President Obama says the ongoing California drought is an example of what’s in store if we continue to ignore climate change. According to scientists, the relationship between drought and climate change isn’t quite that simple.
California is a beautiful and geographically diverse place. There are few places in the world where you can eat breakfast on the ski slopes and have dinner by the ocean. Sadly, the California of the future might be a very different place. Thanks to below normal levels of rain for the past three years, the California drought has become a statewide emergency worthy of federal attention.
President Obama recently visited the state to observe to discuss how the government will provide assistance to farmers and businesses who are suffering from a lack of water. During a speech, Obama suggested climate change as an explanation for the California drought, an assertion that’s drawn some surprise criticism from the scientific community.
For those who acknowledge human-accelerated climate change, the link seems to make perfect sense. We already know that climate change is driving extreme weather events around the globe. 2013 was tied with 2003 as the fourth-warmest year since records began in 1880, and global temperatures were higher than average for the 37th consecutive year. Where Obama went wrong, however, was framing the relationship between climate change and the California drought as one of cause and effect.
Drought has always been a part of life in the arid Southwest. “…extreme droughts have happened in the state before, and the experts say this one bears a notable resemblance to some of those, including a crippling drought in 1976 and 1977,” reports the New York Times. In light of this history, one can hardly claim that climate change suddenly caused the California drought. What we can say is that climate change is altering and exacerbating normal weather patterns around the world. In essence, climate change isn’t causing the California drought, but it is making a recovery less likely.
Thanks to climate change, any precipitation in California evaporates more rapidly, intensifying the effects of the drought on agriculture in particular. “We are going through a pattern we’ve seen before, but we’re doing it in a warmer environment,” Michael Anderson, the California state climatologist, told NY Times.
Joseph Romm elaborated on this concept in his 2011 literature review in the journal Nature:
“Precipitation patterns are expected to shift, expanding the dry subtropics. What precipitation there is will probably come in extreme deluges, resulting in runoff rather than drought alleviation. Warming causes greater evaporation and, once the ground is dry, the Sun’s energy goes into baking the soil, leading to a further increase in air temperature. That is why, for instance, so many temperature records were set for the United States in the 1930s Dust Bowl; and why, in 2011, drought-stricken Texas saw the hottest summer ever recorded for a US state. Finally, many regions are expected to see earlier snowmelt, so less water will be stored on mountain tops for the summer dry season.”
So yes, semantically Obama was mistaken when he pointed to the California drought as a living example of climate change. But he was absolutely correct in pointing out a relationship between the two–a relationship that’s become dysfunctional thanks to human behavior.
The symptoms of the California drought, contaminated drinking water, food shortages, and threats to energy security: these are indeed waiting for the rest of the world if we refuse to take swift and definitive action on climate change.
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