Tag Archives: drought

Conversations – don’t we have the same amount of water?

Name redacted asked:

Please educate me if I am wrong, but I have been of the understanding that the Earth has the same amount of water in/on it that it has had for thousands of year, perhaps millions. It is just a matter of distribution. Some zones get way more than they need, and others have droughts.

Sure thing. This will be a bit long, because it’s a complex topic. First off, the only water that counts here is fresh water. Sea water’s not very useful for drinking, irrigation, washing, or industrial purposes.

So we’re focused on fresh water. For the entire history of the United States (and longer for older countries that dig wells) we’ve been relying on subterranian water reserves for a huge portion of our fresh water. Aquifers have a history of having a lot of clean, fresh water.

The first problem is that it takes a long time for them to fill up, and in the last hundred years we’ve been pulling water out faster than they’ve been refilling. That trend has been getting worse as more people have used more water. So those water sources are actually running out – there’s not as much there as there used to be. Once we pull it out of the ground, it becomes part of the water cycle, being moved around as rainstorms, or more often flowing down to the sea. Either way, it was once a reliable source of water, and now it’s not.

The second problem is snowpack. This is part of the drought (water shortage) that California has been facing. Normally large parts of California rely on the snow that accumulates in the mountains during the winter to provide water as it melts. The recent drought has meant that in some places where snowpack – and so water reliability – has been measured, there has been no snow for the first time in recorded history. That means no water. There are a LOT of people around the world that rely on similar patterns of snowfall, and because weather patterns are changing around the world, water availability is too.

And then there’s the question of what makes for “good” water. The reality is that we’ve “removed” a lot of water from the equation by polluting it. Removing some pollutants from water is very, very difficult and expensive, and as with desalination, we don’t currently have the infrastructure to do it at any meaningful scale.

This is why people are so up in arms over hydro-fracking. The waste products of it really are toxic – there’s no question about that, if pour it in the ground, things die. And there’s a real risk that it’s getting in ground water near fracking sites. Once groundwater is poisoned, there is NO method to make it clean again.

Then there’s the issue of changes in temperature. Let’s look at rainforests, for a moment. What’s a rainforest? It’s a place that gets so much rain that water is no longer a limiting resource. Life in rainforests gets so dense and weird and beautiful because there’s just water EVERYWHERE, and so things can grow everywhere. There are temperate rainforests, and there are tropical rainforests. In both cases, the amount of available water is more than local life can use up.

But here’s the thing – tropical rainforests get much, much more rain than temperature rainforests, even though the “saturation” effect is about the same. Why is that? Because tropical rainforests are hotter. The water they get evaporates much, much faster. That means that a place in the tropics that gets the same rain as the Smokey Mountains (one temperature rainforest, at least historically), is NOT a rainforest. It can’t be, because there’s not enough water available.

And that’s the other part. If rainfall stays the same, but temperatures rise, the amount of available water decreases, because more of it evaporates. We’re already seeing the effects of this. In California, before the drought started, we were already seeing some plant species dying out at higher altitudes and repopulating themselves at lower altitudes because while rainfall had stayed steady, temperature had risen, meaning available water had decreased. On the other side of the country in the Appalachians, a decrease in AVAILABLE water and an increase in temperature have meant that some salamander species have been shrinking at a rate of around 1% per generation since the 1980s.

The total quantity of water contained on Earth is much the same as it has been, but that has no meaning if that water is not available for our use, or the use of other life forms.

That’s what is meant by water scarcity.


One hundred years of “I told you so”

Climate scientists have been under attack since before I was born, and those attacks have not lessened one bit as the evidence for man-made climate change has grown clearer and clearer, along with our understanding of just how much danger it presents. When Svante Arrhenius wrote about the influence of CO2 in our atmosphere in the 1890s, it was a hypothesis, grounded in a solid understanding of chemistry and physics, and backed up with calculations that hold true today. A century later, the IPCC second assessment was out, and climate scientists knew with a high degree of certainty that rising CO2 levels were causing the entire planet to warm at an alarming rate.

And the denial movement, funded by companies with a direct interest in continued use of fossil fuels, was in full swing, attacking scientists and their reputations, fostering political polarization around the issue, and pushing the Republican party farther along the path to full-fledged denial of reality. Today, publicly accepting the reality of climate change, as a GOP candidate, is tantamount to political suicide.

