Water

Climate change is making Texas hotter — and threatening its water supply: state climatologist

Climate change is making Texas hotter, threatening public health, water supply and the state's infrastructure

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Climate change has made the Texas heat worse, with less relief as nighttime temperatures warm, a report from the state's climatologist published Thursday found.

Climate data also show that the state is experiencing extreme rainfall — especially in eastern Texas — bigger storm surges as seas rise along the Gulf Coast and more flooding from hurricanes strengthened by a warming ocean, the report says.

Those trends are expected to accelerate in the next 15 years, according to the report, which analyzes extreme weather risks for the state and was last updated in 2019. The report was funded in part by Texas 2036, a nonpartisan economic policy nonprofit group named for the state's upcoming bicentennial.

The average annual temperature in Texas is expected to be 3 degrees warmer by 2036 than the average of the 1950s, the report found. The number of 100-degree days is expected to nearly double compared with 2000-2018, especially in urban areas.

“From here on out, it's going to be very unusual that we ever have a year as mild as a typical year during the 20th century," said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist who authored the report. “Just about all of them are going to be warmer."

A hotter Texas will threaten public health, squeeze the state's water supply, strain the electric grid and push more species toward extinction, experts told The Texas Tribune.

Nielsen-Gammon said that weather data showed minimum temperatures across the state have rapidly risen in recent years. The entire baseline of temperatures in the state has shifted upward — a trend that is likely to continue to cause problems for the state's aging infrastructure, experts said.

“I was surprised at how strong the upward trend was in the coldest temperatures of the summer," Nielsen-Gammon said. While global temperature analysis had already shown that trend, he said, it is now very clearly happening on the local level in Texas.

Even this year, which was considered a mild year because Texas didn't see temperatures above 100 degrees in much of the state, Nielsen-Gammon said nighttime temperatures stayed warm enough to put 2021 in the top 20% of years with the hottest summer nights on record.

Persistently higher temperatures cause a host of issues for public health. Heat stroke becomes more common, and the number of days and hours each year when it's safe to work outdoors is reduced. In the last decade, 53 workers in Texas have died from a heat stroke, nearly double the number of workers that died in the decade prior, according to an NPR investigation.

Droughts are enhanced, which places even more pressure on the state's rivers and lakes, already strained by a growing population. And pathogens can more easily grow and infiltrate public water systems.

“If you have situations where more parts of the state are pulling from lower reservoirs, rivers that are flowing less and warmer water temperatures, there's a real concern about what pathogens end up in [the water] system," said Gabriel Collins, a Baker Botts fellow in energy and environmental affairs at Rice University.

In Lake Jackson in 2020, a brain-eating amoeba was found in the water supply, which caused the death of a 6-year-old child. Warmer water temperatures caused by climate change could increase the prevalence of such water-borne amoebas, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The combination of higher heat and heavier precipitation in the eastern half of Texas also damages underground water pipes by causing the ground around them to expand and contract more, Collins said. It's likely that Texans will continue to see more frequent interruptions in their water supply as the state warms, he said.

And the state's power grid can be strained during extreme heat when Texans turn up the air conditioning to stay cool. At the same time, higher temperatures make it more difficult for power plants to run as efficiently as they do during normal conditions, decreasing the power supply — and increasing the risk of blackouts.

“We will see more risk of outages due to increased demand," said Juliana Felkner, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Texas whose research focused on sustainable development and design. “Power plants need water to run, so if there is a lack of water, this makes them less efficient and they generate less electricity."

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state's grid operator, included extreme calculations for heat and drought in its assessment of potential power supply conditions this summer, seeking to “broaden the debate" on making the grid more resilient. After a February winter storm knocked out power to millions of Texans for days, Texas Public Utility commissioners, who oversee the grid, questioned whether the grid could withstand more extreme weather as they looked to improve the grid's operations.

The environment, too, is damaged by persistently higher temperatures. Shaye Wolf, the climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said more species' extinctions can be expected. Many species of lizards, for example, are going extinct in the U.S. and globally because when it gets too hot, they retreat to the shade and can't hunt for food. Each species plays an important role in the local ecosystem, Wolf said, which is important for the safety of humans, not just plants and animals.

“When you destroy the web of life, it not only makes for a lonelier planet, but a more dangerous planet," Wolf said.

Local extinctions, or the disappearance of a species to a specific area but not the globe, are already widespread due to climate change, a 2016 study by University of Arizona researchers found. Among almost 1,000 species surveyed, nearly half of them were locally extinct.

Texans can expect every aspect of public infrastructure to be damaged by the heat brought by climate change, said infrastructure expert Mikhail Chester, associate professor of engineering and the director of the Metis Center for Infrastructure and Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University. While each individual effect may seem small — a boil water notice here, a broken pipe there — the total effect is a massive public challenge, he said.

“Climate change is slightly shifting everything: It's slightly breaking infrastructure, and it's pushing us beyond what we design things for," Chester said. “When you add all of that up, it's monumental."

Disclosure: Rice University, Texas 2036 and the University of Arizona have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction, Oct. 7, 2021: A previous version of the map in this story incorrectly labeled the temperature change in Texas counties between 1975 and 2020. It represents the average increase each decade, not the increase over the entire 45 year period.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/10/07/texas-climate-change-heat-water/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

UN urges world to act now to combat 'looming water crisis'

We need to wake up to the looming water crisis.

"That's what World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said Tuesday to mark the publication of a new report, which shows that as the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency intensifies floods and droughts, access to clean water is expected to become even more unequal—increasing the importance of sustainable resource management.

2021 State of Climate Services: Water—compiled by the WMO, the weather branch of the United Nations, with input from more than 20 international organizations—finds that most countries are ill-prepared to handle the forecasted surge in what one reporter called "too much and too little water."

The report urges policymakers to "reduce the impacts of water-related disasters" and improve outcomes by swiftly ramping up investments in a variety of solutions, including "better climate services and end-to-end early warning systems."

"The water is draining out of the tub in some places, while it's overflowing in others," Maxx Dilley, director of the WMO Climate Programme, told Inside Climate News. "When scientists were starting to get a handle on what climate change was going to mean, an acceleration of the hydrological cycle was one of the things that was considered likely."

According to the report:

