Rain and Heat, Fire and Snow – Life in a Destabilized California

california flood

It was January 1983 and raining in San Francisco.

The summer before, I’d moved here from Portland, Oregon, a city known for its perpetual gray drizzles and, on the 60-odd days a year when the sun deigns to shine, dazzling displays of greenery. My girlfriend had spent a year convincing me that San Francisco had much more to offer me than Portland did for her.

Every few months, I’d scrape the bottom of my bank account to travel to San Francisco and taste its charms. Once, I even hitched a ride on a private plane. (Those were the days!) In a week’s visit, she’d take me to multiple women’s music concerts — events you’d wait a year for in Portland. We’d visit feminist and leftist bookstores, eat real Mexican food, and walk through Golden Gate Park in brilliant sunshine. The sky would be clear, the city would be sparkling, and she convinced me that San Francisco would indeed be paradise. Or at least drier than Portland.

So, I moved, but I wuz robbed! I knew it that first winter when, from December through March, the rain seemed to come down in rivers — atmospheric rivers, in fact — though none of us knew the term back then. That would be my initial encounter with, as a Mexican-American friend used to call it, “el pinche niño.” El Niño is the term meteorologists give to one-half of an oscillating cyclical weather phenomenon originating in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño usually brings drought to the southern parts of North America, as well as Central America, while deluging northern California and the Pacific Northwest. La Niña is the other half of that cycle, its effects roughly flipping those of El Niño geographically. (As for the meaning of “pinche,” go ahead and Google it.)

San Francisco sits in the sweet spot where, at least until the end of the last century, we would get winter rains at both ends of the cycle. And boy, did it rain that winter! I soon began to wonder whether any amount of love or any number of concerts could make up for the cold and mud. Eventually, I realized that I couldn’t really blame the girlfriend. The only other time I’d lived in San Francisco was during the then-unusual drought year of 1976. Of course, I came to believe then that it never rained here. So, really, if there was a bait-and-switch going on, I had pulled it on myself.

Still, looking back, as much as the rain annoyed me, I couldn’t have imagined how much I’d miss it two decades into the twenty-first century.

But Is It Climate Change? And Would That Actually Be So Bad?

Along with the rest of the western United States, my city has now been in the grip of a two-decade-long megadrought that has persisted through a number of El Niño/La Niña cycles. Scientists tell us that it’s the worst for the West and Southwest in at least the last 1,200 years. Since 2005, I’ve biked or walked the three miles from my house to the university where I teach. In all those years, there have probably been fewer than 10 days when rain forced me to drive or take the bus. Periodic droughts are not unknown in this part of the country. But climate scientists are convinced that this extended, deadly drought has been caused by climate change.

It wasn’t always that way. Twenty years ago, those of us who even knew about global warming, from laypeople to experts, were wary of attributing any particular weather event to it. Climate-change deniers and believers alike made a point of distinguishing between severe weather events and the long-term effects of changes in the climateFor the deniers, however, as the years went on, it seemed that no accumulation of symptoms — floods, droughts, heat waves, fires, or tornadoes — could legitimately be added together to yield a diagnosis of climate change. Or if climate change was the reason, then human activity didn’t cause it and it was probably a good thing anyway.

Not that long ago, it wasn’t even unusual to encounter “climate-change-is-good-for-you” articles in reasonably mainstream outlets. For example, the conservative British magazine The Spectator ran a Matt Ridley piece in 2013 that began: “Climate change has done more good than harm so far and is likely to continue doing so for most of this century. This is not some barmy, right-wing fantasy; it is the consensus of expert opinion.” It turned out that Ridley’s “consensus of expert opinion” derived from a single economist’s (and not a climate scientist’s) paper summarizing 14 other economists on the subject.

“The chief benefits of global warming,” Ridley wrote then, “include: fewer winter deaths; lower energy costs; better agricultural yields; probably fewer droughts; maybe richer biodiversity.” He added that, were the world’s economy to continue to grow by 3% annually, “the average person will be about nine times as rich in 2080 as she is today. So low-lying Bangladesh will be able to afford the same kind of flood defenses that the Dutch have today.”

There was so much wrong with those last two sentences (beginning with what “average” means), but I’ll content myself with pointing out that, in October 2022, historic floods covered one-third of Pakistan (next door to Bangladesh), including prime farmland the size of the state of Virginia. Thirty-three million people were affected by those floods that, according to the New York Times, “were caused by heavier-than-usual monsoon rains and glacial melt.” And what led to such unusual rain and melt? As the Times reported:

“Scientists say that global warming caused by greenhouse-gas emissions is sharply increasing the likelihood of extreme rain in South Asia, home to a quarter of humanity. And they say there is little doubt that it made this year’s monsoon season more destructive.”

It seems unlikely those floods will lead to “better agricultural yields.” (If only Pakistan had thought to build dikes, like the Dutch!)

Maybe it’s easy to take potshots at what someone like Ridley wrote almost a decade ago, knowing what we do now. Back then, views like his were not uncommon on the right and, all too sadly, they’re not rare even today. (Ridley is still at it, having recently written a piece twitting the British Conservative Party for supporting something as outré as wind power.) And of course, those climate change denials were supported (then and now) by the companies that stood to lose the most from confronting the dangers of greenhouse gases, not only the fossil-fuel industry (whose scientists knew with stunning accuracy exactly what was already happening on this planet as early as the 1970s), but electric companies as well.

