By William deBuys, the author of eight books, the most recent of which is The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures. He has written extensively on water, drought, and climate in the West, including A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. Originally published at TomDispatch
Long ago, I lived in a cheap flat in San Francisco and worked as the lone straight man in a gay construction company. Strangely enough, the drought now strangling California brings back memories of those days. It was the 1970s. Our company specialized in restoring the Victorian “gingerbread” to the facades of the city’s townhouses, and I got pretty good at installing cornices, gable brackets, and window hoods, working high above the street.
What I remember most, though, is the way my co-workers delighted in scandalizing me on Monday mornings with accounts of their weekend exploits.
We were all so innocent back then. We had no idea of the suffering that lay ahead or of the grievous epidemic already latent in the bodies of legions of gay men like my friends, an epidemic that would afflict so many outside the gay community but was especially terrible within it.
It’s unlikely that many of those guys are alive today. HIV was already in the population, although AIDS had yet to be detected or named, and no one had heard of “safe sex,” let alone practiced it. When the epidemic broke out, it was nowhere worse than in trendsetting San Francisco.
By then I had returned to New Mexico, having traded my hammer for a typewriter. When I announced my intention to leave California, the guys all said the same thing. “Don’t go back there,” they protested. “You’ll just have to go through all of this again!”
All of this required no translation. It meant the particular newness of life in that state, which was always sure to spread eastward, as Californian styles, attitudes, problems, tastes, and fads had been spreading to the rest of the country almost since the days of the Gold Rush.
Hippies, flower power, bikers, and cults. The movies we see and the music we listen to. The slang we pick up (I mean like, what a bummer, dude). Wine bars and fern bars, hot tubs and tanning booths, liposuction and boob jobs. The theft of rivers (Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown) and the theft of baseball teams (Brooklyn still mourns). Gay rights, car culture, and the Reagan Revolution. Scientology, mega-churches, Buddhist chic, and exercise videos. If they didn’t actually start in California, they got big and came to national attention there. Without the innovations of Silicon Valley, would you recognize your mobile phone or computer? Would you recognize yourself?
It’s the same with climate change. California in the Great Drought is once again Exhibit A, a living diorama of how the future is going to look for a lot of us.
And the present moment — right now in 2015 — reminds me of San Francisco as the AIDS epidemic broke out. Back then we had no idea how bad things were going to get, and that is likely to be true now, as well. As usual, California is giving us a preview of our world to come.
The Arrival of the Bone-Dry New Normal
On the U.S. Drought Monitor’s current map, a large purple bruise spreads across the core of California, covering almost half the state. Purple indicates “exceptional drought,” the direst category, the one that tops both “severe” and “extreme.” If you combine all three, 95% of the state is covered. In other words, California is hurting.
Admittedly, conditions are better than at this time last year when 100% of the state was at least “severe.” Recent summer rains have somewhat dulled the edge of the drought, now in its fourth year. Full recovery, however, would require about a foot of rain statewide between now and January, a veritable deluge for places like Fresno, which in good times only get that much rain in a full year.
To be clear, the current drought may not have been caused by climate change. After all, California has a long history of periodic fierce droughts that arise from entirely natural causes, some of them lasting a decade or more. Even so, at a minimum climate change remains a potent factor in the present disaster. The fundamental difference between California’s current desiccation and its historical antecedents is that present conditions are hotter thanks to climate change, and hotter means drier since evaporation increases with temperature. Moreover, the relationship between the two is non-linear: as temperature creeps up, evaporation gallops. Bottom line: the droughts of the future will be much more brutal — and destructive — than those of the past.
California is already on average about 1.7° Fahrenheit hotter than a century ago, and its rate of warming is expected to triple in the century ahead. The evaporative response to this increase will powerfully amplify future droughts in unprecedented ways, no matter their causes.
Throughout the state, draconian cutbacks in water use remain in force. Some agricultural districts are receiving 0% of the federally controlled irrigation water they received in past years, while state water deliveries are running at about 15% of normal.
Meanwhile, a staggering 5,200 wildfires have burned in the state’s forests and chaparral country this year, although timely rains everywhere but in the northern parts of California and the rapid responses of a beefed-up army of firefighters limited the burning to less acreage than last year — at least until recently. The blow-up of the Rocky Fire, north of San Francisco, in the early days of August — it burned through 20,000 acres in just a few hours — may change that mildly promising statistic. And the fire season still has months to go.
So how is this a trendsetter, a harbinger for lands to the east? California’s drought is deep and long — we don’t yet know how long — and the very long-term forecast for an immense portion of western North America, stretching from California to Texas and north to South Dakota, is for a future of the same, only worse. Here is the unvarnished version of that future (on which an impressive number of climate models appear to agree) as expressed in a paper that appeared in Science Advances last February: “The mean state of drought in the late 21st century over the Central Plains and Southwest will likely exceed even the most severe mega-drought periods of the Medieval era in both high and moderate emissions scenarios, representing an unprecedented fundamental shift with respect to the last millennium.”
