Willful Ignorance in the face of climate change, drought, and cause-and-effect will not spare us the consequences

Drought1

The debate over climate change and ecological catastrophe is a befuddled one, and leaves many not just baffled, but astounded. Why? Because there actually is science that is certain, conclusive, and overwhelmingly accepted amongst the scientific community – a community mind you, filled with members who thrive on disproving each other. If you know even a fraction of the facts like they do, you know there are no shades of gray – there’s just the impregnable element of timing. In other words, what we know does not help us with the timing of consequence, and therefore, the element of surprise is working against us.

Because we don’t know when or how badly the consequences will be when natural, or unnatural, effects will present themselves, we have to use what we do know and couple it with our imaginations to make good decisions about an uncertain future. So this article is an attempt to share what we do conclusively know about climate change, not what gets argued about it, such as economic impacts or devilish, conspiracy ridden, behind-the-scenes, policy manipulations. We must get beyond the hype, speculation, and sheer spin to know how to act on what is known and is actually knowable. Then we might just get somewhere with the ethical implications of both policy and personal decisions that do have real consequences.

The past is behind us, or so we would like to believe. And as the saying goes, we may be through with the past, but that does not mean it is through with us. What we know about cycles is that they come back around  – in other words, on a geologic timescale, geological history is cyclical and tends to repeat itself. So when we look at 1,000 years of cyclical data, we can be fairly certain that what has been happening for hundreds of years will happen again, even if we don’t know when. On the other hand, the future is before us, and we are racing toward the effects we cause today, but like the past, we don’t know when we will meet them.

But we do know this: both are going to catch up to us eventually. It is not a matter of if but when. To think that pulling liquid out of the earth and burning it will have no effects is wishful thinking; to think there will be no consequences to burning forests down for development or agribusiness is shortsighted; and to think that we can nutrient load the soil with nitrogen or other fertilizers and chemicals for a mono-farming culture with no negative effects on the ocean is to ignore the basic laws of cause and effect. And last, to think that we can continue to live and grow the way we have been for the last century and outsmart tree ring data showing thousands of years of mega droughts, is gambling.

Here is what scientists conclusively knew about human caused global change 20 years ago according to Dr. Vitousek:

“While ecologists involved in management or policy often are advised to learn to deal with uncertainty, there are a number of components of global environmental change of which we are certain–certain that they are going on, and certain that they are human caused. Some of these are largely ecological changes, and all have important ecological consequences. Three of the well documented global changes are: increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; alterations in the biogeochemistry of the global nitrogen cycle; and ongoing land use/land cover change.”

“Human activity, now primarily fossil fuel combustion, has increased carbon dioxide concentrations from °280 to 355 mL/L since 1800; the increase is unique, at least in the past 160,000 years, and several lines of evidence demonstrate unequivocally that it is human caused. This increase is likely to have climatic consequences–and certainly it has direct effects on biota in all Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems.”

Deforestation

Deforestation

The global nitrogen cycle has been altered by human activity to such an extent that more nitrogen is fixed annually by humanity (primarily for nitrogen fertilizer, also by legume crops and as a by-product of fossil fuel combustion) than by all natural pathways combined. This added nitrogen alters the chemistry of the atmosphere and of aquatic ecosystems, contributes to eutrophiction of the biosphere, and has substantial regional effects on biological diversity in the most affected areas.

Finally, human land use/land cover change has transformed one third to one half of Earth’s ice free surface. This in and of itself probably represents the most important component of global change now and will for some decades to come; it has profound effects on biological diversity on land and on ecosystems downwind and downstream of affected areas.

These three and other equally certain components of global environmental change are the primary causes of anticipated changes in climate, and of ongoing losses of biological diversity. They are caused in turn by the extraordinary growth in size and resource use of the human population. On a broad scale, there is little uncertainty about any of these components of change or their causes (1).”

Add to that what we know from tree ring data regarding drought locally in the southwestern U.S. and globally, and we are getting sandwiched by historically natural cycles and human caused global change. What we know from tree ring data is that the southwest has undergone megadroughts. Megadroughts are droughts that last for decades. These droughts have been linked to the decline or outright extinction of civilizations as well as mass migrations. The closest we have to come to that is the drought of the 1930s Dustbowl of the Midwest etched in the annals of history by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; a drought mind you, that lasted between four to eight years depending on location. If a drought of that length caused a mass exodus, what will a drought that lasts 30 years produce? Scientists say that mega droughts cause lakes to dry up; is it too far-fetched to believe they could dry up reservoirs?

tree ring

Tree rings

In a Deseret News article printed 10 years ago, they revealed the findings of “the most comprehensive reconstruction of Western drought to date, extending previous efforts by 900 years.” As of 10 years ago, the west was in a multi-year drought. We are still in it today. Edward R. Cook of Columbia University, the lead author of a report in the latest edition of the journal Science said, “Things could be much worse, and there’s no reason to argue that it couldn’t happen again (2).”

