Wednesday, March 18, 2015

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 2030
Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi

  • 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.
... 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.

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. ...
Ignoring "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:
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:
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.
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.

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.


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At 4:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm no engineer but it seems intuitively obvious to me that a massive aqueduct/pipeline system could be constructed to move the over-abundance of water in the east to the parched states in the west. Would this be difficult? Of course. However, if we're stupidly debating building a pipeline to move the dirtiest fossil fuel in the world from Canada to the Gulf Coast - with no economic benefit to the US, coupled with assuming virtually all the risk - then it would seem entirely feasible to move clean water across the country in a similar fashion. Such a project would undoubtedly create thousands of jobs, while simultaneously solving all manner of other problems.

What am I missing here, other than the obvious political hurdles which would have to be jumped? How is this not being discussed right now?

At 7:44 PM, Blogger Dan Lynch said...

Anonymous, there have been many such proposals -- piping water from Alaska, Idaho, etc.. One problem is that the populations in those states are kind of fond of their water. Another problem is that there are environmental costs -- if you divert water from a river in Idaho, that's going to have an environmental impact in Idaho.

The bigger question is why should we lift a finger to sustain an unsustainable population? Why should we continue to allow religious nutters to have 12 children? Why should we continue to allow immigrants to flood our country?

The biggest, simplest thing we could do to reduce carbon emmissions, water consumption, and general environmental impact would be to reduce the population. I'm not talking gas chambers, I'm talking a one child policy and strict limits on immigration.

As Gaius says, solving the problems will require moving beyond market solutions and instead instituting a command economy. IMHO that includes population planning.

At 10:22 PM, Anonymous uknowhowitis said...

Of course anonymous's solution is to grow grow grow! It's all about infinite unsustainable growth! No actual solutions, like water rationing, changing crops, shutting down golf courses! Nah, we gotta ship in water from other states. Gotta rob Peter to pay Paul, eh?

I have ZERO sympathy for californians. They knew this was a problem for years, but no, can't stop playing golf or popping out ten kids. Fuck Californians, let them stew in the mess they created.

At 1:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's get a concept or two straight:

The location(s) of the persons consuming (generating CO2) does not necessarily correlate to the location(s) that experience the effects of the warming due to increased CO2.

That is, immigrants to the US are only relevant to the extent they increase their consumption level upon arrival to the self-proclaimed "consumption capital of the universe."

Certainly that may well be their reason for coming here but WE (Amerikkkans) are the ones who religiously promulgated that notion and "jammed it down the throats" of the rest of the world.

The problem is the number of people and their consumption (i.e. energy use) patterns, not their distribution. Our fate was sealed when our admonitions to "consume more tomorrow than today" began to take hold in China and India.

Until proof otherwise, there is no reason to suggest that the eastern one-third of the country has any fewer, per capita, golf courses or 10-child families than CA. Yet that eastern portion of the country is projected to experience colder, and presumably wetter, that average weather as a result of global climate change.

The world's most closely held hoax is that of almost-universally-embraced capitalism: we are not "healthy" unless we consume more in the future that we did in the past. This is total folly. We physically exist in a finite system but our "intellectual" constructs require an infinite system.

No "free market" solution, therefore, can rationally be considered for application to the problem that the very same "free market" ideology has caused.

A. Einstein: "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."

John Puma

At 9:41 AM, Anonymous Michael Inglis said...

This idea has caused howls of indignation before, but I think it worthy of discussion, at least.

California sits right next to the largest ocean in the world and its' southern portion contains one of its' hottest deserts; significantly, one below sea level. It seems like a large evaporative solar desalinization plant situated in a small part of Death Valley would be a no-brainer. The only real ongoing cost other than maintenance would be getting the sea water over the mountains, and even that would only have to be paid for once. The desalinated water could be siphoned over the mountains to the communities that need it in the same way.

I don't know that this would help the Imperial Valley any, but just taking the pressure off of the Colorado River the elimination of Los Angeles would bring should be sufficient reason to consider it.

At 10:02 AM, Blogger Dan Lynch said...

