Long ago, I lived in a cheap flat in San Francisco and worked as the lone straight man in a gay construction company. Strangely enough, the drought now strangling California brings back memories of those days. It was the 1970s. Our company specialized in restoring the Victorian “gingerbread” to the facades of the city’s townhouses, and I got pretty good at installing cornices, gable brackets, and window hoods, working high above the street.
What I remember most, though, is the way my co-workers delighted in scandalizing me on Monday mornings with accounts of their weekend exploits.
We were all so innocent back then. We had no idea of the suffering that lay ahead or of the grievous epidemic already latent in the bodies of legions of gay men like my friends, an epidemic that would afflict so many outside the gay community but was especially terrible within it.
It’s unlikely that many of those guys are alive today. HIV was already in the population, although AIDS had yet to be detected or named, and no one had heard of “safe sex,” let alone practiced it. When the epidemic broke out, it was nowhere worse than in trendsetting San Francisco.
By then I had returned to New Mexico, having traded my hammer for a typewriter. When I announced my intention to leave California, the guys all said the same thing. “Don’t go back there,” they protested. “You’ll just have to go through all of this again!”
All of this required no translation. It meant the particular newness of life in that state, which was always sure to spread eastward, as Californian styles, attitudes, problems, tastes, and fads had been spreading to the rest of the country almost since the days of the Gold Rush.
Hippies, flower power, bikers, and cults. The movies we see and the music we listen to. The slang we pick up (I mean like, what a bummer, dude). Wine bars and fern bars, hot tubs and tanning booths, liposuction and boob jobs. The theft of rivers (Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown) and the theft of baseball teams (Brooklyn still mourns). Gay rights, car culture, and the Reagan Revolution. Scientology, mega-churches, Buddhist chic, and exercise videos. If they didn’t actually start in California, they got big and came to national attention there. Without the innovations of Silicon Valley, would you recognize your mobile phone or computer? Would you recognize yourself?
It’s the same with climate change. California in the Great Drought is once again Exhibit A, a living diorama of how the future is going to look for a lot of us.
And the present moment — right now in 2015 — reminds me of San Francisco as the AIDS epidemic broke out. Back then we had no idea how bad things were going to get, and that is likely to be true now, as well. As usual, California is giving us a preview of our world to come.
The Arrival of the Bone-Dry New Normal
On the U.S. Drought Monitor’s current map, a large purple bruise spreads across the core of California, covering almost half the state. Purple indicates “exceptional drought,” the direst category, the one that tops both “severe” and “extreme.” If you combine all three, 95% of the state is covered. In other words, California is hurting.
Admittedly, conditions are better than at this time last year when 100% of the state was at least “severe.” Recent summer rains have somewhat dulled the edge of the drought, now in its fourth year. Full recovery, however, would require about a foot of rain statewide between now and January, a veritable deluge for places like Fresno, which in good times only get that much rain in a full year.
To be clear, the current drought may not have been caused by climate change. After all, California has a long history of periodic fierce droughts that arise from entirely natural causes, some of them lasting a decade or more. Even so, at a minimum climate change remains a potent factor in the present disaster. The fundamental difference between California’s current desiccation and its historical antecedents is that present conditions are hotter thanks to climate change, and hotter means drier since evaporation increases with temperature. Moreover, the relationship between the two is non-linear: as temperature creeps up, evaporation gallops. Bottom line: the droughts of the future will be much more brutal — and destructive — than those of the past.
California is already on average about 1.7° Fahrenheit hotter than a century ago, and its rate of warming is expected to triple in the century ahead. The evaporative response to this increase will powerfully amplify future droughts in unprecedented ways, no matter their causes.
Throughout the state, draconian cutbacks in water use remain in force. Some agricultural districts are receiving 0% of the federally controlled irrigation water they received in past years, while state water deliveries are running at about 15% of normal.
Meanwhile, a staggering 5,200 wildfires have burned in the state’s forests and chaparral country this year, although timely rains everywhere but in the northern parts of California and the rapid responses of a beefed-up army of firefighters limited the burning to less acreage than last year — at least until recently. The blow-up of the Rocky Fire, north of San Francisco, in the early days of August — it burned through 20,000 acres in just a few hours — may change that mildly promising statistic. And the fire season still has months to go.
So how is this a trendsetter, a harbinger for lands to the east? California’s drought is deep and long — we don’t yet know how long — and the very long-term forecast for an immense portion of western North America, stretching from California to Texas and north to South Dakota, is for a future of the same, only worse. Here is the unvarnished version of that future (on which an impressive number of climate models appear to agree) as expressed in a paper that appeared in Science Advances last February: “The mean state of drought in the late 21st century over the Central Plains and Southwest will likely exceed even the most severe mega-drought periods of the Medieval era in both high and moderate emissions scenarios, representing an unprecedented fundamental shift with respect to the last millennium.”
Let’s unpack that a little bit: principal author Benjamin Cook of NASA and his colleagues from Columbia and Cornell universities are saying that climate change will bring to the continent a “new normal” more brutally dry than even the multiple-decades-long droughts that caused the Native American societies of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde to collapse. This, they add, is now expected to happen even if greenhouse gas emissions are significantly lowered in the decades to come. The impact of such droughts, they conclude, wil上海419同城交友