  • In the past 20 years, terrestrial water storage—the summation of all water on the land surface and in the subsurface, including soil moisture, snow and ice—has been lost at a rate of 1cm per year;
  • In 2018, 2.3 billion people were living in countries under water stress and 3.6 billion people faced inadequate access to water at least one month per year. By 2050, the latter is expected to be more than five billion;
  • Meanwhile, water-related hazards have increased in frequency for the past 20 years. Since 2000, flood-related disasters have increased by 134%, and the number and duration of droughts also increased by 29%; and
  • Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is vital to achieving long-term social, economic and environmental well-being. But, although most countries have advanced their level of IWRM implementation, 107 countries remain off track to hit the goal of sustainably managing their water resources by 2030.
The report is accompanied by a story map, which makes clear that "water lies at the heart of the global agenda on climate adaptation, sustainable development, and disaster risk reduction."
During his speech at Tuesday's launch event and in the report's foreword, Taalas noted that "increasing temperatures are resulting in global and regional precipitation changes, leading to shifts in rainfall patterns and agricultural seasons, with a major impact on food security and human health and well-being."
"This past year has seen a continuation of extreme, water-related events," Taalas continued. "Across Asia, extreme rainfall caused massive flooding in Japan, China, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, and India. Millions of people were displaced, and hundreds were killed."
"But it is not just in the developing world that flooding has led to major disruption," said the WMO chief. "Catastrophic flooding in Europe led to hundreds of deaths and widespread damage."
Taalas also pointed out that "lack of water continues to be a major cause of concern for many nations, especially in Africa."
Since 2000, WMO notes, drought has killed more than 700,000 people, with the majority of deaths reported in Africa.
Moreover, between 1970 and 2019, there were 11,072 disasters attributed to weather-, water-, and climate-related hazards that claimed over two million lives—roughly 70% of them in the world's Least Developed Countries (LDCs).
"There is good news, however," Taalas argued. "Most nations are determined to improve the way water is managed, with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reporting that water is a top adaptation priority in the vast majority (79%) of parties' Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris agreement."
Of the countries "that mention water as a top priority in their updated NDCs," the report states, "the majority highlight actions that relate to capacity building (57%), forecasting (45%), observing networks (30%), and data collection (28%)."
"However, 60% of National Hydrological Services—the national public agencies mandated to provide basic hydrological information and warning services to the government, the public, and the private sector—lack the full capacities needed to provide climate services for water," according to the report. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) face the greatest gaps.
When it comes to the U.N.'s sixth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6)—to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all—"the world is seriously behind schedule," says the WMO. "In 2020, 3.6 billion people lacked safely managed sanitation services, 2.3 billion lacked basic hygiene services, and more than 2 billion live in water-stressed countries with lack of access to safe drinking water."
While the report estimates that "the current rates of progress need to quadruple in order to reach the global target of universal access by 2030," international funding for IWRM did not increase between 2015 and 2019. "Despite a 9% increase in financial pledges made to tackle SDG 6, official development assistance (ODA) commitments remained stable at US$8.8 billion."
Based on its findings, the report makes the following six strategic recommendations for policymakers:
  1. Invest in IWRM as a solution to better manage water stress, especially in SIDS and LDCs;
  2. Invest in end-to-end drought and flood early warning systems in at-risk LDCs, including for drought warning in Africa and flood warning in Asia;
  3. Fill the capacity gap in collecting data for basic hydrological variables which underpin climate services and early warning systems;
  4. Improve the interaction among national level stakeholders to co-develop and operationalize climate services with information users to better support adaptation in the water sector. There is also a pressing need for better monitoring and evaluation of socio-economic benefits, which will help to showcase best practices;
  5. Fill the data gaps for climate services in the water sector. Members' data on climate services for water is missing from 65 WMO Members and particularly from SIDS; and
  6. Join the Water and Climate Coalition. This is organized by WMO in response to the need for integrated policy developments and improved practical solutions. The coalition provides countries with support to improve assessment of water resources as well as forecasting and outlook services for water.
"Time is not on our side," stressed Taalas. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, he said, "is a stark reminder that catastrophic heatwaves, droughts, and flooding will increase in frequency and severity if we fail to act now."
"Climate services and early warning systems," he added, "give us a vital opportunity to prepare and react in a way that can save many lives and protect livelihoods and communities across the world."

40 million people rely on the Colorado River -- and it's drying up fast

On a 110-degree day several years ago, surrounded by piles of sand and rock in the desert outside of Las Vegas, I stepped into a yellow cage large enough to fit three standing adults and was lowered 600 feet through a black hole into the ground. There, at the bottom, amid pooling water and dripping rock, was an enormous machine driving a cone-shaped drill bit into the earth. The machine was carving a cavernous, 3-mile tunnel beneath the bottom of the nation's largest freshwater reservoir, Lake Mead.

Lake Mead, a reservoir formed by the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s, is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure on the Colorado River, supplying fresh water to Nevada, California, Arizona and Mexico. The reservoir hasn't been full since 1983. In 2000, it began a steady decline caused by epochal drought. On my visit in 2015, the lake was just about 40% full. A chalky ring on the surrounding cliffs marked where the waterline once reached, like the residue on an empty bathtub. The tunnel far below represented Nevada's latest salvo in a simmering water war: the construction of a $1.4 billion drainage hole to ensure that if the lake ever ran dry, Las Vegas could get the very last drop.

For years, experts in the American West have predicted that, unless the steady overuse of water was brought under control, the Colorado River would no longer be able to support all of the 40 million people who depend on it. Over the past two decades, Western states took incremental steps to save water, signed agreements to share what was left and then, like Las Vegas, did what they could to protect themselves. But they believed the tipping point was still a long way off.

Like the record-breaking heat waves and the ceaseless mega-fires, the decline of the Colorado River has been faster than expected. This year, even though rainfall and snowpack high up in the Rocky Mountains were at near-normal levels, the parched soils and plants stricken by intense heat absorbed much of the water, and inflows to Lake Powell were around one-fourth of their usual amount. The Colorado's flow has already declined by nearly 20%, on average, from its flow throughout the 1900s, and if the current rate of warming continues, the loss could well be 50% by the end of this century.

Earlier this month, federal officials declared an emergency water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time. The shortage declaration forces reductions in water deliveries to specific states, beginning with the abrupt cutoff of nearly one-fifth of Arizona's supply from the river, and modest cuts for Nevada and Mexico, with more negotiations and cuts to follow. But it also sounded an alarm: one of the country's most important sources of fresh water is in peril, another victim of the accelerating climate crisis.

Americans are about to face all sorts of difficult choices about how and where to live as the climate continues to heat up. States will be forced to choose which coastlines to abandon as sea levels rise, which wildfire-prone suburbs to retreat from and which small towns cannot afford new infrastructure to protect against floods or heat. What to do in the parts of the country that are losing their essential supply of water may turn out to be the first among those choices.

The Colorado River's enormous significance extends well beyond the American West. In addition to providing water for the people of seven states, 29 federally recognized tribes and northern Mexico, its water is used to grow everything from the carrots stacked on supermarket shelves in New Jersey to the beef in a hamburger served at a Massachusetts diner. The power generated by its two biggest dams — the Hoover and Glen Canyon — is marketed across an electricity grid that reaches from Arizona to Wyoming.

The formal declaration of the water crisis arrived days after the Census Bureau released numbers showing that, even as the drought worsened over recent decades, hundreds of thousands more people have moved to the regions that depend on the Colorado.

Phoenix expanded more over the past 10 years than any other large American city, while smaller urban areas across Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California each ranked among the fastest-growing places in the country. The river's water supports roughly 15 million more people today than it did when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. These statistics suggest that the climate crisis and explosive development in the West are on a collision course. And it raises the question: What happens next?

Since about 70% of water delivered from the Colorado River goes to growing crops, not to people in cities, the next step will likely be to demand large-scale reductions for farmers and ranchers across millions of acres of land, forcing wrenching choices about which crops to grow and for whom — an omen that many of America's food-generating regions might ultimately have to shift someplace else as the climate warms.

California, so far shielded from major cuts, has already agreed to reductions that will take effect if the drought worsens. But it may be asked to do more. Its enormous share of the river, which it uses to irrigate crops across the Imperial Valley and for Los Angeles and other cities, will be in the crosshairs when negotiations over a diminished Colorado begin again. The Imperial Irrigation District there is the largest single water rights holder from the entire basin and has been especially resistant to compromise over the river. It did not sign the drought contingency plan laying out cuts that other big players on the Colorado system agreed to in 2019.

New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — states in the river's Upper Basin — will most likely also face pressure to use less water. Should that happen, places like Utah that hoped to one day support faster development and economic growth with their share of the river may have to surrender their ambition.

The negotiations that led to the region being even minimally prepared for this latest shortage were agonizing, but they were merely a warm-up for the pain-inflicting cuts and sacrifices that almost certainly will be required if the water shortages persist over the coming decades. The region's leaders, for all their efforts to compromise, have long avoided these more difficult conversations. One way or another, farms will have to surrender their water, and cities will have to live with less of it. Time has run out for other options.

Western states arrived at this crucible in large part because of their own doing. The original multistate compact that governs the use of the Colorado, which was signed in 1922, was exuberantly optimistic: The states agreed to divide up an estimated total amount of water that turned out to be much more than what would actually flow. Nevertheless, with the building of the Hoover Dam to collect and store river water, and the development of the Colorado's plumbing system of canals and pipelines to deliver it, the West was able to open a savings account to fund its extraordinary economic growth. Over the years since, those states have overdrawn the river's average deposits. It should be no surprise that even without the pressures of climate change, such a plan would lead to bankruptcy.

