Dry future?

Posted October 22nd, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Scenarios of the future


Not mentioned in the otherwise excellent NYT article by Jon Gertner regarding drought in the Southwestern US, was any mention of endangered species or any other environmental trade-offs that are the focal point of conflict in Georgia, where, according to Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, the state delegation has united “to put our people before sturgeon and mussels.” That is probably because most of the remaining species and habitats in the Lower Colorado river have literally been externalized – across the border in Mexico, where the Endangered Species Act does not apply, and costs don’t count, so the choice is a silent one. These are choices that should not have had to be made, that could have been avoided with a little bit of planning, and by using the capacity for foresight that science provides. As is pointed out in the report I contributed to regarding Ecosystem Changes and Water Policy Choices in the Lower Colorado river basin, fixing leaks in the plumbing – which now supply a trickle of water to the Colorado River Delta and keep it distinguishable from the surrounding desert won’t solve the problem of sustaining a growing population in a region that is drying up. In the west, the situation is perceived as less urgent only because they have known this for along time, and, as Donald Wilhite points out, unlike in Atlanta, have more water storage capacity. The decision in Atlanta will be a political one – because of the endangered species act, it will at least have to be made with some awareness of the trade-offs being made.

These – and other droughts, will undoubtedly also raise awareness and provoke much discussion of global warming. This needs to be directed towards both adaptation and mitigation measures. Regarding drought elsewhere in the world, RealClimate has some guest commentary by Figen Mekik regarding drought in the Mediterranean, well worth reading in its entirety, in which he says:

Though it is “debated” in the US, most people in Turkey consider AGW to be a given. This is generally a good attitude, of course, but it opened the door for some government and city officials to simply blame AGW for drought instead of their incompetence in dealing with it. As a result, the Turkish General Directorate of Disaster Affairs started discussing whether AGW should be listed under “natural disasters” in order to provide better risk assessment and adaptation plans, and to prohibit building new structures in “high risk” areas.

One of the consequences of ignoring science is that lessons get learned the hard way, through crises. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In the report on the Colorado river, we used scenarios of 2050 to explore the consequences of water policy options, while we still have some acceptable ones – roughly based on the approach used in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. There are, of course, other related approaches, such as one being developed by Leon Fuerth in the project on Forward Engagement, the objective of which is:

to encourage a more profound and continuous interaction between long-range forecasting and long-range policy-making. Encouraging this development is key to better safeguarding our society from unanticipated, strategic surprise and, in particular, assuring the continued ability of democratic governance to successfully deal with an increasing rate of change in every area of human activity.

I once had the opportunity to hear him talk about this initiative at a lecture at the World Resources Institute. Since he was the National Security Adviser to Vice President Al Gore, it was hard to listen to the talk without pondering how the past seven years might have been different.

Addendum: I neglected to include a link to John Fleck, whose excellent posts on the Georgia drought led me to the watercrunch blog. Among other things, he has a table of the Palmer Hydrologic Drought Index for north-central Georgia which shows that the current level of drought is not an unusual occurrence over the past century. What has changed is the level of vulnerability. I found a similar situation in the Washington DC area during the drought in 1989, when doing a graduate school research project. I may have to dig that up and see what is going on now.

Emerging values of the Colorado River Delta

Posted October 4th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Scenarios of the future


One of the projects that has kept me busy over the past several months is a case study conducted by the Sonoran Institute in collaboration with Island Press – and myself as a consultant, entitled Ecosystem Changes and Water Policy Choices: Four Scenarios for the Lower Colorado River Basin to 2050. The scenarios, which are based on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) framework, explore the consequences of different kinds of water policy choices for the river’s Delta, and for human well-being. Given the broad scope of the MA, and my previous work on that and on the general subject of ecosystem services, my role was primarily to develop the conceptual framework, narrowing it down to something we could actually do that would be worthwhile, given time and budget constraints. As for the Colorado River, it was somewhat of a learning experience for me – but Mark Lellouch and Karen Hyun did an amazing job of bringing together the relevant information for this complex case and in developing most of the narrative of the scenarios. I urge you to read the more complete versions in the full report rather than in the summary version. There is also a press release here, and an article about it in the LA Times here. There was an interesting response to the Dry Future scenario when it was presented at a recent conference but first a brief overview.

But for leaks and occasional overflows in the plumbing of the Colorado River that has made it possible to irrigate 3.5 million acres, and for now 30 million people to live in a dry and largely desert region, and which would otherwise divert every last drop of water, it would be difficult to distinguish the Delta from the surrounding Sonoran desert. Given the context of what we now know to be regularly occurring long term drought in the western US, exacerbated by climate change and the water demands of an exploding population, efforts to restore the Colorado River Delta might seem like a “faith-based initiative.” However, even though in Mexico, the Delta is no longer in a collective blind spot where any water that reaches it is regarded as waste, At a conference I attended last March at the University of Utah Stegner Center, even Pat Mulroy, commonly referred to as the Las Vegas Water Czar, acknowledged the need to ensure water for the Delta.

