California in the Great Drought is a living diorama of how the future is going to look across much of the United States as climate change sets in. Like hippies and “dude,” wine bars and hot tubs, mega-churches and gay rights, what gets big in California goes national soon enough. Now, the large dark bruise spreading across the state on the U.S. Drought Monitor map is a preview of a bone-dry world to come.
Admittedly, recent summer rains have somewhat dulled the edge of this “exceptional” California 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 get that much only 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 fierce droughts that arise from entirely natural causes, some of them lasting a decade or more.
Even so, climate change remains a potent factor in the present disaster. According to the state’s Climate Change Center, California is on average about 1.7 degrees hotter than a century ago, and its rate of warming is expected to triple in the century ahead. The kicker is that hotter means much drier because as temperature creeps up, evaporation gallops. As a result, the droughts of the future will be effectively more destructive than those of the past.
Throughout the state, draconian cutbacks in water use are in force. Some agricultural districts are receiving 0% of the federally controlled irrigation water they received in past years, while state-controlled water deliveries are running about 15% of normal. A staggering 5,200 wildfires have burned across he state this year, and the fire season still has months to go.
So how is this a harbinger for lands to the east? The long-term forecast for an immense portion of western North America, from California to Texas and north to South Dakota, is for a future of the same, only worse.
Here is the unvarnished version as expressed in a paper that appeared in Science Advances in 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. 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, in New Mexico, and Mesa Verde, in Colorado, to collapse. This, they add, will happen even if greenhouse gas emissions are significantly lowered soon.
If California points the way to dry times ahead, it also gives us a glimpse of how a responsible society can adjust to a warmer future. In general, the state’s individual consumers and water districts are meeting conservation goals, thanks to a range of innovations and sacrifices.
Perhaps most impressively, the state has adopted its own pioneering cap-and-trade program aimed at rolling back greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. Emissions are capped and emitters are assigned a certain number of carbon permits. If they emit less, they can sell their extra permits in a state auction, creating incentives to cut carbon pollution.
Will cap and trade enable the state to meet its greenhouse gas goal? That’s unknown, but there is no debating its positive effect on the state treasury. In fiscal year 2015-16, the permit auction will net about $2.2 billion for mass transit, affordable housing and a range of climate-adaptation programs. And by the way, the warnings of naysayers and climate deniers that cap-and-trade would prove a drag on the economy have proved groundless.
If President Obama’s just-announced Clean Power Plan withstands court challenges, it will prove a powerful spur to other states to “put a price on carbon.” The plan mandates state-by-state reductions in power plant carbon emissions that will drive them 32% below 2005 levels. Many states undoubtedly have to adopt cap-and-trade systems. Where will they look for a workable example? California, obviously.
And yet, only governors in Hawaii, Oregon and Washington on the West Coast, Minnesota in the Midwest, and a handful of Northeastern states will even acknowledge the importance of acting to curb climate change as well as adapt to it.
Even in states likely to face acute water shortages, governors have assumed the posture of startled ostriches. Doug Ducey, the Republican governor of Arizona, acknowledges 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.”
This year, the troglodytic deniers may get a boost from an unlikely source. An El Nino event seems to be brewing in the Pacific Ocean, which may draw winter precipitation to Southern California and points eastward. If it happens, the Republican rain dancers will feel confirmed in their denialism, much as a broken clock is right at least twice a day.
One or even several El Niños, however, will not avert the new normal for much of the American West. Adaptation could 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.
Eventually, California’s message will be heeded. Get ready.
William deBuys is the author of “A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest” and “The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures.” A longer version of this essay appears at TomDispatch.com.