We all know that drought means scarcity while the opposite of drought is abundance or plenty. This definition is obviously about water, but it is also about food, standard of living, and life. Through our ingenuity and engineering feats, we have plumbed the west with aqueducts, pipes, and reservoirs and thus have extended the capacity to live and survive here. But the water policies of the west reveal an arrogance built on “tradition, wishful thinking, and poor planning” that could have dire consequences for the millions who live here in the future.

Right now California sits in a D4 exceptional drought, which is the most severe category, according to an article in the Cornell Chronicle about a study suggesting that the southwest may face a megadrought in the next century. “For the southwestern U.S., I’m not optimistic about avoiding real megadroughts,” said Toby Ault, Cornell assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and lead author of the paper. “As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this – we are weighting the dice for megadrought.” Ault goes on to say, “The West and Southwest must look for mitigation strategies to cope with looming long-drought scenarios. This will be worse than anything seen during the last 2,000 years and would pose unprecedented challenges to water resources in the region (5).”

This does not mean we need to build more reservoirs or pipe more water in, operating under the mentality that if we build it the water will come, what it is means is that we need to start thinking differently. And thinking differently may entail turning 180 degrees from where we have been going.  We should start by diversifying our energy sources. Regardless of your opinion on fossil fuels, relying on one source of energy is foolish, not only because it makes us vulnerable, it means that those with that energy source can manipulate and control us. We have no recourse. Like not having the high ground, it is a vulnerable position to be in.

Petrochemical industry

Petrochemical industry

As Peter Maass, author of Crude World, said in a Harper’s interview when asked if he thought the U.S. could significantly reduce its dependency on petroleum while maintaining its lifestyle, “This lifestyle is going to change, whether we want it to or not, whether Chevron and Exxon want it to or not. The question is whether this lifestyle will change with extreme disruption when the price of oil returns to triple digits and goes beyond the $147-a-barrel record set in 2008, or when global warming means a portion of Manhattan is under water, or–and this is what I hope happens–our society truly recognizes these threats and begins the painful and costly adjustments necessary for radical shifts toward renewable energy as well as conservation and efficiency (3).”

We need to make those painful and costly adjustments now while we have some choice in how we do it. We need to change how we develop, consume, and grow. Growing beyond natural limits is dangerous. Contrary to what politicians may say, there are measures that can be put into place to grow smartly. No one is saying no growth, just smart growth.

We, the citizens of this country, need to demand that policy makers implement better water management practices such as block water rates. Conservation is the easiest and cheapest way to manage water. Piping water in from distant locations is expensive, both in terms of water and in terms of energy. Water districts should cover their management costs and then let use determine the rest of the cost. That way, wasters will pay for their waste. The Irvine Ranch Water District in California was the first water district to implement block water rates. It has made money, saved money for users, has had adequate water for the citizens, and has conserved water. Furthermore, none of the water board members have been un-elected since they implemented this system. Now that the rest of California is withering, more and more water districts are following suit. But even more than that, we need to start saving water and paying the real price for it.

Here and there, water agencies are implementing smart practices. In southern Utah the Washington County Water District and the USGS started an aquifer recharge station with the Sand Hollow Reservoir. They are slowly filling up the roughly 100,000 acre foot holding aquifer underneath the reservoir. The Metropolitan Water District of California’s long-term plan projects that by 2035, 60% of Southern California’s demand will be met through conservation and local sources such as recycling and cleaned-up groundwater basins, compared with about 40% now (6). This is smart and more practices like it should be implemented everywhere. It is like having money in a savings account for emergencies. But banking and conserving water without charging the real price of water is still inadequate.

In the economic section of the New York Times, Eduardo Porter wrote an article titled The Risks of Cheap Water. In it the article says, “The price of water going into Americans’ homes often does not even cover the cost of delivering it, let alone the depreciation of utilities’ infrastructure or their R&D. It certainly doesn’t account for other costs imposed by water use — on, say, fisheries or the environment — caused by taking water out of rivers or lakes (4).”

Consumers have little incentive to conserve. Despite California’s distress, about half of the homes in the capital, Sacramento, still don’t have water meters, and consumers are paying a flat fee no matter how much water they consume.
Some utilities do worse: charging decreasing rates the more water is consumed. Utilities, of course, have little incentive to discourage consumption: The more they do that the more their revenues would decline (4).

