Facing Up to Reality

More frequent heat waves. Droughts. Wildfires. The West is getting a glimpse of its future climate.

The western U.S. is staring climate change in the face. Most of the West is experiencing “severe” or “exceptional” drought. We could be heading into the worst drought period in centuries. Major dam reservoirs are down to record low levels. The region is also in the grips of a record-breaking heatwave.  We can expect another bad wildfire season, maybe not as bad as last year but still bad. Power systems from Texas to California are stressed to their limits.

This is bad, but it’s not the worst news. The worst news is that the situation is only going to get worse as climate change progresses. If we don’t cut emissions quickly and dramatically, climate change will accelerate, putting droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires into overdrive. This isn’t end-of-the-world doom saying; it’s just the fact about the future of a big chunk of the United States.

The modern West is a human construct, dependent on a massive rearrangement of water availability across large areas. The physical and legal infrastructure of the West is geared toward a certain climate regime.  At great expense and effort, dams, canals, and irrigation systems have been carefully engineered for a climate that no longer exists. To make things worse, the legal architecture is designed to favor whoever used the water first. That has nothing to do with who needs the water most — farmers growing rice in the desert have a stronger claim than urban residents. We’re going to be facing major economic (and legal) dislocations as the region adjusts to the new reality.  That’s not even mentioning the toll that wildfires are going to take or the need to reengineer the power grid for greater cooling needs.

As I said, this is going to be bad. We really don’t have any way of putting Humpty Dumpty together again. We do, however, have the ability to make things much, much worse if we don’t get behind dramatic emission cuts.

Some people say they don’t believe climate change is real, as if believing in climate change were a lifestyle choice. Believe whatever you want. Reality doesn’t care what you think. And sooner or later, reality always wins.

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Reader Comments

2 Replies to “Facing Up to Reality”

  1. Actually, we are facing today’s reality because of what people have been thinking for the past 50 years or more. In order to change tomorrow’s reality, people have to change their thinking now.

    While reducing greenhouse gas emissions is essential, it is not enough. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that negative emissions (carbon capture or removal) is also necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees (above pre-industrial levels) and the recent (albeit brief) decline in emissions during the pandemic did not slow the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    Some solutions are emerging today — such as direct air capture, carbon capture and sequestration, carbon utilization and green technology — and others may follow, but only if they are adopted, funded and put into action.

    Desalination will address both water shortages and rising sea levels (by using desalinated ocean water for beneficial purposes on land) and reduce the strains on existing water infrastructure.

    In the meantime, growing rice in the desert may not be such a good idea.

  2. Well said Jai “Actually, we are facing today’s reality because of what people have been thinking for the past 50 years or more. In order to change tomorrow’s reality, people have to change their thinking now” except reality is still not protecting the future of the human race.

    Tragically, Washington today is proving once again Joseph Goebbels “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it” dominates far too much of our political thinking.

    We are not only threatened with loss of our democracy, but loss of an acceptable quality of life for our newest generations.

    Another historical reality check is that Edward Teller (father of the H-Bomb and, along with Ernest O. Lawrence in 1952, helped initiate the weapons and energy research programs of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) told some members of my 1963 graduating class that he believed that fusion power generating plants would be operating by the end of the 20th century, after he also warned members of the American Chemical Society about the danger of climate change, driven by the burning of fossil fuels in 1957.

    So the paramount question becomes, how can we change enough of the right peoples thinking in time?

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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