That California’s catastrophic drought is a result of global warming has become a commonplace of contemporary political rhetoric.
That truism isn’t true: Most scientific accounts of California’s current dry spell link recent low precipitation to naturally occurring atmospheric cycles, not to global warming.
Indeed, most of the global-warming models relied upon by those advocating more-invasive environmental policies predict that warming would leave California with wetter winters — winter precipitation being critical to the snowpack-dependent state — rather than the drier winters at the root of the state’s current water crisis.
What some studies do suggest is that warmer temperatures make the effects of scanty precipitation more intense for California’s end users of water, a reasonably straightforward proposition — higher temperatures will probably contribute to higher demand for water and will certainly contribute to the much more significant problem of evaporation, which steals tremendous amounts of water away from California’s outdated storage-and-conveyance infrastructure and imposes substantial water losses on old-fashioned irrigation systems.
Here we have a collision of history and geography: California’s water supply is in its mountainous east, but its people are in its largely arid west. There is a great deal of desert between the thirsty people of Los Angeles and the Colorado River or the eastern Sierra snowpack. As California’s population has grown, a tangle of political interests ranging from narrow ideological environmentalism to rank NIMBYism — to say nothing of the constant desire to spend money directly on immediate benefits for political constituencies — has prevented the state’s water infrastructure from keeping up with its population.
California has papered over that gap with end-user conservation; the state’s population has doubled since the late 1960s, but its total water consumption is about the same today as it was during the awful drought in the mid-1970s — which means that its per capita water use has been substantially reduced. The inescapable implication is that the low-hanging fruit of water conservation was picked long ago, and that Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to address the crisis through further conservation efforts is likely to prove very difficult to implement.
Ignoring the scientific evidence, Governor Brown has repeatedly blamed California’s situation on global warming.
Ignoring the scientific evidence, Governor Brown has repeatedly blamed California’s situation on global warming. In the April 20 issue of New York magazine, Adam Sternbergh repeats the error with his climate-change-comes-to-Chipotle piece, “Have You Eaten Your Last Avocado?,” an excellent example of how good lifestyle journalism makes poor science journalism. He quotes the climate scientist Eric Holthaus: “Once it hits Chipotle, people think, Wow, we better do something about this climate-change thing.” Nobody reads scientific journals, but everybody goes to Chipotle.
Sternbergh cites a study from three Stanford scholars, “Anthropogenic warming has increased drought risk in California,” the title of which seems to bear out his case but the body of which is in accordance with the findings of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: that the critical issue in California — insufficient rain and snow — is the result of natural variability, not coal-fired power plants or SUVs. Warming is not the source of California’s dry weather (“there has not been a substantial change in the probability of either negative or moderately negative precipitation anomalies in recent decades”), though any warming would intensify the effects of low precipitation. If you are tempted to dismiss this as a right-wing talking point, first consult Tim McDonnell in Mother Jones.
The science, which our friends on the left claim not only to love but to “f*****g love,” does not say what the activists are saying it says. If California were a degree or two cooler than it is, it would not have any more rain or snow. The argument that McDonnell makes in Mother Jones, and that the Stanford scholars and NOAA support, is that higher temperatures make naturally occurring dry spells more difficult to deal with — which is a very different argument.
And that is important because there are a great many things making California’s current drought more difficult to deal with, prominent among them: Californians.
California presents the global-warming dispute in miniature. The Left, with the prominent advocacy of President Barack Obama, has argued that the challenge of global warming necessitates a new form of economic organization under political discipline. Never mind, for the moment, that the Left has been arguing for a new form of economic organization under political discipline for more than a century (the crisis changes every generation, but the identical solution endures); consider the actual choice presented by Sternbergh’s avocado. We could embark on a sprawling, unfocused, and unmanageable crusade to cajole and coerce the world — including the not-especially-cajolable gentlemen in Beijing — into reorganizing the entire human race’s means of sustenance in accordance with not especially well-defined atmospheric metrics. Or we could insist that California get its act together on the matter of water infrastructure.
California not only is effectively a single-party state operating under Democratic monopoly, its Democrats are impeccably progressive, almost spotlessly so. The progressives are forever insisting that they are the ones who know how to handle infrastructure projects, that they are the ones who care about them, and that their broader understanding of public goods will contribute to general prosperity. In reality, California has the worst water infrastructure situation in the country, with the EPA in 2013 calculating that the state requires nearly $45 billion in improvements. A more liberal view of California’s real possibilities would identify an even larger deficit. California’s recent lack of precipitation is nature’s doing; its inability to weather the ordinary variations of life on Earth is entirely man-made.
The actual challenges presented by the threat of global warming look a lot more like California’s current situation than Waterworld or The Day After Tomorrow. As a matter of political rhetoric, it is attractive to frame the choice as a matter of affiliation: Cast your lot with the truth-speaking scientists on one side or the oil-addicted pre-Enlightenment goobers on the other. The actual choice is between making a naïve attempt to reorganize the world’s economy — an attempt that certainly will fail — and embarking on a series of discrete, manageable adaptations, such as improving the water-management facilities of millions of people who live, let’s remember, in a desert.
The Left’s potted moral outrage notwithstanding, that isn’t a brief for denial, but a brief for adaptation. And if the Left really believed half as much in global warming as its rhetoric suggests, its leaders would be moving forward with a robust program for adaptation — especially in California, a large and prosperous jurisdiction that is under nearly complete progressive political control.
Instead of making those improvements, what California has in reality experienced under one-party progressive rule is little more than wealth transfers, largely from the private sector to the public sector — which, through its labor unions, dominates California politics — or from private-sector constituencies with low political value to Democrats to private-sector constituencies with high political value to Democrats. The Democrats have been filling up their campaign coffers, not California’s reservoirs.
The same people who saw to their own political and financial interests while shortchanging California’s water infrastructure argue that they should be empowered to act on a global scale in response to global warming. Having failed to deal with the relatively mild problems of California — which has almost everything in the world going for it — they believe themselves ready to take on the hairier challenges of Bangladesh and Sudan.
The global-warming debate is, at its heart, about risk management. Maybe we should let Governor Brown et al. prove that they can make things work in California before we risk taking their methods worldwide.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.