Stuck in denial as the river runs dry
Ten years ago, Ron Neilson, a U.S. Forest Service bioclimatologist, gave a short talk on climate change to his daughter’s class at Corvallis High School. “When I was done,” Neilson said, “I looked out across this sea of high school faces . . . and all I saw was doom and gloom.”
Neilson wasn’t surprised — “They used to call me Doctor Doom because of the scenarios I was presenting,” he said — but he was more than a little alarmed. “We cannot send the next generation into the future,” he realized, “with that sense of doom and gloom,” paralyzed by the conviction that all is lost.
It’s a bad week for alternative conclusions. By noon Wednesday, more than 666 square miles of the Southern California tinderbox — Los Angeles went 150 consecutive days this year without rain — has been charcoaled. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is at its lowest level in 20 years. And drought continues to devastate the southeast, particularly in Alabama and Georgia, where the folks at Coca-Cola are increasingly “concerned” about sustaining their bottling operation.
As The New York Times reported Tuesday, Gov. Sonny Perdue waited until Saturday to declare a state of emergency in Georgia after spending five months in a state of denial.
He’s far from alone. “We take weather for granted,” said Neilson, who also teaches at Oregon State. “When many of us were growing up, particularly in the ’40s through the ’70s, weather was extraordinarily benign. That has made us very complacent. A little warmth here, a little drought there, it’s not a big deal.”
All that has changed, whether we realize that or not. The forecast, Neilson said, is for increasingly volatile and unpredictable weather patterns “that are unprecedented since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Our experiential framework doesn’t encompass these cataclysmic events. We just assume the future will echo the past.
“The world is changing. Extremely rapidly. All the management rules have been built around the assumption of a stationary climate. For the foreseeable future, for generations to come, change is what we need to manage, not the status quo.”
That imperative is echoed by John DeVoe, the executive director at WaterWatch, an organization dedicated to bringing humans up to speed with the fish on the health of Oregon’s rivers.
“We have a system of laws that are incredibly antiquated and that are meant to serve the status quo,” DeVoe said. Our collective mind-set tends to be similarly outdated. While the city of Seattle used less water per capita in 2006 than it did in 1964, DeVoe said, Oregon showed an increase in flood irrigation between 1990 and 2000.
“That’s Sumerian technology,” DeVoe said. “A shovel and a ditch. Extremely wasteful. We can do better than that.”
But will we, before water shortages and the climate crisis swallow us whole? Because the dry subtropic zone is expanding, pushing the jet stream and western Oregon’s traditional drizzle zone farther north, Neilson believes the Northwest may experience alternating decades of dampness and drought that wreak havoc on the landscape.
And as we reach the limits of available water, available food and available space, the conflicts between the haves and have-nots will turn brutal. The 2002 fish kill in the Klamath River, Neilson said, “is just the tip of the iceberg.”
We can continue to worship before the altar of the status quo or get off our knees and begin wrestling with this runaway change.
We can bridle the beast or be stampeded by it, but we can no longer pretend the horse hasn’t left the barn.