compromised.
Copenhagen Climate Summit hung out to dry
In an article, “For the NSA, espionage was a means to strengthen the US position in climate negotiations,” the Danish publication Information raised the question as to whether electronic surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contributed to the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit, in 2009.
The summit was billed as the moment when the world’s nations would reach agreement on achieving significant cuts in carbon pollution. As Information put it, some called the summit the most important of its kind since the end of World War II. More than a hundred government leaders participated. Never before had so many heads of state been gathered outside the UN headquarters in New York.
According to the article, the Danish climate minister and her staff took special care to keep track of every paper copy of a Danish draft proposal. If handed out, each copy was collected again at the end of the meetings.
But this was before Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, blew the whistle on all-pervasive electronic snooping. Back in 2009, no security precautions were taken to protect the Danish document in electronic form.
An accompanying article, "NSA spied against UN climate negotiations," cited a leaked document reporting that the U.S. NSA, along with its close partners from intelligence agencies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK—the so-called Five Eyes—“will continue to provide policymakers with unique, timely, and valuable insights into key countries' preparations and goals for the conference, as well as the deliberations within countries on climate change policies and negotiation strategies”.
It appears that at an early stage in the Copenhagen process, the NSA had intercepted information about the position that the Danish government—the host of the conference—had as its bottom line. If so, this would be crucial intelligence. The US government would know that it didn’t need to shift its position—if they held out, the rest of the world would come to them.
A further article by ‘Information’, “Legal experts: Illegal to spy on Denmark and the UN”, referred to the view of legal experts that, "It would constitute a violation of both Danish laws and international conventions if the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) spied against Denmark and the UN climate summit COP15 in Copenhagen in December 2009".
Not only the NSA
The NSA is not alone in its spying effort. In an article published on Nov. 1, Information reported, “The British intelligence service GCHQ has spied systematically against international climate change summits”.
The article says that a “February 2011 PowerPoint presentation lists the annual UN COP summits from 2007 to 2010 as targets of GCHQ espionage, including Copenhagen's COP15 in December 2009, although it is not clear if the service spied on COP14 in Poland in 2008. According to the presentation, GCHQ was also deployed against the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate Change (MEF), a meeting for the world's top economies which took place in Paris in the spring of 2009 as a part of the preparations for the summit in Copenhagen later that year”.
Another article by Information, “Disguised as Climate Negotiators,” reports that “climate change became a ‘serious intelligence priority’ for GCHQ in 2007.” It says, “An undercover employee of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was embedded in the British delegation when world leaders assembled at the 2010 UN Climate Change Summit in Cancún, Mexico”.
The meeting in Cancún was intended to bring the UN climate negotiations back on track after the historic failure in Copenhagen in 2009. Did you notice a dramatic development from the Cancún meeting? (Just in case I’d missed something).
Cancún was four years ago—ancient history on the electronic snooping timescale.
UN territory and talks must be off-limits to snooping
Negotiations under the UN banner are meant to allow every country to have its say.
More than that, the venues of all UN climate summits are declared to be UN territory for the duration of the negotiations, so the snoopers could have been breaking international law.
UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said he’s launching an investigation into reports that Britain spied on other governments at two successive global climate summits: “All diplomatic information is inviolable. If there has been any breach … they should be investigated. UN information should be protected in its entire confidentiality."
What does it mean for Lima in December 2014?
Governments are giving the UN climate talks another shot in Lima, starting on 1 December—the twentieth time they’ll have met to achieve progress.
Climate change affects us all. The saddest response from negotiators in Lima to the question, “What did you do to stop it?” would be, “I failed to encrypt my communications.”
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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