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Michael Klare, How to Fry a Planet

6:37 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Solar Panels

Will we focus on renewable energy in time to save the Earth?

Look at it any way you want, and if you’re not a booster of fossil fuels on this overheating planet of ours, it doesn’t look good.  Hardly a month passes, it seems, without news about the development of some previously unimaginable way to extract fossil fuels from some thoroughly unexpected place.  The latest bit of “good” news: the Japanese government’s announcement that natural gas has been successfully extracted from undersea methane hydrates.  (Yippee!)  Natural gas is gleefully touted as the “clean” fossil-fuel path to a green future, but evidence is mounting that the newest process for producing it also leaks unexpected amounts of methane, a devastating greenhouse gas.  The U.S. cheers and is cheered because the amount of carbon dioxide it is putting into the atmosphere is actually falling.  Then Duncan Clark at the British Guardian does the figures and discovers that “there has been no decline in the amount of carbon the U.S. is taking out of the ground. In fact, the trend is upwards. The latest year for which full data is available — 2011 — is the highest level on record.”  It’s just that some of it (coal, in particular) was exported abroad to be burned elsewhere.

In the meantime, the next set of articles come out of scientific circles suggesting that the results of all this are far from cheery.  An example: a recent paper in the prestigious journal Science indicates that “climate change is now set to occur at a pace ‘orders of magnitude more rapid’ than at any other time in the last 65 million years,” and we should prepare for a wave of species extinctions. In other words, the much-ballyhooed coming of North American energy “independence” is an upbeat way of saying that we will continue to heat the planet till hell boils over.  Of course, those who run the giant energy companies, the politicians in their pay, and their lobbyists and associated think tanks — the real global “terrarists” for their urge to make historic profits off the heating of the planet — will, of course, continue to cheer.  Though it is notoriously hard to claim climate change as the author of any specific weather event, in the ever-hotter continental U.S., the experience of what’s being called “extreme weather” — from drought to record wildfires, record heat waves to devastating tornadoes — is increasingly part of the warp and woof of everyday life.

In this context, the latest post by Michael Klare, author of The Race for What’s Left, is singularly important, if also singularly unnerving.  Klare, who has long been ahead of the curve in his work on energy and resources, offers a clear-eyed look at the energy road chosen, and the view to the horizon is anything but pretty. Tom

The Third Carbon Age
Don’t for a Second Imagine We’re Heading for an Era of Renewable Energy
By Michael T. Klare

When it comes to energy and economics in the climate-change era, nothing is what it seems.  Most of us believe (or want to believe) that the second carbon era, the Age of Oil, will soon be superseded by the Age of Renewables, just as oil had long since superseded the Age of Coal.  President Obama offered exactly this vision in a much-praised June address on climate change.  True, fossil fuels will be needed a little bit longer, he indicated, but soon enough they will be overtaken by renewable forms of energy.

Many other experts share this view, assuring us that increased reliance on “clean” natural gas combined with expanded investments in wind and solar power will permit a smooth transition to a green energy future in which humanity will no longer be pouring carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  All this sounds promising indeed.  There is only one fly in the ointment: it is not, in fact, the path we are presently headed down.  The energy industry is not investing in any significant way in renewables.  Instead, it is pouring its historic profits into new fossil-fuel projects, mainly involving the exploitation of what are called “unconventional” oil and gas reserves.

The result is indisputable: humanity is not entering a period that will be dominated by renewables.  Instead, it is pioneering the third great carbon era, the Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas.

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Michael Klare: Post-Apocalyptic Fantasy Becomes Everyday Reality

6:47 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A field of heat wilted corn stalks.

Dying corn field from the 2012 drought (Photo: CraneStation / Flickr)

Wherever you look, the heat, the drought, and the fires stagger the imagination.  Now, it’s Oklahoma at the heart of the American firestorm, with “18 straight days of 100-plus degree temperatures and persistent drought” and so many fires in neighboring states that extra help is unavailable. It’s the summer of heat across the U.S., where the first six months of the year have been the hottest on record (and the bugs are turning out in droves in response).  Heat records are continually being broken.  More than 52% of the country is now experiencing some level of drought, and drought conditions are actually intensifying in the Midwest; 66% of the Illinois corn crop is in “poor” or “very poor” shape, with similarly devastating percentages across the rest of the Midwest.  The average is 48% across the corn belt, and for soybeans 37% — and it looks as if next year’s corn crop may be endangered as well.  More than half of U.S. counties are officially in drought conditions and, according to the Department of Agriculture, “three-quarters of the nation’s cattle acreage is now inside a drought-stricken area, as is about two-thirds of the country’s hay acreage.”  Worse yet, there’s no help in sight — not from the heavens, not even from Congress, which adjourned for the summer without passing a relief package for farmers suffering through some of the worst months since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

