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24 June 2021

Justin Gerdes

Opinion: California’s climate-driven threats need cross-cutting clean energy solutions

Blistering heatwaves, crippling drought and catastrophic wildfires – abnormal is the new normal in California. Weaning the state off fossil fuels will help tackle these interlinked threats.

Much of California is as dry as a sponge left out in the sun. Earlier in June 2021, temperatures peaked above 110°F (43.3°C) across the state. We Californians are very much living in a world remade by climate change. Abnormal is the new normal.

In the latest heatwave, coming even before the official start of summer, California was trapped under a ‘heat dome‘ that smothered much of the western US. More than 40 million Americans were exposed to daily high temperatures above 100°F (37.8°C) for up to a week.

Much of the Golden State turned brown this month as severe drought takes hold in California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

As dispiriting as it is for those of us who live here to contemplate, the record-breaking heat is just one of the existential threats facing California, leaving forests, grasslands and soils so parched that the outbreak of wildfires is an ever-present risk. Extreme heat, drought and wildfire – the deadly triple threat is a daily reminder we have not a day to lose in weaning ourselves from the fossil fuels that are warming California and the planet.

Worse, the three threats are so pernicious because they are inextricably bound together. The ‘water-energy nexus’ has been part of California policymakers’ lexicon for some time, but the ties that bind extreme heat, drought and wildfire run even deeper. As you learn in the first few days in any ecology class: everything is connected.

The common thread is carbon and a rapidly warming planet. New research from Nasa and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration finds an “unprecedented” doubling of the amount of heat trapped by the Earth since 2005, due partly to “anthropogenic forcing” – humanity’s fossil fuel habit. The trapped heat leads to higher temperatures in the oceans and on land. Pull on that thread, and the weave of connections is visible everywhere you look.

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When temperatures surge during heatwaves, households and businesses turn to air conditioning for relief, which sets electricity demand soaring. However, until we have a carbon-free grid and rely more than we do now on energy efficiency and batteries to meet electricity demand spikes, fossil fuel plants will be enlisted to help power those air conditioners, sending more carbon into the atmosphere.

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With water, it is scarcity that exacerbates global warming. A study published in Science in April 2020 warned of a “climate-driven mega-drought” emerging in the western US, including California. “Rising temperatures are responsible for about half of the pace and severity of the current drought,” find the researchers.

“Because the background is getting warmer, the dice are increasingly loaded toward longer and more severe droughts,” says lead author Park Williams, a Columbia University bioclimatologist. “We may get lucky, and natural variability will bring more precipitation for a while, but going forward, we will need more and more good luck to break out of drought, and less and less bad luck to go back into drought.”

Until California is powered by a 100% carbon-free grid, additional groundwater pumping leads to greater reliance on fossil fuels and more carbon entering the atmosphere.

Extended drought presents farmers with little choice but to pump groundwater to replace vanishing sources of surface water. Pull on that thread, and the negative climate impacts reveal themselves again. During recent droughts, farmers in California’s San Joaquin Valley have significantly increased groundwater pumping, roughly doubling their pre-drought energy consumption, find researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California.

As the drought drags on, energy use increases further as water is pumped from greater depths. Until California is powered by a 100% carbon-free grid, additional groundwater pumping leads to greater reliance on fossil fuels and more carbon entering the atmosphere. Another negative feedback loop that reinforces man-made planetary warming.

Mutually reinforcing benefits

Resignation is understandable as a response to this situation, but negative feedback loops can be reset. Reframed, California’s interlinked triple threats – extreme heat, drought and wildfire – can and should be understood as one challenge with cross-cutting solutions. Getting off fossil fuels as soon as possible is key, as is policymakers  promoting solutions with mutually reinforcing benefits.

Consider the case of water use efficiency. Pumping, treating and heating water accounts for an estimated 20% of California’s electricity use. Gallons of water saved at the pump or the tap equals kilowatt-hours avoided and carbon emissions prevented.

Another example is floating offshore wind energy, California’s largest untapped source of renewable energy. Building offshore wind farms would not only help the state decarbonise the grid by its 2045 deadline; it could hasten the process. California’s potential offshore projects would deliver power to the grid when it is needed most, on summer evenings when solar power is going offline, and the dirtiest natural gas plants are brought online to meet demand.

There is a bitter irony in the fact that California, the US state that has done more than any other to lead on global climate action, is so vulnerable to the brunt of the warming planet’s climate extremes. The situation is dire, but hope is nested in the notion that the destructive force of California’s interconnected climate threats can be redirected towards her salvation.

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