Lost in the discussion is what exactly do we hope to accomplish by piping water to California, or by building desalination plants, or by building enough solar and wind power to supply the current population?

The unspoken assumption is that we want to maintain our current population and our current lifestyle. Or maybe even to continue to increase our population?

But what if we gradually reduced our population to say, 100 million, through a one child policy and restrictions on immigration? Wouldn't that make it easier to reduce greenhouse gases? Wouldn't that put less strain on the West's water supply? And wouldn't the quality of our lives be just as good if not better?

At 11:04 AM, Anonymous Michael Inglis said...

Dan Lynch. I don't think that your "unspoken assumptions" are invalid, but there is the reality that California is presently our most populous state, our largest economy and that it is undergoing a five hundred year drought. Just maintaining what they have is going to be a tough enough slog without appending additional issues like overt "one child policies" that FOX News and the religious fundies can muddy the waters with (sorry) for the rest of our lives.

Our birthrate is falling, as it is in much of the so-called first world purely due to the prohibitive economic costs of child rearing in a neo-liberal age. As in Europe, the only thing that is masking the fertility declines that we are actually experiencing are the immigrants who are taking up the slack, leaving Japan as the only example of obvious population decline.

Yes, we need to cut our numbers and cut back our consumption, but we need to maintain what we have in the mean time, otherwise there will be chaos.

At 11:28 AM, Blogger Dan Lynch said...

Michael Inglis, yes our birth rate is falling, but that does not change the fact that we are overpopulated relative to what the environment can tolerate without significant degradation.

Agree that a one child policy would be politically contentious to say the least, but the same could be said of any policy that addresses environmental issues. The sad fact is that most Americans are not environmentalists.

Here's one place where I tend to disagree with Gaius -- he believes that as global warming becomes more obvious and impacts more people, there will emerge a political movement that is willing to tackle the problems. But as our comments show, even though all of us commenters agree that global warming is a serious problem, we don't agree on what to do about it. So I'm not envisioning a unified movement emerging.

More likely some symbolic token measures will be enacted, similar to Cali's ban on serving water in restaurants unless it is requested !!! Maybe a modest carbon tax, a few subsidies for green energy, etc., but far short of the drastic, command-economy type action required to reverse global warming.

So I tend to agree with Ian Welsh that this will not end well. My take is that we can either reduce the population in a controlled, humane manner, or it will eventually be reduced in a chaotic manner. :-(

At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Michael Inglis said...

Dan, I tend to be a little more optimistic. California, for example, is one of our flagship properties, so to speak. Allowing it to dry up and blow away is not going to happen. As with the ENRON scandals, things can change quickly when attention is brought to bear on a problem experienced there. Had the price rigging only happened in the Mid-West, I would agree with Ian that change is unlikely.

One of his more prescient observations, to my mind, is that the harder elites try to hold on to what they have the faster they are going to lose it. We are losing our reserve currency status, for example, purely due to our own Governments' obstreperousness and stupidity; ten years ago that would have been considered unthinkable, now it is inevitable.

The larger problem is going to be in the developing world, and that is prolly where it will have to be solved...with us or without us. I think that our own sense of self will ensure that we will be a part of the mix, and it may very well start in California.

At 4:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be clear, I never said ANYTHING about "grow, grow, grow," etc., which (to be very specific) I consider to be suicidal behavior.

Bottom line: I'm totally on-board for radical solutions (which at this late stage are pretty much the only thing left), to include rationing, getting off of fossil fuels (like now), as well as limiting population growth.etc. However, given the immediate problem in California, constructing an aqueduct system from, say, the Great Lakes => West would seem to be the one of the fastest and cheapest ways to deal with things right now.

Finally, I don't appreciate being hammered with irrational invective which was based upon ZERO facts. Got it, uknowhowitis?

At 3:01 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Boy, the commenters on here sure love to bash California - but they seem to forget how much they like to eat our agricultural products and livestock.

I gotcher market-based solution right here - howzabout we simply institute a steep export tariff (paid by buyers) on all such goods shipped out of state, to make up for the water we are currently investing to feed the rest of the US?

To quote the great sage Randy Newman, "They all hate us anyhow - let's drop the big one now". :)


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