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Author, physicist, climate scientist. Expert on natural resource security issues. Environment executive. Legendary ocarina player -

Water is the principal expression of the climate system. Through droughts, storm, and floods, it shapes people’s lives. In fact, Earth’s climate expresses its agency on the landscape through water. The rhythm of the hydrological cycle sets the beat at which much of our society dances: adjusting to it, changing it, even directing it, have been a human preoccupation for millennia.

But contrary to what some might imagine, this story is not written in the rivers of the world, through the countless dams, canals, levees that litter the Earth as we attempt to replumb the planet. Rather, the story of…

If this year’s flooding and wildfires came as a surprise to inhabitants of rich countries, that is because the modern political compact was built on effective water management. As natural forces overwhelm these countries’ infrastructure, their political institutions will come under growing strain.

Photo by Chris Gallagher on Unsplash

LONDON — Swaths of Europe are flooded, and the American west is engulfed in heat, fire, and drought. Wealthy countries are experiencing what many developing countries have always known: a changing climate can become quickly unmanageable when our control of water fails.

Following this summer’s disasters, political leaders from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Oregon Governor Kate…

Since the dawn of agricultural societies, humans have been developing institutions and technologies to master the natural world and harness its power. The big question for the age of climate change is whether this defining political and institutional challenge can continue to be met democratically.

Photo by Dez Hester @DezHester on Unsplash

President Joe Biden’s administration is working hard to reclaim America’s role as a global leader in sustainable development. But success will depend on whether it can lay the political foundation for a new relationship between society and the environment.

Activists and policymakers alike are demanding more investment in technologies to reduce the environmental footprint of…

Photo by Ryan Thorpe on Unsplash

Last April, Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Upper San Leandro treatment plant in Oakland, her Californian hometown. The American Jobs Plan, she told her constituency, will deliver over a hundred billion dollars for the upgrade of U.S. water supply infrastructure. In truth, the investment plan, one of the largest in a generation, is far more ambitious than that. Across all proposed expenditures, it includes not just the upgrade of all water piping, but also remediation, flood protection, ecosystem restoration, and the climate proofing of economic activities. All these initiatives place water at the heart of recovery and resilience.


Detail of Hobbe’s “Leviathan” title page — © The Trustees of the British Museum

In January, amidst the global COVID19 pandemic, the Netherlands hosted a digital Climate Adaptation Summit. At the event, many government leaders framed post-pandemic recovery in terms of adaptation to a changing climate.

The topic seems to be widely embraced at this point. US President Biden ran his campaign promising that every dollar spent toward rebuilding would be used to “withstand a changing climate.” He appears to be making good on that promise. As part of its response to the COVID19 crisis, the European Union too has established a 672 billion Euro Recovery and Resilience Facility, supporting measures including adaptation. …

I wrote a book. It is a history of the relationship between society and water. Its scope is ambitious: a planetary story that begins when people first became sedentary, ten thousand years ago, and reaches the present. It is a story of people, a story of institutions. Above all, it is a story of ideas.

The book’s title — Water, A Biography — captures its central theme. A biography referred to an inert substance is possible because water, as we experience it, is entirely dependent on our social life. Floods matter because our urban homes are caught in them. Storms…

The Cleveland Dam. Photo by Christian Fischer

The world of water resources is of substantial political relevance. Ensuring that water is available where and when needed for food production, energy conversion, or urban living is foundational to modern life.

It is also a field of arresting complexity. For example, water managers need to supply enough irrigation water to satisfy grain demand — itself driven by demographics, taste, economics — while the rainfall that feeds its sources is subject to seasonal, interannual, and decadal variability. …

China’s scientific and engineering knowledge gives it a distinct advantage in framing how best to manage the Mekong Basin and share its resources

Photo by Bianca Bonifacio on Unsplash

China has been ramping up its investments with the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism, which — according to American officials — is an attempt to compete with the Mekong River Commission ( MRC).

A competition over who dominates scientific and technical knowledge of the river indicates an escalation in the complexity of challenges confronting the Mekong and an evolution from what seemed to be a largely domestic focus of China’s economic interests in its upper reaches.

Concerns for how…

How the work of one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century laid the foundation for our modern relationship with the planet.


Geopolitics on the move

Sixty-six years ago, this day exactly, America found itself celebrating one of founding fathers of modern meteorology. For the very first time, on Dec 17th 1956, the coveted cover of Time magazine went to a meteorologist.

This was not the first instance that a scientist had earned such public recognition. Since the inception of the magazine in 1923 there had been a steady stream of science celebrities gracing its cover. …

Lessons in sustainability from two thousand years ago.

Photo by David Köhler on Unsplash

A Roman archetype

“Apart from better sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health … what have the Romans ever done for us?” Reg did not mention “sustainability” in Life of Brian. No surprise: it wasn’t much of a buzz word when Monty Python filmed in 1979.

The Romans would not have been familiar with the word “sustainability” as it is used today. After all, it is a reaction to industrial modernity and the consumption economy. …

Dr Giulio Boccaletti

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