Robin Millington, CEO, Planet Tracker
Those of us with children are all too familiar with the refrain, usually from the back seat of the car on a road trip – ‘are we there yet?’.
The climate and environmental movement has been warning for years that the tipping points are getting closer. However, there has been so much tone deafness or outright hostility by the drivers in our economy, our corporate and political leaders, to that refrain they have turned up the music in the front seat to try and drown it out.
The new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released this week is categorical – climate change is real and the impacts are being experienced today, not at some point in the future. These impacts are manifesting in every single region across the world – none excluded. Extreme heat and heavy rainfall are more frequent and intense, while oceans are warming and acidifying, to name just some examples.
I have just returned from California:
- California which, if it were a country, would be the fifth largest economy in the world and is home to over 10% of the Fortune 1000 companies;
- California, a vital economic pillar in the US creating nearly 15% of the US GDP and supporting one of the largest workforces in the US;
- California, the breadbasket of America and the fifth largest food and food commodities producer globally with a GDP-equivalent of USD 40.2 billion derived from agriculture, forest and hunting in 2020;
- California, whose ports support nearly 50% of US container transport vital to global trade;
- California, home to Silicon Valley and Hollywood, home of billionaires, unicorns (wannabe billionaires), movie moguls, dreams;
- California – the canary in the coal mine?
I arrived during the late June heat dome and was shocked. California gets hot, it gets very hot normally in the summers, especially in the North Valley, but in all my six plus decades never have I experienced this – it was Sahara-like. The extreme dry heat made everything so brittle even leaves with some green left in them would crumble. The heat sat on one’s chest like an elephant, making breathing a challenge. There was not even the slightest movement of air and not enough moisture to form even a few wisps of clouds. Bone dry.
In early July the snow fields that have always been there since any of us could remember, (and which remained even during earlier droughts) were nearly gone. The streams were running at October levels – and no relief in sight.
As of early August, the two largest reservoirs in the State, Shasta and Oroville, are at 31% and 24% respectively of total capacity. These dams are dependent on snow and rain to refill. California also sits on aquafers that supply ground water that are depleting – aquafers that have helped fuel the agricultural miracle that has turned desert into breadbasket, aquifers that are also dependent on snow and rain to recharge.
What if the snow does not come this winter as it did not come last winter? Preliminary forecasts from The U.S. Climate Prediction Centre are already seeing similar conditions developing for the winter of 2021/2022.
Without sufficient snow fall or at least torrential enough rain to recharge the dams and aquafers, where will California be at this time next year? What will happen if this economic powerhouse runs dry?
If there is no water, there is no water.
When I asked farmers in the North State what they would do, many of whom have been climate change sceptics if not outright deniers, the first response was, oh of course the snows will come, they always do. When pushed, there was vague hand waving and some comments about water trucks bringing in necessary supplies.
Water trucks? Really? Water trucks from where? The vision of lines of truck tankers as far as the eye can see from Colorado across the great desert of Nevada just doesn’t make sense. The US is expected to declare its first-ever “tier one” water shortage at Lake Mead on the Colorado River which supplies much of Southern California, which is at 37% capacity, the lowest level since it was first filled in the 1930’s. The whole American West is officially in severe drought. Water from where? A belief that somebody, somehow, somewhere is going to solve this, or that it will all just go away and be OK means no one seems to have a Plan B.
The obvious technical fix is for desalination plants – of which there are number already on the Pacific coast and several more planned. But unless a whole fleet of those with all the necessary locations secured, delivery infrastructure such as rights of way for pipes and canals is in place, engineering completed and building already well underway, would that technical fix be able to come on stream in time for next year’s crops? And at what cost?
And if the climate continues to heat, and the fires continue to burn, for how long could this be a fix anyway? The current largest fire in the US so far this year is the second largest California fire on record (and the largest was in 2020), and this is only in early August well ahead of the traditional and worst fire season of September/October. Will living with the continual fires year on year be feasible and will the economic output of the past be possible in the years ahead?
And at what cost would any of these fixes come? Who is going to pay? With what? Covid has been draining resources not to mention the intense distraction Covid has created away from the mounting issues of climate change and water shortages. What does this mean for people’s lives and livelihoods?
Is California the canary in the coal mine?
The Dust Bowl of the 1930s in America, another man-made disaster, saw whole populations of the American Midwest in places like Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas, simply unable to sustain themselves with either food or water. They could not sell their homes and fields and had no choice but abandon their properties almost overnight. They loaded up whatever they could carry in their autos and migrated to somewhere that could physically support them. The irony – many migrated to California.
One day, which could be coming sometime soon, when people try to turn on their taps and there is nothing but a trickle, what will Californians do? Will those water trucks miraculously appear? Where will Californians go? It is not inconceivable that parts of California could be facing something not unlike a Dust Bowl moment.
What seems clear from many tweets, blogs and articles being put out by the science community is how suddenly and quickly this has arrived. We were warned it was coming. No one thought it could be now. We still thought it could be a few years away. But tipping points aren’t linear.
While climate change is now very visible globally, and especially this summer in various ways – the opening of the Arctic sea routes; floods in Europe and China; fires in Greece, Russia, Turkey, America, Canada; drought on every continent (except Antarctica) – the issue of California’s stability has a particular significance because of its economic position.
If the fifth largest economy in the world and the fifth largest global producer of food and food commodities is unable to be the engine that it is currently, and that change comes suddenly, what impact will that have on America and on the world?
Stop and absorb the implications.
Are we there yet? If the snows don’t come again this year, yes, indeed, we may well be there. Remind me – what is Plan B?
 Sixth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis
 A California fire official said on Aug 8, 2021 that living trees in the area now contain less moisture than a plank of wood bought at a lumberyard – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-58141340
 The U.S. Climate Prediction Centre is forecasting a second La Niña winter – La Niña typically implies dryer conditions that can lead to drought. https://www.presstelegram.com/2021/07/08/la-nina-threatens-to-return-and-worsen-drought-in-u-s-west/