Lessons of drought and cheetahs in the grass

 

On a walk through the coastal hills north of the Golden Gate this April, you could be forgiven for doubting all the talk of a record-breaking California drought. 

Grassy slopes glowed an emerald green, wildflowers erupted from among the wild oats, and the blossoms of madrone, manzanita and mountain lilac drew marble-sized bumblebees to their sweet nectar.

But just a hundred miles to the east lurked the harbingers of a more forbidding season. In a normal spring and early summer, the Sierra Nevada snowpack would replenish the reservoirs for multiple metropolitan areas and millions of acres of farmland. “Sierra Nevada,” after all, means “snowy mountain range” in Spanish. But this year, the Sierra isn’t very Nevada, with a snowpack at 5 percent of normal. That is one-fifth of the lowest level that has been measured at this point in any previous year.

The anticipation of a dry summer hangs over California like the approach of midnight haunting an anxious Cinderella. Come August, when the moisture of coastal rains will long since have evaporated, lawns and lettuce will crave Sierra snowmelt, a desire that will have to go unrequited. The last three years, though not as dire as this one, were unusually dry as well.

If there is any sort of silver lining to the coming hardship for farmers, it might lie in finally knowing something for sure -- that this drought is a tangible manifestation of climate change. California droughts have come and gone for centuries, but the current lack of snow matches up with what climatologists have forecast as a likely impact of our altered climate. Groundwater tables are plummeting so fast that well-drillers can barely keep up and it’s become a commonplace that the Golden State is living at the edge of its water budget.

The prospect of turning on a tap and having nothing come out focuses the mind on the roots of our climate predicament -- and challenges us to think seriously about how to escape it. Since our species evolved on the African savanna, we have been wired to respond to perceptible threats, such as cheetahs lurking and then streaking through the grass toward us, their prey. Seeing pictures of bare Sierra slopes and hearing the many calls to conserve water, we might find that the specter of climate change isn’t just another wedge in the culture wars — it’s real, and it’s scary, and it’s coming for us.

Now, most Californians get it. Yale researchers this April mapped the landscape of public opinion about climate change, and California ranked second nationally in the percentage of residents who believe that human activity has changed and is changing the climate. Hawaii came in first.

California backs up its growing awareness with policies to match. It has the only system in the country that seeks to cap greenhouse-gas pollution from virtually all sources. Already, California has nearly achieved its 2020 goal of drawing a third of its electricity from renewable sources, so Gov. Jerry Brown this year proposed moving the goalposts even farther: to 50 percent by 2030. The state is doing this without destroying its thriving economy, which grew faster than the rest of the country in 2013, the last year for which data are available. If more states took California-style action, a solution to the climate problem might even bypass the gridlock in Washington.

But it isn’t so simple. Tangible impacts such as drought may be drawing public attention to the changing climate, but they’re no guarantee that we’ll take successful action. What we see in extreme weather is like a Rorschach blot. A dearth of snow can appear as a symptom of climate disruption or an act of God, depending on your predisposition.

Here’s one data point: If you break down the maps of climate perception by congressional district, Philip Bump writes in The Washington Post, it closely resembles the map of the presidential vote in the last election. It is clear that people see the world and the threat of climate change through an almost entirely ideological lens.

That species of willful blindness isn’t free. It is entirely possible that some of our early hominid relations on the savanna were cheetah-deniers -- those who refused to believe that disturbances in the grass were cause for alarm. They might have been our distant aunts and uncles, but not our ancestors — their DNA wouldn’t have stayed in the gene pool.

Red-state backers of fossil-fuel industries and unbridled carbon pollution may find themselves in a similar position. Only this time, because we all depend on the same atmosphere, they may take the rest of us down with them. 

Seth Zuckerman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes about the Western environment in Washington.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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