Back in 2000, an ExxonMobile “advertorial” in the New York Times hit the trifecta: climate change isn’t real; or if it is, humans (and especially fossil-fuel companies!) aren’t responsible; and anyway it might be a good thing. Titled “Unsettled Science,” the piece falsely argued that scientists could not agree on whether climate change was happening. (By that time, 90% of climate scientists, including ExxonMobile’s, had reached a consensus that climate change is real.) After all, the ad insisted, there had been other extended periods of unusual weather like the “little ice age” of the medieval era and, in any case, greenhouse gas concentrations vary naturally “for reasons having nothing to do with human activity.”

We shouldn’t be surprised that Exxon-Mobile tried to keep climate change controversial in the public mind. They had a lot to lose in a transition away from fossil fuels. It’s less common knowledge, however, that the company has long bankrolled climate denial “grassroots” organizations. In fact, its scientists knew about climate change as early as the 1950s and, in a 1977 internal memo, they summarized their research on the subject by predicting a one- to three-degree Celsius average temperature rise by 2050, pretty much the future we’re now staring at.

Water, Water, Anywhere?

California has been “lucky” this fall and winter. We’ve seen a (probably temporary) break in the endless drought. A series of atmospheric rivers have brought desperately needed rain to our valleys and an abundance of snow to the mountains. But not everyone has been celebrating, as floods have swept away homes, cars, and people up and down the state. They’ve shut down highways and rail lines, while forcing thousands to evacuate. After years of thirst, for a few weeks the state has been drowning; and, as is so often the case with natural disasters, the poorest people have been among those hardest hit.

I’ve always enjoyed the delicious smugness of lying in a warm bed listening to wind and water banging at my windows. These days it’s a guilty pleasure, though, because I know how many thousands of unhoused people have suffered in and even died during the recent storms. In Sacramento, rain marooned one tent encampment, as the spit of land it occupied became an island. In the city of Ontario, near Los Angeles, flash floods washed away people’s tents and may have drowned as many as 10 of their inhabitants.

My own city responded to the rains with police sweeps of unhoused people hours before a “bomb cyclone” hit on January 4th. In such a “sweep,” police and sometimes other officials descend suddenly to enforce city ordinances that make it illegal to sit or lie on the sidewalk. They make people “move along,” confiscating any belongings they can’t carry off. Worse yet, shelters in the city were already full. There was nowhere inside for the unhoused to go and many lost the tents that had been their only covering.

The same climate change that’s prolonged the drought has exacerbated the deadly effects of those rainstorms. Over the last few years, record wildfires have consumed entire communities. Twenty years of endless dry days have turned our forests and meadows into tinderboxes, just waiting for a spark. Now, when rain bangs down in such amounts on already burnt, drought-hardened land, houses slide down hills, trees are pulled from the earth, and sinkholes open in roads and highways.

There is one genuine piece of luck here, though. Along with the rain, more than twice as much snow as would accumulate in an average year has covered the Sierra mountains of northern California. This is significant because many cities in the region get their water from the Sierra runoff. San Francisco is typical. Its municipal water supply comes from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, near Yosemite National Park, fed from that runoff. For now, it looks as if a number of cities could, for the first time in a while, have extra water available this year. But there’s always the chance that warm weather early in the spring will turn snow to rain, melting away the snowpack and our hopes.

Much of northern California’s water comes from the Sierra mountains, but it’s a different story in the south. The 9.8 million residents of Los Angeles County, along with most of southern California, get their water from the Colorado River. A century-old arrangement governs water use by the seven states through which the Colorado runs, along with 30 tribal nations and parts of northern Mexico — about 40 million people in all. Historically, the “northern basin” states, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, have been allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of water a year. Nevada, California, and Arizona have received 8.5 million and Mexico has treaty rights to 1.5 million. Dams on the two lakes — Mead in Nevada and Powell in Utah — provide hydroelectric power to many people in those same states.

The megadrought has drastically reduced the levels of these two artificial lakes that serve as reservoirs for those seven states. The original agreement assumed that 17.5 million acre-feet of water would be available annually (each acre-foot being about what two households might use in a year). For the last three years, however, the flow has fallen below 10 million acre-feet. This year, the states have been unable to agree on how to parcel out those allocations, so the Biden administration may have to step in and impose a settlement.

Both lakes are at their lowest historic levels since they were first filled. Several times, while working on a midterm election campaign in Reno, Nevada last year, I noticed stories in the local press about human remains being uncovered as Lake Mead’s shoreline recedes, some of them apparently victims of mob hits in decades past.

Less water in those giant lakes means less water for agriculture and residential consumption. But the falling water levels threaten a further problem: the potential failure of their dams to provide electric power crucial to millions. Last summer, Lake Mead dropped to within 90 feet of the depth at which its dam can no longer generate power. Some estimates suggest that Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon dam may stop producing electricity as soon as July.

Earthquakes, Drought, and Disaster

The woman I moved to San Francisco for (whom I’ve known since I was a young teen in the 1960s) spent her college years at the University of California, Berkeley. I remember her telling me, in the summer of 1969, that she and a number of friends had spent the previous spring semester celebrating the coming end of the world as they knew it. Apparently, some scientists had then predicted that a giant earthquake would cause the San Francisco Bay Area to collapse into the Pacific Ocean. Facing such a possible catastrophe, a lot of young folks decided that they might as well have a good party. There was smoking and drinking and dancing to welcome the approaching apocalypse. (When a Big One did hit 20 years later, the city didn’t exactly fall into the ocean, but a big chunk of the San Francisco Bay Bridge did go down.)

Over the last months, we Californians have experienced both historic drought and historic rainfall. The world as we knew it really is ending faster than some of us ever expected. Now that we’re facing an imminent catastrophe, one already killing people around the globe and even in my state, it’s hard to know how to respond. Somehow, I don’t feel like partying though. I think it’s time to fight.

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