Although reduced to 8% of its original size, the Delta remains an interacting mosaic of terrestrial, wetland, freshwater and marine habitats that support high productivity in the Sea of Cortez, and high concentrations of fish and wildlife that include numerous endemic species of fish, and over 360 species of birds, including many migratory ones for whom it is a stop along the Pacific flyway, and the largest known concentration of the endangered Yuma clapper rail. It is used for shelter and feeding by over 350,000 shorebirds that represent over 50% of all bird species in North America, and is likely important also to the endangered totoaba fish and vaquita porpoise populations that inhabit the upper Gulf of California. Last but not least, it supports livelihoods and ways of life valued by local communities, many indigenous to the region, as well as recreation and tourism. Proposals to increase the supply of water for agriculture and urban growth through repairs in the plumbing would come at the expense of the Delta and would do little to do little to resolve growing conflicts over what has become a diminishing supply of water. In addition to altering precipitation patterns, climate change also increases rates of evaporation.

In the scenarios, this kind of a business-as-usual approach, with an emphasis on continuing to develop new supplies of water, leads to a Dry Future – a scenario in which there are few choices left to be made, and those few remaining are ones that no one would be likely to choose for themselves. The other three scenarios are somewhat more optimistic but depend on whether we actually make choices, now, and are willing to pay the cost using various kinds of economic instruments that also create incentives for conservation. Survival of the Delta, unlikely if The Market Rules, will depend on whether lessons are learned from past mistakes. As we see in Powell’s Prophecy, this (in part) long anticipated situation should not come as a surprise to anyone. Finally, the improbable but not impossible scenario, that enough water is allocated to achieve a functioning Delta and Estuary Once More, is made possible by fundamental changes in beliefs and values that occurred following a series of crises in the early 21st century, which led to a recognition that ecosystems are the foundation of human security and freedom, and is helped along by a Supreme Court decision that requires protection of the endangered vaquita porpoise in extra-territorial waters of the upper Gulf of California.

These scenarios, which represent different values and beliefs about the future, are not a road map – which would require much more extensive research and analysis, but simply pull together much of the known information into a narrative form that is intended to illustrate trade-offs and what choices remain available, so as to engage stakeholders in a discussion of the future they desire for the Basin, and of what trade-offs they are willing to make. Indeed, when Mark Lellouch presented the Dry Future scenario at a recent conference, which directly addressed the theme of a session entitled “The Southwest at 50 M People; the Colorado River at 10 maf (million acre feet): What If?” – it did indeed generate audience discussion. But although these figures are well within accepted scientific estimates of population growth and reduction of flow associated with climate change, other panelists did not accept the premise inherent in the title of the session. Instead, they argued that shortages could be addressed through various kinds of market mechanisms, interstate storage and transfers, and technical measures such as desalinization, which can, in theory, provide an unlimited supply of water.

In practice, although desalinization and other technical measures do provide options, given their costs, our scenarios find it unlikely that they would help ensure water for the Delta. They would also do little to address quality of life in the region, which does not rely on water alone. In the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment framework, and as pointed out by the Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen, the most basic aspect of human well-being is to have freedom of choice and action as to how other kinds of needs are met (i.e., the ability to earn a livelihood, to maintain good health and social relations, and to be secure). It remains to be seen whether we have the capacity to make such choices. As Bob Adler also points out in his book, Restoring Colorado River Ecosystems: A Troubled Sense of Immensity, restoration of a river system such as the Colorado is first and foremost about “restoring the process by which difficult, value-laden choices are made.”

Making policy based on science fiction

Posted June 14th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Scenarios of the future

Following up on all the buzz about what Michael Griffin said on NPR – as noted at ThinkProgress and on The Colbert Report (video link)[sorry, this video seems to have disappeared] based on reporting by Andrew Revkin in the NYT in July 2006 – when NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said it is “not NASA’s mission to make policy regarding possible climate change mitigation strategies,” it is because he changed the mission. This was done very quietly in February 2006, with a clause in the 2006 Earth Science Research and Analysis Budget bill that replaced the words “to understand and protect our home planet” with “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.” According to James Hansen, that bill also retroactively slashed the 2006 earth science research budget by 20%.

Not that I had anything to do with it but, in a January ’06 post about the conflict between James Hansen – NASA’s chief climate scientist, and George Deutsch, a politically appointed public affairs officer who tried to prevent him from discussing the policy implications of scientific findings about climate change, I suggested that “Bush could, of course, seek a change in the law so as to redefine NASA’s mission – and admit that he gives higher priority to searching for water on Mars than to the health and welfare of Americans and other human beings, for which maintaining a habitable Earth is a prerequisite. And if he is successful, we would then be able to send him to Mars too. But if not, let the impeachment proceedings begin” as it would provide a clear case of an administration not willing to carry out its responsibilities under the law. Besides forcing the administration to go on record that it does not believe it is the government’s role to conduct science to support the well-being of its citizens it would also remove the fig leaf provided by obscure and misleading technical debates about whether or not there is human induced climate change. So Griffin’s honesty is refreshing but incomplete. Little did I know, in a 2005 interview in the Washington Post (hat tip ClimateScienceWatch) Griffin also said:

…But the goal isn’t just scientific exploration . . . it’s also about extending the range of human habitat out from Earth into the solar system as we go forward in time. . . . In the long run a single-planet species will not survive. We have ample evidence of that . . . [Species have] been wiped out in mass extinctions on an average of every 30 million years…

…I’m talking about that one day, I don’t know when that day is, but there will be more human beings who live off the Earth than on it. We may well have people living on the moon. We may have people living on the moons of Jupiter and other planets. We may have people making habitats on asteroids. We’ve got places that humans will go, not in our lifetime, but they will go there…

…To me it’s important [that Americans lead the way] because I like the United States, and because I know — I don’t know the date — but I know that humans will colonize the solar system and one day go beyond. And it is important for me that humans who carry — I’ll characterize it as Western values — are there with them.