Making a bad situation worse, leaders in Western states have allowed wasteful practices to continue that add to the material threat facing the region. A majority of the water used by farms — and thus much of the river — goes to growing nonessential crops like alfalfa and other grasses that feed cattle for meat production. Much of those grasses are also exported to feed animals in the Middle East and Asia. Short of regulating which types of crops are allowed, which state authorities may not even have the authority to do, it may fall to consumers to drive change. Water usage data suggests that if Americans avoid meat one day each week they could save an amount of water equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado each year, more than enough water to alleviate the region's shortages.

Water is also being wasted because of flaws in the laws. The rights to take water from the river are generally distributed — like deeds to property — based on seniority. It is very difficult to take rights away from existing stakeholders, whether cities or individual ranchers, so long as they use the water allocated to them. That system creates a perverse incentive: Across the basin, ranchers often take their maximum allocation each year, even if just to spill it on the ground, for fear that, if they don't, they could lose the right to take that water in the future. Changes in the laws that remove the threat of penalties for not exercising water rights, or that expand rewards for ranchers who conserve water, could be an easy remedy.

A breathtaking amount of the water from the Colorado — about 10% of the river's recent total flow — simply evaporates off the sprawling surfaces of large reservoirs as they bake in the sun. Last year, evaporative losses from Lake Mead and Lake Powell alone added up to almost a million acre feet of water — or nearly twice what Arizona will be forced to give up now as a result of this month's shortage declaration. These losses are increasing as the climate warms. Yet federal officials have so far discounted technological fixes — like covering the water surface to reduce the losses — and they continue to maintain both reservoirs, even though both of them are only around a third full. If the two were combined, some experts argue, much of those losses could be avoided.

For all the hard-won progress made at the negotiating table, it remains to be seen whether the stakeholders can tackle the looming challenges that come next. Over the years, Western states and tribes have agreed on voluntary cuts, which defused much of the political chaos that would otherwise have resulted from this month's shortage declaration, but they remain disparate and self-interested parties hoping they can miraculously agree on a way to manage the river without truly changing their ways. For all their wishful thinking, climate science suggests there is no future in the region that does not include serious disruptions to its economy, growth trajectory and perhaps even quality of life.

The uncomfortable truth is that difficult and unpopular decisions are now unavoidable. Prohibiting some water uses as unacceptable — long eschewed as antithetical to personal freedoms and the rules of capitalism — is now what's needed most.

The laws that determine who gets water in the West, and how much of it, are based on the principle of “beneficial use" — generally the idea that resources should further economic advancement. But whose economic advancement? Do we support the farmers in Arizona who grow alfalfa to feed cows in the United Arab Emirates? Or do we ensure the survival of the Colorado River, which supports some 8% of the nation's GDP?

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Reclamation released lesser-noticed projections for water levels, and they are sobering. The figures include an estimate for what the bureau calls “minimum probable in flow" — or the low end of expectations. Water levels in Lake Mead could drop by another 40 vertical feet by the middle 2023, ultimately reaching just 1,026 feet above sea level — an elevation that further threatens Lake Mead's hydroelectric power generation for about 1.3 million people in Arizona, California and Nevada. At 895 feet, the reservoir would become what's called a “dead pool"; water would no longer be able to flow downstream.

The bureau's projections mean we are close to uncharted territory. The current shortage agreement, negotiated between the states in 2007, only addresses shortages down to a lake elevation of 1,025 feet. After that, the rules become murky, and there is greater potential for fraught legal conflicts. Northern states in the region, for example, are likely to ask why the vast evaporation losses from Lake Mead, which stores water for the southern states, have never been counted as a part of the water those southern states use. Fantastical and expensive solutions that have previously been dismissed by the federal government — like the desalinization of seawater, towing icebergs from the Arctic or pumping water from the Mississippi River through a pipeline — are likely to be seriously considered. None of this, however, will be enough to solve the problem unless it's accompanied by serious efforts to lower carbon dioxide emissions, which are ultimately responsible for driving changes to the climate.

Meanwhile, population growth in Arizona and elsewhere in the basin is likely to continue, at least for now, because short-term fixes so far have obscured the seriousness of the risks to the region. Water is still cheap, thanks to the federal subsidies for all those dams and canals that make it seem plentiful. The myth persists that technology can always outrun nature, that the American West holds endless possibility. It may be the region's undoing. As the author Wallace Stegner once wrote: “One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope."

'Megadrought' along border strains US-Mexico water relations

Robert Gabriel Varady, University of Arizona; Andrea K. Gerlak, University of Arizona, and Stephen Paul Mumme, Colorado State University

The United States and Mexico are tussling over their dwindling shared water supplies after years of unprecedented heat and insufficient rainfall.

Map showing the American Southwest and northern Mexico

The Colorado River Basin.

U.S. Geological Survey

Sustained drought on the middle-lower Rio Grande since the mid-1990s means less Mexican water flows to the U.S. The Colorado River Basin, which supplies seven U.S. states and two Mexican states, is also at record low levels.

A 1944 treaty between the U.S. and Mexico governs water relations between the two neighbors. The International Boundary and Water Commission it established to manage the 450,000-square-mile Colorado and Rio Grande basins has done so adroitly, according to our research.

That able management kept U.S.-Mexico water relations mostly conflict-free. But it masked some well-known underlying stresses: a population boom on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, climate change and aging waterworks.

1944 to 2021

The mostly semiarid U.S.-Mexico border region receives less than 18 inches of annual rainfall, with large areas getting under 12 inches. That's less than half the average annual rainfall in the U.S., which is mainly temperate.

The 1940s, however, were a time of unusual water abundance on the treaty rivers. When American and Mexican engineers drafted the 1944 water treaty, they did not foresee today's prolonged megadrought.

Nor did they anticipate the region's rapid growth. Since 1940 the population of the 10 largest pairs of cities that straddle the U.S.-Mexico border has mushroomed nearly twentyfold, from 560,000 people to some 10 million today.

This growth is powered by a booming, water-dependent manufacturing industry in Mexico that exports products to U.S. markets. Irrigated agriculture, ranching and mining compete with growing cities and expanding industry for scarce water.

Today, there's simply not enough of it to meet demand in the border areas governed by the 1944 treaty.

Three times since 1992 Mexico has fallen short of its five-year commitment to send 1.75 million acre-feet of water across the border to the U.S. Each acre-foot can supply a U.S. family of four for one year.

Water conflicts

In the fall of 2020, crisis erupted in the Rio Grande Valley after years of rising tensions and sustained drought that endanger crops and livestock in both the U.S. and Mexico.

In September 2020, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared that “Mexico owes Texas a year's worth of Rio Grande water." The next month, workers in Mexico released water from a dammed portion of Mexico's Río Conchos destined to flow across the border to partially repay Mexico's 345,600-acre-foot water debt to the U.S.

Frustrated farmers and protesters in the Mexican state of Chihuahua clashed with Mexican soldiers sent to protect the workers. A 35-year-old farmer's wife and mother of three was killed.

Mexico also agreed to transfer its stored water at Amistad Dam to the U.S., fulfilling its obligation just three days before its Oct. 25, 2020, deadline. That decision satisfied its water debt to the U.S. under the 1944 treaty but jeopardized the supply of more than a million Mexicans living downstream of Amistad Dam in the Mexican states of Coahuila and Tamaulipas.

The U.S. and Mexico pledged to revisit the treaty's Rio Grande water rules in 2023.

The drought dilemma on the Colorado River is similarly dire. The water level at Lake Mead, a major reservoir for communities in the lower Colorado River Basin, has dropped nearly 70% over 20 years, threatening the water supply of Arizona, California and Nevada.

In 2017, the U.S. and Mexico signed a temporary “shortage-sharing solution." That agreement, forged under the authority of the 1944 treaty, allowed Mexico to store part of its treaty water in U.S. reservoirs upstream.

Saving a strained treaty

Water shortages along the U.S.-Mexico border also threaten the natural environment. As water is channeled to farms and cities, rivers are deprived of the flow necessary to support habitats, fish populations and overall river health.

The 1944 water treaty was silent on conservation. For all its strengths, it simply allocates the water of the Rio Grande and Colorado rivers. It does not contemplate the environmental side of water use.