Alternative solutions have been proposed, some to the point of absurdity — like towing icebergs from the Arctic or diverting water from the Missouri River to use on the other side of the Rockies. But the standard response to scarcity — grabbing more — cannot work any longer. There isn’t more water to grab (5).

Even without the impacts of man-made global warming, there is still the threat of cyclical crippling megadroughts looming out on the horizon. With roughly 24 million people dependent on the Colorado River, which is over-allocated and stretched to four times its annual yield due to reservoirs, can you imagine if another megadrought occurs along the Colorado River like it did in the 1150s? A recent study done in California modeling what 70 years of drought would do to the state revealed that all lakes and reservoirs would dry up (5).

What would happen to the Western U.S. if all the reservoirs and lakes dried up? Would the proposed Lake Powell Pipeline for the explosive growth in southern Utah, if it gets approved and built, or any other water-made pipe dream, be anything more than a glaring relic of our wishful and willful thinking and arrogance? Will it stand as a testament that we too ignore our prophets (John Wesley Powell was one such prophet who advised against reckless growth in the west due to water scarcity) and have flown too close to the sun? As Tom Ash, the architect of the Irvine Ranch Water District’s water rate structure plan said, “What’s the cost of not changing?”

In a recent article in the LA Times, scientists who did the 70 year megadrought modeling to see what would happen in California, said that, “Under that scenario irrigated farm acreage would plunge. Aquatic ecosystems would suffer, with some struggling salmon runs fading out of existence. Urban water rates would climb. The iconic suburban lawn would all but disappear. Coastal Californians would stop dumping most of their treated sewage and urban runoff from rain storms into the Pacific and instead add it to their water supply. As the sector with the greatest water use in California by far, agriculture would sit in the bull’s eye of a mega-drought. The state’s 8 million acres of irrigated cropland could fall by as much as half,” predicted Daniel Sumner, director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center (6).

drought2

Extreme drought

Farmers would largely abandon relatively low-value crops such as cotton and alfalfa and use their reduced water supplies to keep growing the most profitable fruits, nuts and vegetables. They would let fields revert to scrub or dry-farm them with wheat and other crops that predominated before California’s massive federal irrigation project transformed the face of the Central Valley in the mid-20th century. Some farm communities would turn to ghost towns. “For a while, poor people would get a lot poorer throughout the Central Valley,” he said. “Then they’d move (6).”

And it will not just be the cost of water that goes up, the cost of food will go up too. Right now California is the bread basket of the country; will we squabble over water rights when our food sources are in eminent danger? Will the federal government declare a state of emergency and seize all water and divvy it out according to priority? It is not doomsday to consider such a scenario; it is called foresight and we must start using it. Wendell Berry, speaking about the art and importance of farming said this in The Gift of the Good Land, “…agriculture is a an integral part of the structure, both biological and cultural, that sustains human life, and that you cannot disturb one part of that structure without disturbing all of it; that, in short, though there may be specialized causes, there are no specialized effects (7).”

From an article in Science magazine titled, The Drought you can’t see, we see that we are even drying up underground. Because the drought is so bad and because we use so much water, we are sucking up all of the ground water too. “In the western United States, the drought-stricken region spans a vast area responsible for much of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and beef. As the drought’s grip has tightened, water users have turned to tapping groundwater aquifers to make up the deficit for people, crops, livestock, and industry. But even when the rain does return, re-greening the landscape and filling again the streams, lakes, and reservoirs, those aquifers will remain severely depleted. It is this underground drought we can’t see that is enduring, worrisome, and in need of attention (8).”

And it is not just happening in the West, the aquifers all over the country are being drained.

poor kids

Effects of hardship

In other words, agriculture, which sustains life, is dependent on water which “is the most vital resource in every aspect of human endeavor (Charles Fishman, The Big Thirst).” Follow this. If man-made climate change is real, and I believe it is, it will not just affect coastal towns through rising oceans, it will affect all of us through scarcity and that scarcity will drive up the prices of everything. This means all of us will be impacted. Is there another planet we can migrate to? While the poor will be impacted the most by climate change (remember prices), and we should morally and ethically care about that, we too will be negatively impacted.

As Jared Diamond said in Collapse, “Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation, as did Easter Island and the Greenland Norse in the past. Any society in turmoil today, no matter how remote … can cause trouble for prosperous societies on other continents and is also subject to their influence (whether helpful or destabilizing). For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline (9).”

When members of the world’s scientific community gave their warning to humanity in 1992 they posed it this way, “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated (10).”

