Rare Snow, Rare Rant

It’s one of those days that confirm the thinking of both climate change deniers and the other 98% of us.

I wanted to go out for a run, and ended up wearing my spring running tights, a winter running jacket, and gloves. A fierce wind has been blowing from the north-east. The sky looks like late April but it feels like January.

Out on my run in the bright spring sunshine, a white mote floated down before me. A bit of cherry blossom? Underfeather fluff from an amorous songbird above? Maybe a glint of wing from the first small dragonflies in my path? After all, it’s almost May and spring has sprung.

The sparkling bit of something that floated down in front of me, and the many others that followed, were none of those things.

It was snow. Not much, just a light flurry, but most decidedly snow. Pretty, the way it caught the sunlight. The mountain range beyond lies under a late spring blanket, just after the end of the ski season here.

Spring blossoms against new snow. Photo: PKR

Spring blossoms against new snow.
Photo: PKR

Fodder for those who choose to deny what they still call ‘global warming.’ After all, how can snow in late spring be a sign of a warming climate?

Proof for everyone else, the rest of us who call this process what it is: human-induced climate change.

Sure, we’ve had late snows before, just not quite this late, and not after weeks of warm vernal weather.

And so we begin to speculate on what it all means.

I recently read a couple of articles in the Washington Post, the oldest newspaper in the Washington D.C. area, winner of dozens of Pulitzer Prizes.

One article, by Chris Mooney, was in the Energy and Environment section. It outlined some of the climate change expectations versus what is being observed on the ground right now, which could be summarized by saying that the climate is changing even more quickly than expected. It ends with a strong argument for putting a sharp end to deforestation, and for taking responsibility and quick action to stop further changes.

Several other articles and opinion pieces echoed this sentiment.

Winter skies move across an April landscape. Photo: PKR

Winter skies move across an April landscape.
Photo: PKR

The other, on the same day, was an Opinion piece by well-known and highly acclaimed conservative writer George F. Will. In it, he says that those who agree that the current era of climate change is caused by humans (i.e. pretty much everyone in the world except a tiny economically driven minority in a small handful of countries) are carrying out a “campaign to criminalize debate about science” by trying to reduce the noise made by deniers who call themselves skeptics. Mr. Will considers any refutation of this supposed climate ‘debate’ to be suppression of free speech and a move towards authoritarianism.

He frames the entire discussion as a government grab of individual and economic liberties, reminding me a bit of the fringe-thinkers who think the United Nations is actually a New World Order organization with a goal of world domination.

I’m not sure why the Washington Post, with its long and respected history, would choose to publish such a contrast on Earth Day. It’s hard to grasp why a tenacious group of people, some of them very smart, would choose to ignore such widespread agreement across the globe in favor of short-term politics – and for such a grimly nihilistic worldview, at that.

A recent study found that in 14 industrialized countries, the largest proportion of deniers (17%) was in Australia. The U.S. came in at 12%, far fewer than the number of Americans who think that the sun revolves around the Earth, or who haven’t really been convinced by the whole evolution thing.

A piece like Mr. Will’s in a newspaper like the Washington post is exactly the kind of thing that makes the head-in-the-sand stance look like there’s actually any kind of debate going on at all, and that in itself could be seen as an irresponsible environmental act.

Meanwhile, I’m watching pretty snowflakes settle on the spread of petite white daisies across my lushly green garden lawn.

Tapping Out

The town of Porterville, California has been in the news over the past couple of months because it is one of the places where taps are running dry as the state’s drought grinds on into its fourth winter. Several municipal wells have run dry, some residents are coming to rely on charitable deliveries of bottled water. Images are shown of home kitchens with dishes piled high because there’s no water to wash them. Water rationing has come to an extreme here; it’s no longer voluntary, but based on the amount left in the plastic bottle.

There are a few points that strike me about the coverage I’ve read thus far, aspects that reflect the history and attitude of the western United States towards water as much as many unspoken assumptions in developed countries with traditionally plentiful water supplies.