In sum, it’s swelteringly, unnerving bad right now in a way that most of us can’t remember. And that’s the present moment.  The question of what lies ahead is the territory occupied by TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author most recently of The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources.  From the time he published his book Resource Wars back in 2001, he’s been ahead of the curve on such questions and he suggests that we’re going to have an uncomfortably hot time in all sorts of unexpected ways on this increasingly hot planet of ours. Tom

The Hunger Wars in Our Future: Heat, Drought, Rising Food Costs, and Global Unrest
By Michael T. Klare

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Bill McKibben: The Most Important Story of Our Lives

6:17 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Bartonsville Covered Bridge before its destruction in the Williams River flood. Photo by Sfoskett / Wikimedia Commons.

By now, it’s already deep election season, the beginning of the culmination of a cycle that commenced the day after (or even the day before) the previous presidential election. In the meantime, the endless polls appear — you can check Obama’s approval rating or the state of the presidential horserace any time, night or day — and the media goes ballistic handicapping the odds or discussing the presidential cat fight. Each side’s handlers take out after the other’s, and increasingly, the corporate dollars pour in (another form of handicapping, or maybe just plain old knee-capping). You know the routine. These days, with the election a mere six months away, Romney/Obama “analysis” and prediction is already in the stratosphere and no issue, from war to a blind self-taught Chinese lawyer escaping to the American embassy in Beijing, is election-proof.

It’s all grist for the mill and who in Washington isn’t reading the polls the way a New Ager might read Tarot cards? So when President Obama suddenly starts talking — quite voluntarily — about global warming as a campaign issue, you know something’s up. What’s up, it turns out, is public concern over climate change after years of polling in which Americans claimed to be ever less worried about the phenomenon.

No one should be surprised, given this overheated year in North America, as Bill McKibben points out in today’s post. In fact, in the latest climate-change polling, 63% of respondents believe “the United States should move forward to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of what other countries do.” In another recent poll, 65% of Americans backed the idea of “imposing mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions/other greenhouse gases” (as 75% now support regulating carbon dioxide as a “pollutant”).

This is something new in America. Times, like the weather, are evidently a-changin’. And the president has noticed this, especially since he’s facing an opponent who, last fall, went on the record this way: “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.”

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William deBuys: The Age of Thirst in the American West

7:30 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The good news? While 2010 tied for the warmest year on record, 2011 — according to the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) — is likely to come in 10th once November and December temperatures are tallied. In part, this is evidently due to an especially strong La Niña cooling event in the Pacific.  On the other hand, with 2011 in the top ten despite La Niña, 13 of the warmest years since such record-keeping began have occurred in the last 15 years.  Think of that as an uncomfortably hot cluster.

And other climate news is no better.  A recent study indicates that Arctic ice is now melting at rates unprecedented in the last 1,450 years (as far back, that is, as reasonably accurate reconstructions of such an environment can be modeled).  As the Arctic warms and temperatures rise in surrounding northern lands — someday, Finland may have to construct artificial ski trails and ice rinks for its future winter tourists — a report on yet another study is bringing more lousy news.  Appearing in the prestigious science journal Nature, it indicates that the melting permafrost of the tundra may soon begin releasing global-warming gases into the atmosphere in massive quantities.  We’re talking the equivalent of 300 billion metric tons of carbon over the next nine decades.

Recently, Fatih Birol, the chief economist for the International Energy Agency, suggested that, by century’s end, the planet’s temperature could rise by a staggering 6º Celsius (almost 11º Fahrenheit).  International climate-change negotiators had been trying to keep that rise to a “mere” 2º C.  “Everybody, even the schoolchildren, knows this is a catastrophe for all of us,” was the way Birol summed the situation up.  If only it were so, but here in the U.S., none of the above news was even considered front-page worthy.  Nor was the news that, in 2010, humans had pumped more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than at any time since the industrial revolution began: 564 million more tons than in 2009 to be exact.  We’re living today with just less than a degree of those six degrees to come, and the results in extreme weather this year should have made us all stop and think.