They did not call for solar power, for a green economy, or for an environmental ethic. What they called for was for people to care about the misery we are bringing on ourselves and others. What does it say when scientists leave their world of exactitude, measurements, facts and numbers, and enter the murky world of political science to warn people of what their science reveals? And what does it say of a population that not only ignores the science, but scoffs at the moral implications? And of our politicians who use this science to push their own agendas rather than be statesmen who warn us of what is to come? “An agenda most favorable to industry and consists of a government in which political power has no more force or activity than is necessary to see that useful work is not hindered, is complicit in bringing about our ruin (11).”

Because our politicians are not statesmen, in the manner articulated by Plato, they lack political vision, and no one since Plato has insisted upon the moral urgency and centrality of political vision until scientists stepped in with their warning to humanity. We can argue about the distinctions between “pure” science and “political” science, and whether political science is really a science at all, but we cannot argue the importance of it and the art it takes to do it well.

In Politics and Vision Sheldon S. Wolen says, “Most political thinkers have believed that precisely because political philosophy was political, it was committed to lessening the gap between the possibilities grasped through political imagination and the actualities of political existence. Plato recognized that political action was highly purposive in character, that it was largely conscious and deliberate; to take counsel before acting was seen to be a distinguishing requirement of political activity as characterized by Homeric Kings and Athenian statesmen.

But to act intelligently and nobly demanded a perspective wider than the immediate situation for which the action was intended; intelligence and nobility were not ad hoc qualities, but aspects of a more comprehensive vision of things. This more comprehensive vision was provided by thinking about the political society in its corrected fullness, not as it is but as it might be. Precisely because political theory pictured society in an exaggerated, unreal way, it was a necessary complement to action. Precisely because action involved intervention into existing affairs, it sorely needed a perspective of tantalizing possibilities.”

Thinking differently requires imagination. “Fancy, exaggeration, even extravagance, sometimes permit us to see things that are not otherwise apparent. Fancy neither proves nor disproves; it seeks, instead, to illuminate, to help us become wiser about political things. Imagination is not only what comprises the foundation of scientific inquiry; it is the theorist’s means for understanding a world he can never know in an intimate way. The impossibility of direct observation compels the theorist to epitomize a society by abstracting certain phenomena and providing interconnections where none can be seen (11).”

The West was largely settled and developed on such imagination and it desperately needs that imagination again. We have become too dependent on tradition, on the status quo, and have a sort of tunnel vision with regard to the future. There are always other options, new possibilities, it just takes creative and open-minded people to not only envision them, but to hear them when they are presented.

Progress is not static. It is not, as many politicians would have us believe, an “if we are not growing, we are dying” dilemma, it is an “if we are not thinking, and thinking differently, we are setting ourselves and future generations up for misery” scenario. The very definition of progress prescribes movement. Clinging to the old ways of doing things, the old ways of living, is not progress.

To envision and build a better future we must listen to those with not just vision, but with the knowledge guiding that vision, and be open to the possibilities available to us through a broader scope produced by people who think differently. Denying the impacts of man-made global change, ignoring historical data, and avoiding the moral implications of our behavior betrays a willfully unethical and destructive ignorance. We cannot afford to stick our heads in the proverbial sand. History will catch up to us or we will collide with our future. Either way, if we do not change the way we think, the consequences will be of our own accord. We will have chosen it because we did not choose otherwise.

Sources:

(1) Peter M. Vitousek, Beyond global warming: Ecology and global change (available in PDF format in Google Scholar)

(2) Deseret News, Tree ring data reveals ‘megadrought’: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/595097448/Tree-rings-reveal-megadroughts.html

(3) Peter Maas Interview in Harper’s: http://harpers.org/blog/2009/09/six-questions-for-peter-maass-on-the-energy-business-corruption-and-the-future-of-oil/

(4) The New York Times, The Risks of cheap water: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/15/business/economy/the-price-of-water-is-too-low.html?_r=0

(5) Cornell Chronicle, Study: http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2014/08/study-southwest-may-face-megadrought-within-century

(6) LA Times Mega Drought: http://www.latimes.com/science/la-me-megadrought-20141006-story.html#page=1

(7) Wendell Berry, The Gift of the Good Land.

(8) Science, The Drought you can’t see: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/345/6204/1543.summary

(9) Jared Diamond, Collapse.

(10) World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity (1992), http://www.ucsusa.org/about/1992-world-scientists.html#.VGktO8nZdJQ

(11) Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision.

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Posted on November 17, 2014, in Nature and the Environment and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Very informative and thorough writing. Thank you for sharing.

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