The story, as it is framed now, tells of wells running dry amid climate-change driven drought. But that’s really only a small part of this story.

Satellite imagery used to create images of California groundwater loss, 2002-1014. Source: NASA/Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

Satellite imagery used to create images of California groundwater loss, 2002-1014.
Source: NASA/Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

As I was reading an article in the New York Times about the travails of families without running water, I noticed that many of the families mentioned were agricultural workers who were coming home from a long day in the produce packing companies to find they couldn’t take a shower. Well, okay, that’s a bad situation. But presumably if there is still produce to pack, then the agricultural and packing facilities still have water, right?

No mention was made of who supplies water to Porterville, which lies in Tulare County, deep in the rich agricultural belt of California’s productive Central Valley. Why is the Central Valley so productive, if it’s in what’s a very arid climate?

Because of the Central Valley Project (CVP), a water redistribution program planned during the early 20th century, but  created mainly between 1930-1980 to move water from the rivers and lakes of Northern California to the Central Valley, land of rich soils and unreliable rainfall. The agricultural methods used in the Central Valley were never adjusted for the climate because there was no necessity – there was always water, thanks to the CVP.

But what about the municipal water supply? If there was water for growers, why are taps running dry? Because the city of Porterville, like many other Central Valley cities, is ‘self-reliant’ when it comes to water. It uses wells and surface water for the urban water supply.

If the 2007 Porterville Public Utilities Report is any indication, as of 2007 there was enough confidence in the groundwater supply that there was no Water Shortage Plan at all. This in spite of numerous multi-year droughts within the past 100 years.

The CVP isn’t responsible for the water of the towns and cities it helped create along with the agricultural plenty; at the same time, the CVP neither monitors nor enforces any specific, climate-appropriate irrigation techniques. Which means that up until recently, many growers were irrigating their fields using flood methods – 3-4 feet of water across entire orchards – using borrowed, unmetered water.

A broader view - groundwater changes 2003-2014 across the United States. Source: NASA/Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

A broader view – groundwater changes 2003-2014 across the United States.
Source: NASA/Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE)

Speaking of borrowed water, using bottled water for residents without running water means water depletion of another kind, since bottled water requires three times the amount of water in the bottle to manufacture and transport each bottle. That’s not including all the fossil fuel used in manufacture, transport and delivery. An LA Times article includes a picture of a delivery Crystal Geyser water to a home; Crystal Geyser uses water bottled in seven locations around the country, only two of them in California. The others are all at least 1000 miles away.

None of the articles include the aftermath of all those bottles: the non-biodegradable plastic waste. And when it comes to extra waste, don’t even get me started on the stories of Californians using paper plates and canned food to avoid cooking and washing dishes.

And all those lawn-watering restrictions, short showers and delayed toilet flushes? The proverbial drop in the bucket: Urban use of water accounts for 20% of all water use in California. The rest is all agricultural and industrial. Except that, of course, the agriculture and industry sectors draw from a different tap than everyone else – so maybe all those dying lawns and stinky toilets serve a purpose, after all.

The Porterville story, and by that I mean both the actual events in drought-stricken Porterville and the ‘story’ in news reports of taps running dry, is a parable for our attitudes towards water.

When we’ve got a lot of it, we are profligate. Extravagant. Realms are built on shifting shores in the belief that the years of plenty will last beyond our own short horizons.

The past century has been one of the wettest in the western United States in 7000 years, but water use strategies were based on those historically high amounts continuing indefinitely.

Telling the stories of the drought in ways that narrow the lens to individual or local tales of woe may win sympathy or readers’ eyes on the page, but if those stories stop at the human interest level, it serves little purpose in putting the stories in context.

And a lack of context means that the same practices of poor water management across all levels of planning, including different rights for different segments of society, remain below the surface when what is needed is a complete re-examination of our attitudes towards water and its use.

Below is a recent infographic on safe tap water around the world, or rather, lack thereof.