This post serves little purpose, except as an outlet for my frustration. According to everything we know, right now, we are facing conditions of the kind that have spelled doom for countless species in eons gone by. Beyond that, it has been clear for a long, long time that climate change will be one of the biggest drivers of war in the 21st century. More drought, more floods, higher seas, and more heat waves will all lead to food shortages, refugees, desperation, and chaos. It’s not hard to figure out why the Pentagon is worried.

And yet we still have people saying, with each disaster, and each new war, or new atrocity, “now is not the time.”

Here’s the thing – they’re right.

The time was before I was born. The time was 1996. The time was any time in the last fifty years. The time was before it was too late to stop the planet from warming. It’s long past time to be talking about climate change. Right now what we should be doing is taking action.

For the rest of this century, there will always be a disaster ongoing. Always. For the rest of this century, there will always be a crisis in urgent need of our attention. The predicted threats to national security, to economic stability, to human existence – they are beginning to become a reality, and will only get worse for the rest of my life.

This problem should have been handled. It could have been handled before I became aware of it. But instead, over 100 years after the first calculations of CO2’s relationship to planetary temperature, I’m finding myself in the position of saying “we told you so.” I’m too young for that. My generation should not have had enough time with this problem unsolved to say that. But for the rest of my life, and the lives of everybody else on this planet today, “we told you so” will be a refrain. And if anybody dares to say “now is not the time”, we can tell them, “you’re damned right, so why are we still talking about this? Why aren’t we DOING something?”

One of these things is not like the other: How global climate change is different from other social change issues.

“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
-Mohandas K Gandhi

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
-Nelson Mandela

Human-made global climate change different from every other social change issue in history, and behaving otherwise will lead to ruin.

The quotes at the beginning of this article are wonderful quotes, and the lessons they teach provide excellent advice for every human working to build a better world. So many of the problems we face stem from gargantuan power structures that work very hard to convey the message that change is impossible – that the way it is is the way it must always be.

The same is true for human-caused global climate change. Modern civilization has been built on fossil fuels, and the topic of energy production has become so entrenched in politics, that people feel their very identities are tied up in the issue.

The same has been true in the struggles for racial equality, and for gender equality, and for economic equality, and for a hundred other causes. It has also been true of the environmental movement that arose in the twentieth century. And while there is still much work to be done, all of these movements have made incredible progress. Slavery and segregation fell. Women have equal rights. Rivers are no longer catching on fire on a regular basis, and the edifices of unequal treatment and protections for homosexuals are crumbling fast.

Global climate change feels like the Next Big Struggle, and there’s a way in which it is. If only it were so simple. Global climate change is unique in that once we “win”, and the proverbial dust settles, we will be in the midst of an on-going warming event. Even if we get global fossil fuel emissions to zero in the next ten years, the warming that is already happening will have pushed every feedback loop scientists have been fearing into high gear. The arctic ice is already melting. The permafrost is already rotting. Vegetation is already suffering from heat and drought. Oceanic phytoplankton are already declining in number, and water is already evaporating more due to the rise in temperature.

Lately I’ve seen a number of posts, often by climate activists, with inspirational quotes about social change from people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, and others, and all of these quotes have something in common – they’re about social change.

Climate change is a sticky issue because, of course, part of it IS about social change. It’s a problem caused by our collective action AND our collective inaction. It’s a result of a social, economic, and political status quo, and that makes it similar to the fights against Apartheid, slavery, segregation, women’s rights, gay rights, and other forms of bigotry, discrimination, and abuse. Ultimately, how we vote is what has allowed us to get to this point, and ultimately, public opinion will sway towards reality, and change will occur.

And as Nelson Mandela famously said, it will probably seem impossible right up until it’s “done”.

But that’s the problem with climate change – it will never be “done”. Not in our lifetimes, and not in the lifetimes of our children, or our grandchildren. Even if we get every person on the planet working together to end fossil carbon emissions, the problem will continue without us. But we’re years, if not decades away from that kind of collective effort, and we’ve already waited almost half a century beyond the point when we really had a pretty solid case that human activity is warming the planet.

Most people who have been paying attention to the issue have at least a faint idea that there are feedback loops that can come into play, but if you weren’t aware of this phenomenon, there are numerous phenomena that can be caused by a small rise in temperature that cause more warming in turn, which carries on in a chain reaction.

These feedback loops are already in progress, at this point. Our albedo is lower, there’s more water vapor in the air, the permafrost is melting and releasing methane, and we’ve already seen the Amazon Rainforest – one of the biggest terrestrial carbon sinks – have two droughts so severe that it became a carbon SOURCE.