But the treaty is reasonably elastic, so its members can update it as conditions change. In recent years, conservation organizations and scientists have promoted the environmental and human benefits of restoration. New Colorado River agreements now recognize ecological restoration as part of treaty-based water management.

Environmental projects are underway in the lower Colorado River to help restore the river's delta, emphasizing native vegetation like willows and cottonwoods. These trees provide habitat for such at-risk birds as the yellow-billed cuckoo and the Yuma clapper rail, and for numerous species that migrate along this desolate stretch of the Pacific Flyway.

Map of the US-Mexico border with a cross-border area highlighted

The Rio Grande Basin.

U.S. Geological Survey

Currently, no such environmental improvements are planned for the Rio Grande.

But other lessons learned on the Colorado are now being applied to the Rio Grande. Recently, Mexico and the U.S. created a permanent binational advisory body for the Rio Grande similar to the one established in 2010 to oversee the health and ecology of the Colorado.

Another recent agreement permits each country to monitor the other's use of Rio Grande water using common diagnostics like Riverware, a dynamic modeling tool for monitoring water storage and flows. Mexico also has agreed to try to use water more efficiently, allowing more of it to flow to the U.S.

Newly created joint teams of experts will study treaty compliance and recommend further changes needed to manage climate-threatened waters along the U.S.-Mexico border sustainably and cooperatively.

Incremental treaty modifications like these could palpably reduce the past year's tensions and revitalize a landmark U.S.-Mexico treaty that's buckling under the enormous strain of climate change.

[This week in religion, a global roundup each Thursday. Sign up.]The Conversation

Robert Gabriel Varady, Research Professor of Environmental Policy, University of Arizona; Andrea K. Gerlak, Professor, School of Geography, Development and Environment, University of Arizona, and Stephen Paul Mumme, Professor of Political Science, Colorado State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A livable planet as infrastructure: Northwestern heatwave sparks calls for transformative climate action

As the Pacific Northwest and southwestern Canada bake under what's being described as a "once-in-a-millennium" heat dome, green groups on Monday reiterated the need for transformational change to address the climate emergency, while progressive U.S. lawmakers underscored the imperative for any infrastructure legislation to center climate action.

Temperatures exceeded 110 degrees in Portland, Oregon for the second straight day—and the third consecutive record-setting day—on Monday, melting power cables, destroying road surfaces, and causing some homes to shake.

In Seattle, the mercury soared to a record-setting 106 degrees on Monday, with some surrounding areas expected to reach as high as 115 degrees.

On Sunday, the town of Lytton, British Columbia broke Canada's all-time high temperature record, becoming the first place in the country to ever top 45°C (113°F).

As groups including 350 Seattle and Defense Fund PDX mobilized to distribute potentially lifesaving hydration and cooling aid in their communities, they also issued urgent calls for immediate climate action.

Valerie Costa of 350 Seattle said in a statement that the historic heatwave "is terrifying proof that we have to transform business as usual immediately, to stop the damage that we can still stop. Lives all over the world depend on it."

350 Seattle's Emily Johnston added that "people can get air conditioners and then try to forget how wildly abnormal this is... or they can join us in fighting for the immediate transformation that we need."


"Other cities around the world have transformed even in just the last few years, dramatically increasing bike lanes, otherwise shifting land use, and rejecting airport expansion," Johnston added. "Seattle has mostly... made pronouncements. We mean to harness people's energy and anxiety to change that."

Meanwhile, Sunrise Movement PDX called out "legislators in Oregon who claim to be 'acting on climate' who voted yesterday to give the [state] authority to spend hundreds of millions of dollars widening freeways in Clackamas County."

Progressive lawmakers echoed some of climate campaigners' calls and concerns.


Noting Portland's melting power cables, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) called the heatwave "yet another striking example of why our infrastructure package must center climate action to halt, reverse, mitigate, and prepare for the worst consequences of the climate crisis."

Blumenauer, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in February introduced a bill directing President Joe Biden to declare a national climate emergency and mobilize every resource available to address the crisis.


In a tweet highlighting a Monday rally and march on the White House by the youth-led Sunrise Movement, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) asserted that "making sure our planet is habitable for human life is infrastructure" while calling for "a bold package that tackles the climate crisis."


In addition to much of the western part of the continent, much of New England also experienced extreme temperatures on Monday, with heat advisories in effect across the region.

Amid triple-digit heat indexes in Massachusetts, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) announced he would re-introduce the Preventing Health Emergencies And Temperature-related (HEAT) Illness and Deaths Act "to combat the threat of extreme heat" and "strengthen inter-agency efforts to study and address extreme heat while providing millions of dollars in grants to reduce exposure to extreme heat."

Another Ammon Bundy rebellion might be brewing in Northern California — this time over water: report

Far-right anti-government activist Ammon Bundy has made national news on multiple occasions, from leading an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon to anti-mask standoffs in Idaho that resulted in extremists converging on a state judge's home.

Now, according to The Sacramento Bee, Bundy and his followers could be about to get involved in another confrontation with the government — this time over water shutoffs in Northern California.

"In the summer of 2001, local farmers and other activists armed with saws and blowtorches breached a chain-link fence and opened the headgates of a federal canal that supplies farmland in Oregon and far Northern California," reported Ryan Sabalow. "Local farmer Grant Knoll was among the activists there that year. The protesters forced the gates open three times but were eventually blocked by U.S. marshals. Now, with a drought just as severe as two decades ago — and with farmers' water again cut off — he's prepared to fight again."

"This spring, he and another farmer, Dan Nielsen, bought the property next to the headgates in Klamath Falls, Ore.," said the report. "They erected a red and white tent surrounded by American flags and protest signs, and they're holding regular gatherings. And they're working with a group with close ties to anti-government activist Ammon Bundy."

According to the report, "Federal water managers have for years struggled to strike a balance between supplying water for farmers while still leaving enough water in Oregon's Upper Klamath Lake to keep two species of endangered suckers from going extinct." However, the government also is obligated to send spurts of water down the canals known as "flushing flows" to maintain the health of local salmon populations local tribes depend on, and amid a drought, they lack the water for even that, let alone to supply farmers with everything they are asking for.

Farmers, however, don't buy the government's explanation, claiming water levels are higher than would exist in a drought.

"Knoll said the Bundy family's fight with the federal government has proven that if activists push back forcefully, the feds will back down," said the report. "Members of the Bundy family and their supporters have been acquitted or mistrials were declared after armed standoffs with federal authorities in Oregon and in Nevada."

You can read more here.

Water wells are at risk of going dry in the US and worldwide

As the drought outlook for the Western U.S. becomes increasingly bleak, attention is turning once again to groundwater – literally, water stored in the ground. It is Earth's most widespread and reliable source of fresh water, but it's not limitless.

Wells that people drill to access groundwater supply nearly half the water used for irrigated agriculture in the U.S. and provide over 100 million Americans with drinking water. Unfortunately, pervasive pumping is causing groundwater levels to decline in some areas, including much of California's San Joaquin Valley and Kansas' High Plains.

We are a water resources engineer with training in water law and a water scientist and large-data analyst. In a recent study, we mapped the locations and depths of wells in 40 countries around the world and found that millions of wells could run dry if groundwater levels decline by only a few meters. While solutions vary from place to place, we believe that what's most important for protecting wells from running dry is managing groundwater sustainably – especially in nations like the U.S. that use a lot of it.

About 75% of global groundwater pumping occurs in India, the U.S., China, Pakistan, Iran, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. has one of the highest national groundwater use rates in the world.

Jasechko and Perrone, 2021, CC BY-ND

Groundwater use today

Humans have been digging wells for water for thousands of years. Examples include 7,400-year-old wells in the Czech Republic and Germany, 8,000-year-old wells in the eastern Mediterranean, and 10,000-year-old wells in Cyprus. Today wells supply 40% of water used for irrigation worldwide and provide billions of people with drinking water.

Groundwater flows through tiny spaces within sediments and their underlying bedrock. At some points, called discharge areas, groundwater rises to the surface, moving into lakes, rivers and streams. At other points, known as recharge areas, water percolates deep into the ground, either through precipitation or leakage from rivers, lakes and streams.