If you want to focus in on damage here in the U.S., consider Rick Perry’s Texas, where, according to scientists, “daily temperatures averaged 86.7° in June through August — a staggering 5.4°F above normal.”  According to the WMO, that’s the highest such average “ever recorded for any American state.”  And still global politicians yammer on and do little; still, the U.S. shuffles its political feet, while Canada’s government has announced that it will make no new commitments and may even be preparing to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol, and countries with booming developing economies like China, India, and Brazil hedge their bets when it comes to action.

In the meantime, nature doesn’t care whether or not we do anything.  It’s on its own schedule.  And when it comes to the American Southwest, that schedule looks daunting indeed as William deBuys makes clear.  His new book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, is the definitive work on the subject of water and the West (and, as with all of his work, a pleasure to read). So get yourself a glass of water while you still can and settle in for a dose of the Age of Thirst. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which deBuys discusses the water politics of the American West, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

The Age of Thirst in the American West
Coming to a Theater Near You: The Greatest Water Crisis in the History of Civilization

By William deBuys

Consider it a taste of the future: the fire, smoke, drought, dust, and heat that have made life unpleasant, if not dangerous, from Louisiana to Los Angeles. New records tell the tale: biggest wildfire ever recorded in Arizona (538,049 acres), biggest fire ever in New Mexico (156,600 acres), all-time worst fire year in Texas history (3,697,000 acres).

The fires were a function of drought.  As of summer’s end, 2011 was the driest year in 117 years of record keeping for New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, and the second driest for Oklahoma. Those fires also resulted from record heat.  It was the hottest summer ever recorded for New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, as well as the hottest August ever for those states, plus Arizona and Colorado.

Virtually every city in the region experienced unprecedented temperatures, with Phoenix, as usual, leading the march toward unlivability. This past summer, the so-called Valley of the Sun set a new record of 33 days when the mercury reached a shoe-melting 110º F or higher. (The previous record of 32 days was set in 2007.)

And here’s the bad news in a nutshell: if you live in the Southwest or just about anywhere in the American West, you or your children and grandchildren could soon enough be facing the Age of Thirst, which may also prove to be the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.  No kidding.

If that gets you down, here’s a little cheer-up note: the end is not yet nigh.

In fact, this year the weather elsewhere rode to the rescue, and the news for the Southwest was good where it really mattered.  Since January, the biggest reservoir in the United States, Lake Mead, backed up by the Hoover Dam and just 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas, has risen almost 40 feet. That lake is crucial when it comes to watering lawns or taking showers from Arizona to California.  And the near 40-foot surge of extra water offered a significant upward nudge to the Southwest’s water reserves.

The Colorado River, which the reservoir impounds, supplies all or part of the water on which nearly 30 million people depend, most of them living downstream of Lake Mead in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Tijuana, and scores of smaller communities in the United States and Mexico.

Back in 1999, the lake was full. Patricia Mulroy, who heads the water utility serving Las Vegas, rues the optimism of those bygone days.  “We had a fifty-year, reliable water supply,” she says. “By 2002, we had no water supply. We were out. We were done. I swore to myself we’d never do that again.”

In 2000, the lake began to fall — like a boulder off a cliff, bouncing a couple of times on the way down. Its water level dropped a staggering 130 feet, stopping less than seven feet above the stage that would have triggered reductions in downstream deliveries. Then — and here’s the good news, just in case you were wondering — last winter, it snowed prodigiously up north in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.

The spring and summer run-off from those snowpacks brought enormous relief. It renewed what we in the Southwest like to call the Hydro-Illogic cycle: when drought comes, everybody wrings their hands and promises to institute needed reform, if only it would rain a little. Then the drought breaks or eases and we all return to business as usual, until the cycle comes around to drought again.

So don’t be fooled.  One day, perhaps soon, Lake Mead will renew its downward plunge.  That’s a certainty, the experts tell us.  And here’s the thing: the next time, a sudden rescue by heavy snows in the northern Rockies might not come. If the snowpacks of the future are merely ordinary, let alone puny, then you’ll know that we really are entering a new age.