…there are other stars in our near neighborhood . . . four light-years away . . . 12 light-years away….

…I don’t know that it’s a concern that others get there first. What does concern me is that where other people go, the United States must also be. I’m not trying to stomp other people into the ground, but I would like to be assured that wherever the frontier of human civilization is, that people from America are there as well. . . . It should be viewed as an investment in carrying American culture, American values….

Regardless of what Americans have come to believe about climate – based on misleading information that has been in circulation, I suspect that an overwhelming majority support the use of science to understand the rapid global and climatic changes that are affecting us all regardless of who or what caused them, and that they would prefer tax dollars to be spent on that rather than on delusions of colonizing outer space. What I don’t know is whether any surveys have ever framed questions in that way but if not, it would be a good research project. I find it inconceivable that Bush would have even come close to being elected had people known that he intended to reduce capacity not only to monitor climate change, but to forecast the weather, including hurricanes and El Ninos, but maybe thats just me…..

Rocket scientists have not always been the best communicators regarding the relevance of various kinds of satellite data but, according to an NAS report released earlier this year, the capacity of all of our earth observing systems is expected to decrease by 40% by the end of the decade and many critical measurements are expected to cease altogether, jeopardizing this capacity, at a time when changes in climate are affecting global precipitation patterns, and land use patterns changing rapidly as well. ClimateScienceWatch also has an internal NOAA/NASA report from December 2006 recently obtained by AP, and provides briefing notes regarding the specific capacities for climate related measurements that are being jeopardized which sums up the importance of long term data in the opening paragraph:

Detecting climate change, understanding the associated shifts in specific climate processes, and then projecting the impacts of these changes on the Earth system requires a comprehensive set of consistent measurements made over many decades. Many climate trends are small and require careful analysis of long time series of sufficient length, consistency, and continuity to distinguish between the natural long-term climate variability and any small, persistent climate changes. Interruptions in the climate data records make the resolution of small differences uncertain or even impossible to detect. To confidently detect small climate shifts requires instrument accuracy and stability better than is generally required for weather research and most other scientific uses. For more than thirty years, NASA research-driven missions, such as the EOS, have pioneered remote sensing observations of the Earth’s climate, including parameters such as solar irradiance, the Earth’s radiation budget, ozone vertical profiles, and sea surface height. Maintaining these measurements in an operational environment provides the best opportunity for maintaining the long-term, consistent, and continuous data records needed to understand, monitor, and predict climate variability and change.

According to James Hansen, the massive budget cuts happened just as major changes are beginning to be detected, thanks to these long term data collection efforts. Speaking about the Landsat mission, one of my former professors at UMD, John Townshend, said the scientific community failed to speak up loudly enough when some of these programs were delayed because they simply assumed continuity. Once upon a time, that would have been a reasonable assumption.

If you haven’t been following this one, for other commentary on the rest of what Griffin said, see this post by Kevin Vranes, and this one at Dynamics of Cats, to name a few.

More on gas taxes

Posted October 19th, 2006 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Scenarios of the future

The Washington Post has a good article that raises many of the issues discussed in my earlier post about gas carbon taxes, and provides more historical context. Maybe we shouldn’t even call it a tax. Maybe if we reframe this and called it a payment for ecosystem services? I’ll elaborate that later. but it might even get some political support if assurances could be provided that
it would be spent effectively to provide such services and not be regarded as a discretionary slush fund. Like the real estate transfer tax here in Maryland that is suppose to fund open space…. but which Governor Ehrlich has regularly diverted since he has been office. I don’t know how he got elected but we have another election coming up, and given that I have a blog called The Post-Normal Times, stay tuned for endorsements of candidates who get it about environmental science and policy issues.

Update: Greg Mankiw published a full Pigou Club Manifesto as an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, which outlines all the reasons policy wonks keep pushing for a gas tax increase, in spite of campaign consultants who tend to steer clear of such proposals. It is good for creating incentives to reduce consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and road congestion, and places some of the burden on oil companies who
would [maybe] reduce prices as consumption goes down. He also argues that consumption taxes are better for economic growth than income taxes because the latter discourage saving and investment, and therefore encourage R&D for gasoline substitutes. And, last but not least, it is a national security issue. To which I would add, that if we all knew what we would get in return, there might even be greater willingness-to-pay a higher gas tax. It would be a small price to pay for a dedicated fund for mass transit
that would reduce the need to drive. Like in Europe, where fuel taxes are used to fund an excellent public transportation system.