Pumping can remove groundwater from underground faster than it recharges.

Groundwater can remain underground for days to millennia, depending on how deep it sinks, how readily it moves through rock around it and how fast humans pump it to the surface.

USGS

Groundwater declines can have many undesirable consequences. Land surfaces sink as underground clay layers are compacted. Seawater intrusion can contaminate groundwater reserves and make them too salty to use without energy-intensive treatment. River water can leak down to underground aquifers, leaving less water available at the surface.

Leaky streams are widespread across the United States.

Groundwater depletion can also cause wells to run dry when the top surface of the groundwater – known as the water table – drops so far that the well isn't deep enough to reach it, leaving the well literally high and dry. Yet until recently, little was known about how vulnerable global wells are to running dry because of declining groundwater levels.

There is no global database of wells, so over six years we compiled 134 unique well construction databases spanning 40 different countries. In total, we analyzed nearly 39 million well construction records, including each well's location, the reason it was constructed and its depth.

Our results show that wells are vital to human livelihoods – and recording well depths helped us see how vulnerable wells are to running dry.

Millions of wells at risk

Our analysis led to two main findings. First, up to 20% of wells around the world extend no more than 16 feet (5 meters) below the water table. That means these wells will run dry if groundwater levels decline by just a few feet.

Groundwater wells are at risk of running dry around the globe.

Second, we found that newer wells are not being dug significantly deeper than older wells in some places where groundwater levels are declining. In some areas, such as eastern New Mexico, newer wells are not drilled deeper than older wells because the deeper rock layers are impermeable and contain saline water. New wells are at least as likely to run dry as older wells in these areas.

Wells are already going dry in some locations, including parts of the U.S. West. In previous studies we estimated that as many as 1 in 30 wells were running dry in the western U.S., and as many as 1 in 5 in some areas in the southern portion of California's Central Valley.

Households already are running out of well water in the Central Valley and southeastern Arizona. Beyond the Southwest, wells have been running dry in states as diverse as Maine, Illinois and Oregon.

What to do when the well gives out

How can households adapt when their well runs dry? Here are five strategies, all of which have drawbacks.

– Dig a new, deeper well. This is an option only if fresh groundwater exists at deeper depths. In many aquifers deeper groundwater tends to be more saline than shallower groundwater, so deeper drilling is no more than a stopgap solution. And since new wells are expensive, this approach favors wealthier groundwater users and raises equity concerns.

– Sell the property. This is often considered if constructing a new well is unaffordable. Drilling a new household well in the U.S. Southwest can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But selling a property that lacks access to a reliable and convenient water supply can be challenging.

– Divert or haul water from alternative sources, such as nearby rivers or lakes. This approach is feasible only if surface water resources are not already reserved for other users or too far away. Even if nearby surface waters are available, treating their quality to make them safe to drink can be harder than treating well water.

– Reduce water use to slow or stop groundwater level declines. This could mean switching to crops that are less water-intensive, or adopting irrigation systems that reduce water losses. Such approaches may reduce farmers' profits or require upfront investments in new technologies.

[Over 100,000 readers rely on The Conversation's newsletter to understand the world. Sign up today.]

– Limit or abandon activities that require lots of water, such as irrigation. This strategy can be challenging if irrigated land provides higher crop yields than unirrigated land. Recent research suggests that some land in the central U.S. is not suitable for unirrigated “dryland" farming.

Households and communities can take proactive steps to protect wells from running dry. For example, one of us is working closely with Rebecca Nelson of Melbourne Law School in Australia to map groundwater withdrawal permitting – the process of seeking permission to withdraw groundwater – across the U.S. West.

State and local agencies can distribute groundwater permits in ways that help stabilize falling groundwater levels over the long run, or in ways that prioritize certain water users. Enacting and enforcing policies designed to limit groundwater depletion can help protect wells from running dry. While it can be difficult to limit use of a resource as essential as water, we believe that in most cases, simply drilling deeper is not a sustainable path forward.The Conversation

Debra Perrone, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, University of California Santa Barbara and Scott Jasechko, Assistant Professor of Water Resources, University of California Santa Barbara

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

At least 111 people died in Texas during winter storm — most from hypothermia

At least 111 Texans died as a result of last month's winter storm, according to updated numbers released Thursday by the Department of State Health Services.

The newly revised number is nearly twice what the department estimated last week and will likely continue to grow. Some of Texas' larger counties, such as Tarrant County, have yet to report any storm-related deaths.

The majority of people died from hypothermia, but health officials also attributed deaths to motor vehicle wrecks, “carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, exacerbation of chronic illness, lack of home oxygen, falls and fire."

Among those who lost their lives in the frigid weather was an 11-year-old boy in the Houston area who died in his home as temperatures dropped into the single digits. In San Antonio, a man froze to death outside his house after he likely fell on his way to a dialysis appointment. And in Abilene, a man reportedly froze to death in his reclining chair.

Harris County reported 31 storm-related deaths, the largest share in the state. Travis County followed with nine deaths.

Health officials will continue to update their preliminary findings weekly.

According to DSHS, the data is compiled from forms that certify deaths are related to a disaster, notification from death certifiers and analyses of death certificates from state epidemiologists.

February's winter storm blanketed large swaths of Texas in snow and ice and left millions without power or clean water for days in below-freezing temperatures.

The issues laid bare by the freeze have taken center stage at the Texas Legislature. A Texas Senate committee advanced a wide-ranging bill Thursday that would, among other things, mandate that power and natural gas companies upgrade their facilities to withstand severe weather. It would also create a statewide emergency alert system for future large-scale power outages.

Meanwhile, executives at billionaire Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Energy have been lobbying Texas lawmakers to support an $8 billion plan to build 10 new natural gas power plants that would provide energy during peak consumption hours when demand is highest. The company wants lawmakers to create a revenue stream to Berkshire through an additional charge on Texans' power bills.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2021/03/25/texas-deaths-winter-storm/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Hackers tried to poison Florida city's water supply: sheriff

Federal authorities and local law enforcement in Florida are investigating an attempted hack on the water supply at a treatment system in Oldsmar, Fla.

According to the Tampa Bay Times, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri held a press conference on Monday, Feb 8, to discuss the disturbing series of events that transpired on Friday.

Gualtieri revealed hackers had attempted to poison the city's water supply when they "remotely accessed a computer for the city's water treatment system and briefly increased the amount of sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, by a factor of more than 100.":

"The chemical is used in small amounts to control the acidity of water but it's also a corrosive compound commonly found in household cleaning supplies such as liquid drain cleaners."

Despite the attempted poisoning, Gualtieri confirmed that the city's water supply was not impacted thanks to swift actions by a supervisor. At the time, the supervisor was also working remotely and noted the uptick in the concentration level as it was being altered on his computer screen. He acted to counter the dangerous action.

"At no time was there a significant adverse effect on the water being treated," the sheriff said. "Importantly, the public was never in danger."

Oldsmar Mayor Eric Seidel released a statement in response to the water facility's scare as he expressed relief and elation about the city's protocols being effective. "The protocols that we have in place, monitoring protocols, they work — that's the good news," said Seidel. "Even had they not caught them, there's redundancies in the system that would have caught the change in the pH level."

Seidel went on to explain the importance of the sheriff's press conference. According to Seidel, the purpose was simply to make the public aware of what happened. He added, "The important thing is to put everyone on notice. There's a bad actor out there."

Joe Biden's blitz on climate policy is impressive. Here's what it reveals about a broad American consensus

Just 10 days after the Biden administration took over, in alignment with the new president's overall blitz strategy, a flabbergasting phalanx of U.S. climate policies have been turned smartly on their heels and are marching toward the future. President Biden has returned the nation to the Paris Agreement, required truth-telling in government reporting, enforced a regulation that government purchases must feed U.S. supply chains rather than imports, terminated the massive giveaway of taxpayer property to coal, oil and gas extractors, restored the integrity of federal climate science, frozen a horde of horrible Trump environmental rollbacks, and even launched a New Deal-style Civilian Climate Corps. All that is already in the rear-view mirror as Biden's team moves on to the deeper work of a clean-energy, decarbonized and more inclusive economy.

