California is entering its fourth year of drought, with high temperatures, water shortages and increased wildfires. The state has taken some steps to address the impacts of that, including addressing greenhouse gas emissions and rationing its diminishing water supply. But there are signs that the impacts of drought on the state could get even worse.
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1. A new study shows that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at current rates, some parts of Los Angeles area could be experiencing temperatures over 95 degrees for periods as long as two to three months by the end of the century, up from about 12 days now. Researchers at UCLA's Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences found that downtown Los Angeles could see many many as 54 such days, up from an average of four, while desert areas could see many more. And in the surrounding mountainous areas, days with temperatures below freezing could be cut in half.
2. Fewer freezing days in mountainous areas will certainly impact the snow pack which is currently at record lows. Its April assessment set a record for the lowest level in the state's history, triggering Gov. Jerry Brown's order that residents and governments cut water use by 25 percent. Shuttered ski resorts are the least of the resulting problems. The runoff from the snow pack melting in the spring replenishes the state's rivers, streams and reservoirs—but not so much anymore. In an L.A. Times editorial, NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti warned that California reservoirs have only a year's supply of water left in them. With the rate of replenishment dropping, that spells trouble.
3. Many Californians are up in arms that certain businesses are continuing to use water like the supply was unlimited. Bottled water companies in particular have drawn outrage from activists as they tap into city water supplies and private wells, while citizens are being told to cut back their water use. While their water use is only a drop in the bucket, so to speak, the optics are really bad, so bad that Starbucks' Ethos Water brand has announced it will move west coast bottling operation out of the state to Pennsylvania. A group called the Crunch Nestle Alliance has mounted protests against the Nestle bottled water plant near Sacramento, which buys water from the Sacramento municipal system and ships spring water from northern California. Meanwhile, Crystal Geyser is opening a new plant in Mount Shasta that will draw water from an aquifer that feeds the Sacramento River, which provides drinking water for millions of people.
4. Another business that continues unabated in its water use is the fossil fuel extraction industry. California has traditionally been an oil-producing state, but in recent years, it's stepped up its oil extraction through the water-intensive fracking process. Again, while the amount is small compared to uses such as agriculture, which consumes 80 percent of the state's available water supply, fracking itself is regarded negatively by much of the public. And it doesn't help that there have been signs that fracking fluid—wastewater containing toxic chemicals used in the fracking process—could be leaching into aquifers and contaminating already scarce drinking water supplies.
5. Companies are looking for extreme solutions to a potentially extreme problem. There are more than a dozen projects under consideration to build desalination plants along the California coast to turn ocean water into usable water for drinking and agricultural purposes. Some have dismissed the idea as expensive and unfeasible on a large scale, while others claim the costs are falling rapidly enough to make the idea viable. The technology is already in use in the Middle East and Australia. A plant is currently under construction in Carlsbad, California that is expected to be up and running by sometime in 2016 to produce 50 million gallons of water a day and provide seven percent of the drinking water consumed by San Diego. It would be the largest such plant in the Western Hemisphere. The privately built plant would be paid for with rate increases on San Diego water customers; the cost to the county is double the price of its currently most expensive water source and it's on the hook whether it needs the water or not.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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