And climate change will be a major reason, but we’ll have done a good job of aiding and abetting it. The states of the so-called Lower Basin of the Colorado River — California, Arizona, and Nevada — have been living beyond their water means for years. Any departure from recent decades of hydrological abundance, even a return to long-term average flows in the Colorado River, would produce a painful reckoning for the Lower Basin states.  And even worse is surely on the way.

Just think of the coming Age of Thirst in the American Southwest and West as a three-act tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions.

The Age of Thirst: Act I

The curtain in this play would surely rise on the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which divided the river’s water equally between the Upper and Lower Basins, allocating to each annually 7.5 million acre-feet, also known by its acronym “maf.” (An acre-foot suffices to support three or four families for a year.) Unfortunately, the architects of the compact, drawing on data from an anomalously wet historical period, assumed the river’s average annual flow to be about 17 maf per year.  Based on reconstructions that now stretch back more than 1,000 years, the river’s long-term average is closer to 14.7 maf.  Factor in evaporation from reservoirs (1.5 maf per year) and our treaty obligation to Mexico (another 1.5 maf), and the math doesn’t favor a water-guzzling society.

Nonetheless, the states of the Lower Basin have been taking their allotment as if nothing were wrong and consequently overdrafting their account by up to 1.3 maf annually.  At this rate, even under unrealistically favorable scenarios, the Lower Basin will eventually drain Lake Mead and cutbacks will begin, possibly as soon as in the next few years.  And then things will get dicier because California, the water behemoth of the West, won’t have to absorb any of those cutbacks.

Here’s one of the screwiest quirks in western water law: to win Congressional approval for the building of a monumental aqueduct, the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which would bring Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona agreed to subordinate its Colorado River water rights to California’s.  In that way, the $4 billion, 336-mile-long CAP was born, and for it Arizona paid a heavy price. The state obliged itself to absorb not just its own losses in a cutback situation, but California’s as well.

Worst case scenario: the CAP aqueduct, now a lifeline for millions, could become as dry as the desert it runs through, while California continues to bathe. Imagine Phoenix curling and cracking around the edges, while lawn sprinklers hiss in Malibu. The contrast will upset a lot of Arizonans.

Worse yet, the prospective schedule of cutbacks now in place for the coming bad times is too puny to save Lake Mead.

The Age of Thirst: Act II

While that Arizona-California relationship guarantees full employment for battalions of water lawyers, a far bigger problem looms: climate change. Models for the Southwest have been predicting a 4ºC (7.2ºF) increase in mean temperature by century’s end, and events seem to be outpacing the predictions.

We have already experienced close to 1º C of that increase, which accounts, at least in part, for last summer’s colossal fires and record-setting temperatures — and it’s now clear that we’re just getting started.

The simple rule of thumb for climate change is that wet places will get wetter and dry places drier. One reason the dry places will dry is that higher temperatures mean more evaporation. In other words, there will be ever less water in the rivers that keep the region’s cities (and much else) alive. Modeling already suggests that by mid-century surface stream-flow will decline by 10% to 30%.

Independent studies at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in California and the University of Colorado evaluated the viability of Lake Mead and eventually arrived at similar conclusions: after about 2026, the risk of “failure” at Lake Mead, according to a member of the Colorado group, “just skyrockets.” Failure in this context would mean water levels lower than the dam’s lowest intake, no water heading downstream, and the lake becoming a “dead pool.”

If — perhaps “when” is the more appropriate word — that happens, California’s Colorado River Aqueduct, which supplies water to Los Angeles, San Diego, and the All-American Canal, which sustains the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, will go just as dry as the Central Arizona Project aqueduct. Meanwhile, if climate change is affecting the Colorado River’s watershed that harshly, it will undoubtedly also be hitting the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

The aptly named Lester Snow, a recent director of California’s Department of Water Resources, understood this. His future water planning assumed a 40% decline in runoff from the Sierras, which feeds the California Aqueduct. None of his contemplated scenarios were happy ones. The Colorado River Aqueduct and the California Aqueduct make the urban conglomerations of southern California possible. If both fail at once, the result will be, as promised, the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.