Most Americans, who fear climate chaos, embrace clean energy opportunity and welcome American innovation and leadership, should be celebrating — and are. But hold your breath: The good news runs even deeper than this. The striking emphasis that the new administration has given to its "whole government" climate strategy; the repeatedly-noted climate depth of his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet appointees at the Treasury (Janet Yellen), the State Department (John Kerry), economic policy (Brian Deese), the Energy Department (Jennifer Granholm), the Department of Transportation (Pete Buttigieg), and the Department of the Interior (Deb Haaland); along with the breadth of new climate initiatives are only a part of the new administration's commitment to climate progress.

This shock-and -awe launch also reflects an external reality: The Trump administration's dogged march into the past had departed from any semblance of where America was headed. The first wave of climate progress under Biden is almost all "low-hanging fruit," "no regrets" and "we can all unite on this," because Trump's legacy was starkly at war with economic and marketplace reality, not just climate science.

Look at the chorus that has responded to Biden's climate drumbeat. Politico hails "a coalition that ranges from labor unions, anti-fracking activists and racial justice advocates to leaders of Wall Street, the auto industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce" as lining up with Biden's broad thrust. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on MSNBC boasts that his program to phase out internal combustion cars and trucks by 2030 is a winner because he already has the support not only of climate advocates but also of the United Auto Workers, Ford and General Motors.

While the obstacles still cited as lying in Biden's way are substantial, they are almost entirely inside the Beltway, where the powerful influence of fossil fuel-producing states like West Virginia (embodied in Sen. Joe Manchin) and Kentucky (Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) is repeatedly, and appropriately, recited. But what are oil companies, who wield the big fossil fuel stick, actually saying? Yes, they claim Biden is going too far, but almost exclusively in one narrow part of his program, the phase-out of oil, gas and coal extraction on federal lands.

Indeed, the oil industry is actually joining Biden's alliance in its emphasis on tougher drilling and pollution standards for extraction. Advocacy of carbon pricing in some form is also making its way into Houston lobbying memos.

In a deeply polarized Senate, getting legislation of any significance through is indeed going to test the new president's Capitol Hill negotiating chops. But climate is getting so much emphasis in Biden's first two weeks in large part because it has become a less, not more, divisive issue across American society. It's a good place for the new administration to bring the country together, perhaps because the communities that are taking the biggest climate hit — from fires, flooding, storms and energy sector layoffs — are overwhelmingly in regions where Trump, not Biden, came out on top. (A hidden secret is that rural America, which has become the heart of red America, is where storm, drought, fire and flood hit hardest. Miami Beach can afford sea walls. Cedar Rapids needs Uncle Sam to repair its levees.)

Biden's broader coalition — you could also throw in BlackRock, whose CEO, Larry Fink, devoted his annual letter to the urgency of business embracing the climate challenge — emerged even before the November election. Major oil companies had opposed Trump's efforts to block the cleanup of methane from oil and gas drilling. Ford and Volkswagen had partnered with California to undercut the Trump administration's rollbacks of auto emission limits. Most of the biggest power utilities had pledged to cut from 80% to 100% of their current carbon pollution. Sixteen states had persuaded even the deadlocked Congress to commit the U.S. to phasing out climate dangerous HFC refrigerants as part of the pandemic relief bill.

So climate progress is now a powerful American consensus, precisely because we have realized that it is not a matter of sacrifice, but of opportunity; not austerity but prosperity; not American decline but American recovery.

None of this means we can relax. Big coalitions, like convoys, can bog down at the speed of the slowest member. And the biggest looming barrier is that the faster decarbonization races ahead, the greater the risk to workers and communities left behind. While there are lots of good ideas floating around for how to enable fossil-dependent segments of our nation to ride the clean energy wave, most of them remain somewhat uncertain and gauzy — after all, only a year ago we were having trouble getting McConnell to agree to sustain pensions and health care for mineworkers in his own state.

If we don't take more seriously our need to spread the benefits of the clean energy transition to every zip code and every demography, we will blow our best change to make America truly great — for the 21st century.

The climate crisis is worse than even scientists can imagine. Here’s what happened when one tried

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Peter Kalmus, out of his mind, stumbled back toward the car. It was all happening. All the stuff he'd been trying to get others to see, and failing to get others to see — it was all here. The day before, when his family started their Labor Day backpacking trip along the oak-lined dry creek bed in Romero Canyon, in the mountains east of Santa Barbara, the temperature had been 105 degrees. Now it was 110 degrees, and under his backpack, his “large mammalian self," as Peter called his body, was more than just overheating. He was melting down. Everything felt wrong. His brain felt wrong and the planet felt wrong, and everything that lived on the planet felt wrong, off-kilter, in the wrong place.

Nearing the trailhead, Peter's mind death-spiralled: What's next summer going to bring? How hot will it be in 10 years? Yes, the data showed that the temperature would only rise annually by a few tenths of a degree Celsius. But those tenths would add up and the extreme temperatures would rise even faster, and while Peter's big mammal body could handle 100 degrees, sort of, 110 drove him crazy. That was just not a friendly climate for a human. 110 degrees was hostile, an alien planet.

Lizards fried, right there on the rocks. Elsewhere, songbirds fell out of the sky. There was more human conflict, just as the researchers promised. Not outright violence, not here, not yet. But Peter's kids were pissed and his wife was pissed and the salience that he'd so desperately wanted others to feel — “salience" being the term of choice in the climate community for the gut-level understanding that climate change isn't going to be a problem in the future, it is a crisis now — that salience was here. The full catastrophe was here (both in the planetary and the Zorba the Greek sense: “Wife. Children. House. Everything. The full catastrophe"). To cool down, Peter, a climate scientist who studied coral reefs, had stood in a stream for an hour, like a man might stand at a morgue waiting to identify a loved one's body, irritated by his powerlessness, massively depressed. He found no thrill in the fact that he'd been right.

Sharon Kunde, Peter's wife, found no thrill in the situation either, though her body felt fine. It was just hot … OK, very hot. Her husband was decompensating. The trip sucked.

“I was losing it," Peter later recalled as we sat on their front porch on a far-too-warm November afternoon in Altadena, California, just below the San Gabriel Mountains.

“Yeah," Sharon said.

“Losing my grip."

“Yeah."

“Poor Sharon is the closest person to me, and I share everything with her."

Sometimes everything is both too much and not enough. George Marshall opened his book, “Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change," with the parable of Jan Karski, a young Polish resistance fighter who, in 1943, met in person with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who was both a Jew and widely regarded as one of the great minds of his generation. Karski briefed the justice on what he'd seen firsthand: the pillage of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Belzec death camp. Afterward, Frankfurter said, “I do not believe you."

The Polish ambassador, who had arranged the meeting on the recommendation of President Franklin Roosevelt, interrupted to defend Karski's account.

“I did not say that he is lying," Frankfurter explained. “I said that I didn't believe him. It's a different thing. My mind, my heart— they are made in such a way that I cannot accept. No no no."

Sharon, too, possessed a self-protective mind and heart. A high school English teacher and practiced stoic from her Midwestern German Lutheran childhood, she didn't believe in saying things you were not yet prepared to act upon. “We find it difficult to understand each other on this topic," Sharon, 46, said of her husband's climate fixation.

Yet while Sharon was preternaturally contained, Peter was a yard sale, whole self out in the open. At 47, he worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, studying which reefs might survive the longest as the oceans warm. He had more twinkle in his eye that one might expect for a man possessed by planetary demise. But he often held his head in his hands like a 50-pound kettlebell. Every time he heard a plane fly overhead, he muttered, “Fossil fuel noise."

For years, in articles in Yes! magazine, in op-eds in the Los Angeles Times, in his book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, on social media, Peter had been pleading, begging for people to pay attention to the global emergency. “Is this my personal hell?" he tweeted this past fall. “That I have to spend my entire life desperately trying to convince everyone NOT TO DESTROY THE FUCKING EARTH?"