Source: NeoMam Studios

Source: NeoMam Studios

Steady Stream of Silver Linings

17790895_sWhen it comes to climate instability and global environmental challenges, I sense a paralyzed panic setting in for many people. It’s an attitude I remember from the Cold War. Plenty of people were quite certain that human destiny was to throw nuclear warheads at one another until we had bombed collective civilization into oblivion. Why else would Sting have sung that he hoped ‘the Russians love their children too‘?

I used to harbor that silver-lining kind of hope that each new climate disaster would usher in a new era of climate change awareness, and more importantly, a plan of action. Or that some of the climate disaster movies – The Day After Tomorrow, for example – would inspire everyone to lobby for less dependence on fossil fuels, to throw their collective weight behind renewable energy and sustainable development.

But what I’ve noticed over the years is that what these events and books and films inspire is either a flight in to denial or into fatalistic fear. Some of the storms – Katrina, Sandy, and so on – are large and destructive and heavily covered in the media, but like any horrible accident or event (even war), they are breathlessly watched until they pass, perhaps another week or two after that, and then something new comes along.

It gives the impression that the danger has passed, and however much damage occurred, what remains is simply clean-up. Nothing to see here, move along, this was probably a fluke. So many are focused on just getting by that they don’t see what they could possibly contribute.

Whether or not you adhere to the argument that climate change is being caused by human activity or not shouldn’t necessarily matter in terms of response. Indifference, panic or inactivity to the challenges are just as effective as persistent denial of the scientific consensus behind climate change in maintaining the current trajectory.

Even if climate change denial is used to persist in business as usual – as I quoted Exxon CEO at the beginning of the week, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?” – there is no reason not to try and take advantage of the massive opportunities available to use to change our behavior to improve energy efficiency and to expand sustainability.

We accept the argument that modern technologies, connectivity and the economics of 21st-century media and business dictate news cycles that have a lifetime shorter than that of the average mayfly. This sells more advertising and allows some in business and politics to assume collective amnesia and information resignation.

It doesn’t help that many media outlets have cut or eliminated their environmental desks, and the reporters who could help the Image credit: markpayne / 123RF Stock Photopublic connect the dots between political action, business strategies and environmental impact.

I think we can work to extend the accepted models of media and business thinking and attention from the current week-to-week, or quarterly assessments to annual, five-year and ten-year horizons. The challenges that face us shouldn’t be what are used to divide political parties and their constituencies.

I don’t agree with Exxon’s CEO, that climate change is just ‘risk management’ – this implies that we will have some sort of lottery jackpot solution, a sudden windfall of engineering genius that will cast pixie dust in the clouds and fix everything with a few brilliant technological tweaks.

In response to the thudding of events that are frightening, we need a positive drumbeat of words, activity, events and developments to increase our adaptability and demonstrate positive rather than negative impacts. It’s not one solution that will work – it’s all the small, medium and large solutions put together. From community gardens to a refusal to support massive oil dependency any longer to an acknowledgment that the environmental security might be just as important as security from terrorism.

There were those who thought the Iron Curtain would last forever. Now it is a receding memory. There are still so many tools and opportunities at our disposal for this challenge, too. We need a steady and constant stream of silver linings, large and small.

I’m not sure where the short-term thinkers of fossil fuel dependency and unsustainable development plan on living in the future. Maybe they have a Plan B.

Otherwise, all I can say is this: I hope they love their children, too.

Silver Lining Time

Silver Lining Time


Apologies for the extremely long post, but in case you want more here’s –


Climate Progress article – 99 One-Liners Rebutting Denier Talking Points — With Links To The Full Climate Science by Joe Romm

Salon.com article – Media indifference enables global warming by Marty Kaplan

Pavan Sukhdev essay -Will 2013 bring a new, sustainable world?

Salon.com article – From global warming to fluoride: Why do people deny science? by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower

HuffingtonPost.com article – TransCanada Whistleblower Warns Of Shoddy Pipeline Practices by Lynne Peeples

Ernst & Young article – Crunching the numbers on carbon

Yahoo.com article – Still True, Still Inconvenient: What We’ve Learned Since 2006