That means that while the social change aspect of this is taking time, just like ALL social change, the planet is moving on without us.

Changing where we get energy and how we use it is not enough. It’s not nearly enough.

Beyond that, simply not possible if we don’t take into account that the planet has ALREADY CHANGED, and by the time we get our act together, it will have changed EVEN MORE.

We’re fighting amongst ourselves about whether there is a battle to be fought, or when it should be fought, or HOW it should be fought, or even whether there is an enemy to fight.

We’ve been fighting amongst ourselves for fifty years, but after all that fighting is done – after the social change is achieved – then the real fight will be just beginning. Then we have to figure out how to survive.

Edit: Here’s another way I put it in conversation with a friend – Think of it as being like cracks in the road. With racism, and with other such issues, we repair the cracks. We improve what the road is made of so that the cracks don’t happen as often, and aren’t as big. We do maintenance, and over time, we have better roads. If we ignore it, it gets worse, usually in different ways, but it’s all about the road.

With climate change, we’re working on the road, when the ground the road is built on is falling away.

This blog is mostly about how we can work on building a bridge under the road as the ground beneath it falls away, so that the whole road doesn’t collapse.

Policing our own: integrity in the midst of struggle

Wind turbines kill bats.

Wind energy is one of the biggest sectors of renewable energy at the moment, and it’s something that I, along with many other climate activists, have strongly supported.

It’s important to remember, however, that the corporations responsible for the proliferation of wind turbines around the world are still corporations, and are still vulnerable to the same kinds of abuse and neglect that we so regularly vilify when they come from the fossil fuel industry.

Continue reading

Will plants and animals be able to adapt to climate change? For many of them, probably not.

One way in which deniers often try to say there’s no reason to worry about climate change, even if it is happening, is by saying that species will just adapt to it, and everything will be just fine. There are a number of other arguments tied up in this one, but only a couple of them are directly relevant to answering this argument. First, there is the question of the scale of the change. If we look at the current temperature, and assume that this is as warm as it’s going to get, then really, there’s no cause for alarm. Indeed, the letter from the Hudson Institute makes the case that in the last ten thousand years we have seen climatic changes like the current one, and in some cases higher temperatures. The article does NOT note that those events were regional, not global, and it also fails to take global CO2 levels into account.

NOTE: The relationship between CO2 and global temperature is not under debate by any reasonable people, and I don’t have space to address that issue here, so if you want to look into that, either send me a note and I’ll discuss it later, or go here and see if you can find your answers. It will have to suffice, for now, to say that the influence of CO2 on atmospheric temperature has been tested, calculated, retested, and confirmed repeatedly from the late 1800’s, through the military’s development of heat-seeking missiles, and is now the field of fourth-grade science fair projects.

So – while regional temperatures, may have risen comparable amounts in the last couple thousand years, what about CO2 levels? Since that’s what’s driving this temperature increase, and we know that when CO2 increases, it takes time for the temperature to rise in response, how does today’s CO2 level compare?

Temperature and CO2 since the last ice age. Data sources: Vostok, Law Dome, Mauna Loa. Continue reading

Discussions with Strangers, Episode Two: Thinking about water

A British study on the impacts of climate change states, among other things,

By the 2050s, between 27 million and 59 millionpeople in Britain are likely to be living in areas suffering problems with water supplies, the report claims. Britain is predicted to have a population of about 77 million by 2050.

There a numerous other impacts listed, but one commenter focused on the water shortage claim, and more specifically, the span of 27-59 million people affected. 

“By the 2050s, between 27 million and 59 million people in Britain are likely to be living in areas suffering problems with water supplies.” – Well which is it? 27 or 59? How worried should I be? Will I be one of them? If I’m not, what will cost me? If I am, I’m moving.

After getting the initial snark out of my system, I ended up giving more of a useful answer: Continue reading

In search of a climate theory

There are a number of scientific theories that we rely on in day to day life, whether we think about them or not. These various and sundry chemical, biological and physical theories are used daily in research and development of technologies, medicines, cleaning products, development strategies etc. and they are taught regularly in schools precisely because they are so useful.

The theory of anthropogenic global warming is a useful theory, but it is, on the whole, a sub-theory – a set of hypotheses born out of the larger concept of a planetary climate that effects and is effected by the life that moves within it. Continue reading