His pain was transfixing, a case study in a fundamental climate riddle: How do you confront the truth of climate change when the very act of letting it in risked toppling your sanity? There is too much grief, too much suffering to bear. So we intellectualize. We rationalize. And too often, without even allowing ourselves to know we're doing it, we turn away. At virtually every level — personal, political, policy, corporate — we repeat this pattern. We fail, or don't even try, to rise to the challenge. Yes, there are the behemoth forces of power and money reinforcing the status quo. But even those of us who firmly believe we care very often fail to translate that caring into much action. We make polite, perhaps even impassioned conversation. We say smart climate things in the boardroom or classroom or kitchen or on the campaign trail. And then … there's a gap, a great nothingness and inertia. What happens if a human — or to be precise, a climate scientist, both privileged and cursed to understand the depth of the problem — lets the full catastrophe in?

Once Peter, Sharon and their 12- and 14-year-old sons set their packs down at the car on that infernal Labor Day weekend, they blasted the air conditioning, then stopped for Gatorade and Flamin' Hot Doritos to try to recover from their trip. But the heat had descended not just on Peter's big mammal body but on millions of acres of dry cheatgrass and oak chaparral.

That same afternoon, around 1 p.m., the Bobcat fire started five miles from their house in the Los Angeles hills.

Peter's climate obsession started, as many obsessions do, with the cross-wiring of exuberance and fear. In late 2005, Sharon got pregnant with their first child, and in the throes of joy and panic that accompanied impending fatherhood, Peter attended the weekly physics colloquium at Columbia University, where he was working on an astrophysics Ph.D. The topic that day was the energy imbalance in the planet — how more energy was coming into earth's atmosphere from the sun than our atmosphere was radiating back out into space. Peter was rapt. He'd grown up a nerdy Catholic Boy Scout in suburban Chicago, and had always been, as his sister Audrey Kalmus said, someone who “jumped into things he believed in with three feet." He'd met Sharon at Harvard. They'd moved to New York so she could earn a teaching degree. For a while, before returning to school, Peter had made good money on Wall Street writing code. Now here he was hearing, really hearing for the first time, that the planet, his son's future home, was going to roast. Full stop.

This was a catastrophe — a physical, physics catastrophe, and here he was, a physicist about to have a son. He exited the lecture hall in a daze. “I was kind of like, 'Are we just going to pretend this is like a normal scientific talk?'" he told me, recalling his thoughts. “We're talking about the end of life on Earth as we know it."

For the next eight months, Peter walked around Manhattan, “freaking out in my brain," he said, like “one of those end-is-near people with the sandwich boards." He tried converting Columbia's undergraduate green groups to his cause. Did they care about the environment? Yes. Did they care about the planetary catastrophe? Well, yes, of course they did, but they were going to stick with their project of getting plastic bags out of dining halls, OK? He tried lobbying the university administrators to switch to wind power. Couldn't even get a meeting. Nothing made sense. Why was Al Gore spending a fortune to make a climate movie only to flinch at the end of “An Inconvenient Truth" and say, essentially, Just buy more efficient light bulbs? Almost nobody saw it — really saw it. WE ARE HAVING AN EMERGENCY. There was only one possible endgame here if humans didn't stop burning fossil fuels, fast: global chaos, mass violence, miserable deaths.

Peter and Sharon's friends came over to meet and bless their baby, Braird, shortly after he was born in June 2006. All the guests went around the room offering wishes for the unborn child. When Peter's turn came, he said he hoped that his son didn't get shot at in climate-induced barbarity and that he did not starve.

Peter and Sharon rented a house with a big avocado tree when they moved to California, in 2008, for Peter's dream postdoc studying gravitational waves at CalTech. Braird was 2 and Sharon was nursing newborn Zane. Peter and Sharon had both come from families with four kids, and they didn't want Braird to be an only child — and having a child when you want one is also immeasurably wonderful, too wonderful, in this case, to give up. (They did later decide to forgo a third.) In Peter's first run at grassroots activism, he organized a climate protest with a friend. Only two people showed up. Peter joined Transition Pasadena, a community group dedicated to producing “a more resilient city and for living lighter on our Earth." He also said he tried pushing “to focus the group around global heating and climate breakdown," but the members, he said, wanted to talk about “gardening and city council meetings," not the apocalypse, so Peter and Transition Pasadena parted ways.

Four years into climate awakening and action, Peter felt he had accomplished nearly zero. One night, frustrated with inaction and disgusted with fossil fuel use, he sat at his computer and calculated the sources of all his own emissions so he could go about reducing them.

In the morning he presented Sharon with a pie chart.

This was one of those moments that both distorted and crystalized the scale problems inherent in addressing climate change, the personal and the planetary, the insignificant and the enormous, warping and reverberating as if modulated by a wah-wah pedal. Peter himself believed that you can't fix climate change with individual virtue any more than you can fix systemic racism that way. But he also knew, at some point, “You have to burn your ships on the beach," as Richard Reiss, a climate educator and fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Cities at Hunter College, put it. You need to commit, perhaps even create drama, and make real changes in your life.

By far the biggest wedge of the pie chart was Peter flying to scientific meetings and conferences. For the family, if Peter quit flying, it meant he'd be home more to help with the kids. Sharon reserved the right to keep flying if she wanted. Win-win.

Peter's second-largest source of emissions was food. So he started growing artichokes, eggplant, kale and squash, plus tending fruit trees, and that was great. Then he started composting — OK, that's great, too. He also started keeping bees and raising chickens, and soon raccoons and possums discovered the chickens and Peter began running outside in his underwear in the middle of the night when he heard the chickens scream. Baby chicks lived in the house, which the boys loved. Braird got stung by bees while Sharon was at a meditation retreat and it turned out Braird was allergic and he went into shock.

Next came dumpster diving (which eventually — and thankfully — morphed into an arrangement with Trader Joe's to pick up their unsellable food every other Sunday night). Peter's haul — “seven or eight boxes," according to Sharon; “three boxes," according to Peter — included dozens of eggs with only one broken. Flats of (mostly not moldy) strawberries. Bread past its sell-by date. Peter did his best to put things away before he fell asleep because waking up to the mess drove Sharon nuts. But … it was a lot. Low-carbon living was a lot.

They stopped using the gas dryer. They stopped shitting in the flush toilet and started practicing “humanure," composting their own crap. Sharon had lived with an outhouse in Mongolia, “so that was something I was used to," she said. Plus, to be honest, she liked the local, organic anti-capitalist politics of it. “Marx writes about this in 'Capital, Volume 1' that one of the reasons Europeans started to use chemical fertilizers is because people started to move into the cities and off of the land, … and people stopped pooping out in the countryside, so it became less fertile." The main problem, for Sharon, was that their bathroom was small and the composting toilet was inside. They used eucalyptus leaves to try to cover up the smell, but then little bits of leaves got all over the bathroom, too. After a while Peter moved the composting toilet outdoors. He also built an outdoor shower that Sharon found quite lovely, “rustic and California."

Sharon commiserated with a friend who was married to a priest. How do you have an equal marriage with a man who's trying to save the world? The priest's wife, too, found “it impossible for her to have any space for herself," Sharon said. “Because he was called by God to minister to people. When she tried to do her own thing, it wasn't as important as his." Motherhood was hard enough. Sharon wanted to write a novel. She wanted to write poetry. She wanted to go for a run, or even a walk, in peace. “His dreams were so much more heroic and important that I had to sort of, I don't know," she said. “I had to go along with it."

The most trying component of the low-carbon experiment for Sharon was the 1985 Mercedes that Peter converted to biodiesel. Maeby, as Sharon hate-named the car — as in Maeby we'll get there, Maeby we won't — arrived in their lives in 2011, just as Sharon was starting an English Ph.D. at UC Irvine and commuting 50 miles each way. Yes, they took family summer road trips to go camping and visit friends. But on the winter trips to visit their families in the Midwest, the grease coagulated in the cold, which made Maeby break down more. Some nights Sharon cried in the motel room, but “when it's daytime it all seemed better," she said. She talked about renting a car or even flying home but never did. Still, late one night on a very cold, dark and lonely Utah highway when Peter was under the broken-down car, and Braird and Zane were in the back seat, screaming, and Sharon was revving the engine at Peter's request — she started to wonder if she had Stockholm syndrome.