Let’s unpack that a little bit: principal author Benjamin Cook of NASA and his colleagues from Columbia and Cornell universities are saying that climate change will bring to the continent a “new normal” more brutally dry than even the multiple-decades-long droughts that caused the Native American societies of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde to collapse. This, they add, is now expected to happen even if greenhouse gas emissions are significantly lowered in the decades to come. The impact of such droughts, they conclude, will exceed the bounds of anything known in the history of the continent or in its scientifically reconstructed pre-history.
In other words, the California drought of recent years offers only a foretaste of what is to come. Incidentally, Cook, et al. are by no means outliers in the literature of climate prediction. Other important studies with similar forecasts support a steadily broadening consensus on the subject.
And North American droughts will have to compete for attention with countless other climate change impacts, especially the hundreds of millions of refugees worldwide who will be put into motion by rising sea levels and other forces that will render their present homes unlivable.
A User’s Guide to Climate Change
If California points the way to dry times ahead, it also gives us an early glimpse of how a responsible society will try to live with and adjust to a warmer future. The state has imposed stringent new limits on water use and is actively enforcing them, and in general, individual consumers have responded positively to the new requirements, in some cases even exceeding mandated conservation goals.
In a similar spirit, the state has augmented its wildland fire-fighting capacity to good effect, even as the fire danger has approached levels never before seen.
Perhaps most impressively the state has adopted its own pioneering cap-and-trade program aimed at rolling back total greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. Under cap-and-trade, carbon polluters have to obtain permits to continue their emissions, and only a finite number of such permits are made available. A coal-burning power plant or a refinery has to buy its permit from the state or from another company that already has one. This way, a ceiling is established for total greenhouse gases emitted by the most energy-intensive sectors of the economy.
Although the jury may still be out on how well the program meets its goals, there is no debating its positive impact on the state treasury. In the fiscal year just begun, the auction of permits under California’s cap-and-trade program will net approximately $2.2 billion, a windfall that will be spent on mass transit, affordable housing, and a range of climate-adaptation programs. And by the way, the warnings of nay-sayers and climate deniers that cap-and-trade would prove a drag on the economy have, by the way, proved groundless.
In a manner similar to the U.N.’s prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, California now publishes an assessment every three years of both its vulnerability to climate change and the steps it plans to take to mitigate or adapt to its effects. The report is a model of its kind and draws on copious California-specific scientific research, some of which is funded by the state.
You might think California’s neighbors would follow suit, and eventually, as with most things Californian, they undoubtedly will. If President Obama’s just-announced “Clean Power Plan” withstands the expected court challenges, it will prove a powerful spur in that direction as it mandates state-by-state reductions in power plant carbon emissions that will, in the end, drive them 32% below 2005 levels. Many states will undoubtedly have to adopt cap-and-trade systems in order to comply. As they set about devising their own programs, where do you think they will look for a workable example? You guessed it: California.
An “Island” Again, or Nearly So
In the seventeenth century, Spanish cartographers thought California was an island separated from the rest of North America by the legendary Straits of Anian. In some ways, nothing has changed. In late July, while California Governor Jerry Brown was at the Vatican joining Pope Francis in calling for urgent global action to combat climate change, his opposite numbers across the putative straits continued to assume the posture of startled ostriches.
Doug Ducey, the Republican governor of Arizona, admits that the climate may indeed be changing but doubts that humans play a causal role in it. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, also a Republican, continues to insist that climate science is inconclusive, while former governor of Texas and current presidential candidate Rick Perry adamantly remains “not a scientist,” although he knew enough to inform us in his 2012 campaign screed Fed Up that climate change science is “a contrived phony mess.”
In general, when it comes to climate change, the leadership of statehouses across the country remains as troglodytic as the House of Representatives. Only in Hawaii, Oregon and Washington on the West Coast, Minnesota in the Midwest, and a handful of Northeastern states will governors even acknowledge the importance of acting to curb climate change as well as adapt to it.
This year, the deniers may get a boost from an unlikely source. Warm surface waters seem to be brewing something special in the Pacific Ocean. Says one researcher, “The El Niño event currently ongoing in the eastern and central Pacific is strengthening. The only question is whether it will be just a significant event, or a huge one.”
El Niño draws the winter Pacific storm track southward, bringing precipitation to southern California, Arizona, and points eastward. If the southern tier of states has a wet winter, the Republican rain-dancers will feel confirmed in their official doubt and denialism, much as a broken clock is right at least twice a day.
Occasional El Niños, however, will not avert the long-term new normal for California and much of the West. As that state is showing, adaptation will soften some of the blows, and possibly, if we act soon enough and strongly enough, we may manage to cap the overall changes at some still livable level. The jury will be out on that for quite some time.
Meanwhile, as in pre-AIDS San Francisco, we are all still in a state of at least semi-innocence. Maybe we can imagine in an intellectual way what it might be like to lose the forests across half of the continent, but can any of us conjure the feeling of how that would be?
After many missteps and halting starts, the medical and public health establishments finally came to the assistance of the victims of AIDS. As difficult as that was, it was easy compared to the remedies climate change will demand. And for much of the damage there will be no remedy. Get ready.