Climate Change, the "Free Market" & the California Drought
by Gaius Publius
The current multi-year California drought is not on most people's radar yet, but it's about to be. The video above, from KQED, is an excellent look at the scope of the problem. If you have just a little time, watch the first two minutes (I've set up the player to stop at that point, I hope).
As you do, you may want to pause and study three sets of images — the before-and-after shots of Folsom Reservior (0:42), Lake Oroville (0:49), and the snowpack regions from which reservoirs are filled (0:57). Here's another image of the drought problem:
California is drying up (source)
The problem has three aspects. One is amount of drinking water and its seasonal "refresh rate." As water tables shrink, there's less water to drink, which impacts the "carrying capacity" of the region — how many residents a given amount of water can support. The drier the region, the fewer people can live there. Another is salination of the ground water that's already there. As water tables fall, there's more and more intrusion of salt water into the fresh water supply that's left. A third is the national importance of the California Central Valley growing region. This has consequences for both the cost of food nationally and the "carrying capacity" of the regional economy — how many residents a given economy can support. A shrinking economy again means fewer residents.
The video goes on to talk about the possibility of creating fresh water using desalination plants, but that solution is costly and energy intensive, and as you'll see in a minute, "cost" is what's driving the problem in the first place. The rest of the video is a panel discussion — do watch if you have time (click in the scrub bar to continue past my stop mark). I want to focus on something else here.
The Cause of This Problem — Climate Change —
Is Entirely Fixable
Every problem listed in the video, and every aspect of the climate crisis overall, is so far fixable with money. Every one. If a state wanted to sink cost into desalination, it could do it. If the world wanted to rid itself of climate change and truly limit global warming to the +1.5°C we're going to get as of today — the one degree we're experiencing at the moment, plus the half-degree that's in the pipeline already — we could do it.
I've written that, based on discussions I've had in the renewable energy industry, there's no physical limitation to a complete power conversion to renewables (i.e., zero or near-zero carbon) in ten years. The problem is simply the application of power — our government has the power to declare a national emergency and act, WWII-style, or man-on-the-moon–style. It just won't use that power.
An article published in 2009 confirmed nearly that result. Their research (pdf) says that we can be off of carbon by 2030. Scientific American (my emphasis):
A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030Ignoring "political will" for a moment (I'll have a comment on that shortly), this is a solvable problem. The largest non-political problem appears to be supply of a few rare earth materials:
Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi
... Our plan calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations. The numbers are large, but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle; society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II, the U.S. retooled automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956 the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.
- Supplies of wind and solar energy on accessible land dwarf the energy consumed by people around the globe.
- The authors’ plan calls for 3.8 million large wind turbines, 90,000 solar plants, and numerous geothermal, tidal and rooftop photovoltaic installations worldwide.
- The cost of generating and transmitting power would be less than the projected cost perkilowatt-hour for fossil-fuel and nuclear power.
- Shortages of a few specialty materials, along with lack of political will, loom as the greatest obstacles.
Is it feasible to transform the world’s energy systems? Could it be accomplished in two decades? The answers depend on the technologies chosen, the availability of critical materials, and economic and political factors. ...
The scale of the WWS [wind, water, sunshine] infrastructure is not a barrier. But a few materials needed to build it could be scarce or subject to price manipulation.The plan is detailed and takes everything into account you'd want it to, including downtime of the various power sources, regional availabilities and cost. Six years later, we have newer and better sun-catching cells; newer and better wind-catching technology; newer and better tide-and-wave–driven power generators. I still hold to my 10-year prediction. If I'm off, it's not by much.
About That Political Problem
So why aren't we acting to solve this with the urgency it deserves? Here's Ian Welsh on that puzzle:
The complete inability to manage obvious problems:Note that he too lists obvious implementable solutions, like rationing, mandated crop selection — a state-wide ban on almond-growing, for example — and the like.
California Drought Edition
This problem has been coming for years. There should have been rationing, at the last, last year and probably before, since climate models indicated the strong possibility of the drought continuing. Moreover farmers should have been forced to move over to less water intensive crops (subsidize the move.)
The total inability to manage obvious problems is one of the hallmarks of our age. Everyone with any sense knows there’s a problem, everyone with any sense knows at least part of the solution, and we don’t even do the obvious things to fix the obvious problems.
So what's going on? I said the problem was political, but it's even simpler than that. The political problem is not an absence of power, but an unwillingness to use it. Right now the list of options is constrained to "free market" solutions only — limited to only those solutions that our wealth-captured government will consider; only those solutions that will make Charles Koch (the genius of the outfit), Jamie Dimon, Robert Rubin, and, yes, Bill Clinton, happy.
Notice that the "Political Will" discussion in the authors' own paper implies free market solutions, a combination of "tariffs" and "incentives." Did the U.S. government in World War II rely on "incentives" or just plain force?
On the other side of that constrained discussion is the growing personal pain people here and around the world are feeling as a result of the growing climate disaster. Watch those first two minutes above again. How long will Californians tolerate watching the death of their state? How long before Las Vegas and Phoenix are shrinking economies because Lake Mead, into which the Colorado River watershed drains, is doing this:
[Click to enlarge.]and looks more and more like this:
"Bathtub ring" at Hoover Dam shows the water level of Lake Mead in March 2011. Photo copyright Ralph Maughan (source)
If the droughts don't stop, those cities and others like them will stop growing and start shrinking in our lifetime. Storms will strip cities and economies as well. Will people stand for that? For how long?
The power is available; it just has to be used. It will take the force of government for the U.S. to do what the U.S. needs to do, but that force exists. I predict, as the crisis worsens for more and more people — impoverishing and destroying life after life — the press for solutions will reach flood levels.
It's only a matter then of what solutions will be considered. When people stop letting the rich say, "Well, we can't throw money at it," we'll be on our way to solving this. We can throw money at it, the money of the wealthy first, and throw Robert "free market" Rubin out of the room while we discuss how to spend it. At that point, if we're lucky, the question will be, do we want to solve the problem or keep the rich folk happy?
In that sense, the political problem is just an intimidation problem — and it's one we face today on many issues, like "school reform" or NAFTA-style trade agreements. Can we throw Robert Rubin out of the discussion? Sure. Will we? Only if we think we have that choice.
An Easter Island Solution — Depose the Chief
We all know the Easter Island problem, right? As near as anyone can tell, the islanders destroyed themselves in that inexplicable Ian Welsh way. They cut down all the trees, the resource that sustained them, then disappeared as a culture, leaving carved rocks behind.
So let's look at the problem from their point of view. You're a villager on Easter Island. People are cutting down trees right and left, and many are getting worried. At some point, the number of worried villagers reaches critical mass, and they go as a group to the island chief and say, "Look, we have to stop cutting trees, like now." The chief, who's also CEO of a wood products company, checks his bottom line and orders the cutting to continue.
Do the villagers walk away? Or do they depose the chief?
There's always a choice, if the Robert Rubins and Bill Clintons don't convince us to take it off the table. We don't have the numbers yet — we don't have "critical mass" — but we will have. What will we do then? Will we think we have no choice, or depose the chief — the "low tax, money first" types — and act? Depending on how soon we reach "critical mass" — and the California drought is sadly helping us get there — I'm actually optimistic. It's at least 50-50 that Americans will solve a problem with force.
Your bottom line — If you accept only "free market" solutions, you accept that the climate problem can't be solved in the time we have left to solve it. If you ignore the billionaire-coddling "free market" solutions however, the answer is at hand, in front of us as we speak. We just need to grab it.