Sometimes, Sharon thought of Peter as being like “John the Baptist, a voice in the wilderness, crying out, 'Repent, repent!'" This was said with love but also annoyance. As Larissa MacFarquhar explored in her book “Strangers Drowning," extreme do-gooders often provoke us. We find them ridiculous, self-righteous, sometimes even perverse or narcissistic moralists for whom, MacFarquhar writes, “It is always wartime." Just figuring out how to raise children on the Earth, right now, presented so many existential questions. Peter often indulged in a half-joking zombie apocalypse mentality. He wanted to teach his boys to grow crops, to defend themselves, to fix things. “I do think we need to be talking about the collapse of civilization and the deaths of billions of people," he said.

When she was at her gloomiest, Sharon, too, felt scared to leave her sons on this planet, but she also called on her tight-lipped German upbringing to create a bubble of denialist peace. “Things you don't want to confront, just ignore it. Pretend it's not there," she said. Her “ethics of care," as she called it, involved encouraging the boys to take music lessons, read books and even meditate when she could persuade them to join her. She wanted to prepare her sons to be creative and resilient. If the planet was crumbling, they'd need rich interior lives.

Did Sharon want the boys to worry? “I don't know, I don't know," she said. That was the never-ending, urgent, timeless question. How much do we want our children to understand about the horrors of the world?

In 2012, Peter switched fields, from astrophysics to earth science, because he just couldn't stop obsessing. This meant backpedaling in his career, quitting the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment, three founding members of which would go on to win the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. Still, even his new job was a strange fit. Science itself — with its cultural terror of appearing biased — was a strange fit.

Peter had given up expecting emotional comfort. He'd given up on decorum. He had nightmares about being on planes. “The emissions, you know," he said. “It feels like the plane is flying on ground-up babies to me." Even the simplest decisions led him into deep philosophical rifts. The boys' music lessons, to Peter, seemed woefully, almost willfully anachronistic, a literal fiddling while Rome or Los Angeles burned.

Peter kept trying to figure out ways to make his voice heard. He organized climate cafes, modeled on death cafes, places for people to gather to share grief (Sharon did not attend). He started No Fly Climate Sci, a grassroots group of academic institutions and individual scientists committed to flying less. He kept writing, posting, organizing, talking. This was not always well received. Before the pandemic, Peter stood on the sidelines of Braird's soccer games when it was 113 degrees. “And I'd be telling the other parents: This is climate change," he said. “And, you know, they don't want to hear that during a soccer game. But I can't not do it. I can't."

WE ARE HAVING AN EMERGENCY — Peter thought that all day, every day. “Here I am with a retirement account," Peter said. Did he need a retirement account? What was the world going to be like in 2060, when he was an old man? He'd been careful with himself not to become a doomer. Doomers, in his mind, were selfish. They'd given up on the greater good and retreated to their own bunkers, leaving the rest of us to burn. Still, despite Peter's commitment to keep working toward global change, Sharon found Peter's florid negativity distasteful at times. “There's almost like a pornographic fascination with 'Oh, I'm going to imagine just how bad everything is going to be,'" she said.

Sharon staged minor rebellions to maintain a sense of self — little stuff, like using lots of hot water when she did the dishes, and bigger stuff, like she stopped talking sometimes. Braird and Zane, too, each absorbed and reacted to Peter's passionate cri de coeur in their own ways. Zane, the younger one, started doing his own regular, Greta Thunberg-style climate strikes in front of city hall. Braird, the older, meanwhile, was entering his teens, differentiating and waxing nihilistic. When asked what he wanted to do with his future, Braird said, “What future?" When asked what he thought about climate change, he sunk a dagger into his father's heart like only a child can. Braird said, “I don't really think about it."

On the Tuesday evening after Labor Day, two days after the family returned from their infernal backpacking, Peter, still recovering from heat exhaustion, stood at the sink doing dishes. Braird played League of Legends on his bed. Sharon sat meditating, as she did from 7-8 p.m. each night. Then the emergency alerts blew up their phones. An evacuation warning, the Bobcat fire. The day before, in the ongoing horrible heat, they'd taped their windows shut against the smoke but they hadn't packed go bags. They never really believed their house would burn. The state was a climate warzone. Military helicopters had rescued 200 people trapped in a Sierra lake by the Creek fire, which had thrown up a plume of flames 50,000 feet. Cal Fire was predicting the Bobcat fire would not be contained for six weeks.

Sharon finished meditating. Then she started photographing all their stuff, including the insides of closets and drawers, because that's what insurance adjusters tell you to do: Document your property so you can make a stronger claim. Peter snapped. He didn't care about the pictures or the insurance. He just wanted to let the house incinerate. He felt done pretending that anything was normal, and he decided that now would be a good time to tell Sharon that he'd felt frustrated and gaslit by her all these years.

“WE NEVER EVEN TALK ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE! DO YOU EVEN CARE ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE?" he said. This did not go well.

She threw a laundry basket. “YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME," she shouted. “Our entire lives are about climate change."

There it was, that gap we build around knowing and integrating, to protect our own lives and minds. Yet after the fight, after finally saying aloud what he'd been thinking for almost 15 years, Peter felt better. Not because anything was different. Nothing was different. The situation remained unshakably, cosmically wrong. The only reason to care about insurance, books, paintings, the house, was if you believed that there would be a stable planet on which to enjoy those things in 20 or 40 or 80 years. If you believe there'd be a “planet with seasons, where you can grow food and have water, and you can go outside without dying from heatstroke," Peter said. “I don't have that anymore, that sense of stability."

But he also knew, deep down, that Sharon could not, and should not, give that up. She was a more anxious person than he was. They both knew that. “For me to stay sane, there's only so much I can take," Sharon said. Earlier on the night of their big fight they'd watched “The Handmaid's Tale," as they did each Tuesday. Sharon often thought about the main character, June. “You have to moderate how you think. You have to think in little chunks, so you can endure, just like June does," she told me. “You have to make sacrifices so you can survive. If you can survive to fight another day, then maybe the right opportunity will present itself. You can't kill yourself well, you can. But that's not the option I want to take."

Maeby is now gone. Peter drives an electric car. The composting toilet remains outside, though Peter admits, “The other three family members are not interested in contributing at all." Peter's current project is making climate ads. Is this how he can tell the story of what is happening to the world in a way that will make people not just hear and retreat but act? He thinks about this all the time. How do you describe an intolerable problem in a way that listeners — even you, dear reader will truly let in?

All through October and November, the Bobcat fire continued to burn. It grew to 115,000 acres. Its 300-foot-high flames licked up against Mount Wilson Observatory, where scientists first proved the existence of a universe outside the Milky Way. The fire continued to burn well into December, when UN Secretary-General Ant nio Guterres urged, with middling effect, the nations of the world to declare a climate emergency. So far, 38 have done so. The United States is not one of them. In January, a team of 19 climate scientists published a paper, “Understanding the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future," that said, “The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its life forms — including humanity — is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts." The language of this sentence could not be more dire. It makes the mind go numb.

So how, with our limited human minds, do we attend enough to make real progress? How do we not flinch and look away? The truth of what is happening shakes the foundations of our sense of self. It asserts a distorting gravity, bending our priorities and warping our whole lives. The overt denialists are easy villains, the monsters who look like monsters. But the rest of us, much of the time, wear pretty green masks over our self-interest and denial, and then go about our days. Then each morning we wake to a new headline like: The planet is dying faster than we thought."

While I was trying (and failing) to process it all, Peter called to make sure I understood the importance of a comment he'd made: He's no longer embarrassed to tell people he would die to keep the planet from overheating. He's left behind the solace of denial. He's well aware of the cost. What a luxury to feel that the ground we walk on and this planet that is rotating around the sun is in some sense OK."

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