Only Patricia Mulroy has an endgame strategy for the demise of Lake Mead. The Southern Nevada Water Authority is, even now, tunneling under the lake to install the equivalent of a bathtub drain at close to its lowest point. At a cost of more than $800 million, it will drain the dregs of Lake Mead for Las Vegas.

Admittedly, water quality will be a problem, as the dead pool will concentrate pollutants. The good news, according to the standard joke among those who chronicle Sin City’s improbable history, is that the hard-partying residents and over-stimulated tourists who sip from Lake Mead’s last waters will no longer need to purchase anti-depressants. They’ll get all the Zoloft and Xanax they need from their tap water.

And only now do we arrive at the third act of this expanding tragedy.

The Age of Thirst: Act III

Those who believe in American exceptionalism hold that the historical patterns shaping the fate of other empires and nations don’t apply to the United States. Be that as it may, we are certainly on track to test whether the U.S. is similarly inoculated against the patterns of environmental history.

Because tree rings record growing conditions year by year, the people who study them have been able to reconstruct climate over very long spans of time. One of their biggest discoveries is that droughts more severe and far longer than anything known in recent centuries have occurred repeatedly in the American Southwest. The droughts of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, of the 1950s, and of the period from 1998 to 2004 are remembered in the region, yet none lasted a full decade.

By contrast, the drought that brought the civilization of the ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, centered at Chaco Canyon, to its knees in the twelfth century, by contrast, lasted more than 30 years. The one that finished off Mesa Verdean culture in the thirteenth century was similarly a “megadrought.”

Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona who played a major role in the Nobel-Prize-winning work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, tells me that the prospect of 130° F days in Phoenix worries him far less than the prospect of decades of acute dryness. “If anything is scary, the scariest is that we could trip across a transition into a megadrought.” He adds, “You can probably bet your house that, unless we do something about these greenhouse gas emissions, the megadroughts of the future are going to be a lot hotter than the ones of the past.”

Other scientists believe that the Southwest is already making the transition to a “new climatology,” a new normal that will at least bring to mind the aridity of the Dust Bowl years. Richard Seager of Columbia University, for instance, suggests that “the cycle of natural dry periods and wet periods will continue, but… around a mean that gets drier. So the depths — the dry parts of the naturally occurring droughts — will be drier than we’re used to, and the wet parts won’t be as wet.”

Drought affects people differently from other disasters. After something terrible happens — tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes — people regularly come together in memorable ways, rising above the things that divide them. In a drought, however, what is terrible is that nothing happens. By the time you know you’re in one, you’ve already had an extended opportunity to meditate on the shortcomings of your neighbors. You wait for what does not arrive. You thirst. You never experience the rush of compassion that helps you behave well. Drought brings out the worst in us.

After the Chacoan drought, corn-farming ancestral Puebloans still remained in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. They hung on, even if at lower population densities. After the Mesa Verdean drought, everybody left.

By the number of smashed crania and other broken bones in the ruins of the region’s beautiful stone villages, archaeologists judge that the aridifying world of the Mesa Verdeans was fatally afflicted by violence. Warfare and societal breakdown, evidently driven by the changing climate, helped end that culture.

So it matters what we do. Within the limits imposed by the environment, the history we make is contingent, not fated. But we are not exactly off to a good start in dealing with the challenges ahead. The problem of water consumption in the Southwest is remarkably similar to the problem of greenhouse gas pollution. First, people haggle to exhaustion over the need to take action; then, they haggle over inadequate and largely symbolic reductions. For a host of well-considered, eminently understandable, and ultimately erroneous reasons, inaction becomes the main achievement. For this drama, think Hamlet. Or if the lobbyists who argue for business as usual out west and in Congress spring to mind first, think Iago.

We know at least one big thing about how this particular tragedy will turn out: the so-called civilization of the Southwest will not survive the present century, not at its present scale anyway. The question yet to be answered is how much it will have to shrink, and at what cost. Stay tuned. It will be one of the greatest, if grimmest, shows on Earth.

William deBuys is the author of seven books, including the just published A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (a Pulitzer Prize finalist), and The Walk (an excerpt of which won a Pushcart Prize). He has long been involved in environmental affairs in the Southwest, including service as founding chairman of the Valles Caldera Trust, which administers the 87,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which deBuys discusses the water politics of the American West click here, or download it to your iPod here

Copyright 2011 William deBuys