Steven Chu on climate change: “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California,” Part 2

Finally, we have a top administration official telling it like it is. Energy Secretary and Nobelist Steven Chu told a Los Angeles Times reporter:

In a worst case, Chu said, up to 90% of the Sierra snowpack could disappear, all but eliminating a natural storage system for water vital to agriculture.

I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,” he said.

Precisely. [You can listen to an interview with the LAT reporter and me on “To the Point” here.]

We face desertification of perhaps a third of the earth that is “largely irreversible for 1000 years” — if homo sapiens are not sapiens enough to sharply and quickly reverse emissions trends. Part 1 looked at the canary-in-the-coal mine for desertification: “Australia faces collapse as climate change kicks in.”

But the Southwest from Kansas and Oklahoma to California are right behind Australia, according to a 2007 Science (subs. req’d) paper:

Here we show that there is a broad consensus among climate models that this region will dry in the 21st century and that the transition to a more arid climate should already be under way. If these models are correct, the levels of aridity of the recent multiyear drought or the Dust Bowl and the 1950s droughts will become the new climatology of the American Southwest within a time frame of years to decades.

[Note: That study “only” modeled the A1B emissions scenario, which leads to 720 ppm by 2100. We are currently on track to 1000 ppm (see here).]

A December US Geological Survey report also warned that the SW faces “permanent drying” by 2050.

Before the permanent drying — aka a desert — sets in, you’d expect to see more and longer record-breaking droughts. In fact, Lester Snow, Director of California’s Department of Water Resources said Friday

We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history.

Fundamentally, California and the SW face one of the gravest dangers predicted by climate science, the expansion of the subtropics, the dry regions of the planet getting drier and getting bigger. As New Scientist explains:

Southern California is already subtropical in the summer. But with climate change, dry conditions could spread to areas like northern California, Washington and Utah, which now get far more rain and snow.

That means climate change hits the great agricultural state with a double whammy — a shift to a climate with less precipitation coupled with the loss of the mountain snowpack that acts as a reservoir for the state, which the state is experiencing right now:

According to a recent survey by the California Department of Water Resources, the snowpack on California’s mountains is currently carrying only 61% of the water of normal years. The Sierra snowpack alone provides two-thirds of California’s water supply, and these mountains have so far only received one-third of the expected annual snowfall, despite December and January normally being the wettest months.

The snowpack loss was the concern Chu focused on when he said

We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California. I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going….

He compared the situation to a family buying an old house and being told by an inspector that it must pay a hefty sum to rewire it or risk an electrical fire that could burn everything down.

I’m hoping that the American people will wake up,” Chu said, and pay the cost of rewiring.

Eight years of disinformation and muzzling U.S. climate scientists has left the public largely unaware of the catastrophes that we face of the business as usual emissions path.

That’s why Chu told the LAT reporter that he felt a key part of his job is a “public awareness campaign,” on climate science, which is precisely what I think the entire Obama energy and climate team needs to do if it wants a serious climate bill next year (see “Obama can get a better climate bill in 2010. Here’s how“).

While sea level rise gets far more scientific research and media coverage, I consider the expansion of the subtropics an equally catastrophic impact. Indeed, the UN’s top climate official, Yvo de Boer has warned of the desertification-global warming feedback:

“You’ll see a sort of feedback mechanism … quite a lot of carbon is captured in soil, so with more desertification (exposing the soil), you also get more CO2 emissions. They are two halves of the same coin.”

Part 3 will be a primer on subtropical expansion, with links to recent studies and useful figures.

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28 Responses to Steven Chu on climate change: “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California,” Part 2

  1. paulm says:

    I think we must face the fact that there is not much we can do to avert what really is going to be a catastrophic situation there on the west coast.

    There is going to be desertification and drought like we have not seen before. The great cites there are going to be abandoned, leaving them a fraction of their current sizes. Probably within the next 20 – 50 yr.

    Its starting to happen now in Australia.

  2. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, I just happened across this collection of recent Xinhua articles about the drought in north China. Apparently it’s already the worst since 1971. Beijing hasn’t seen a drop of rain in over a hundred days.

    Also see this article which describes the conclusion of what sounds like the first comprehensive attempt to survey the state of the glaciers in the Chinese portion of the Tibetan plateau. Things don’t look so good. If past behavior is any guide, the Chinese government is likely to respond by ramping up dam construction.

  3. Lou Grinzo says:

    Joe: Thanks very much for pounding the table about this.

    I’ve been trying hard to get people to understand the ramifications of the “energy/water nexus”, as some are starting to call it, for two reasons.

    First, as you point out, it’s a very serious problem that’s here right now.

    Second, it’s the best example we have of what I’m calling “the day after yesterday”. Too many people have been mislead by the movie “The Day After Tomorrow” into thinking that the absurd details it depicts are what climatologists and everyone concerned about climate chaos are talking about. The quickly escalating fresh water crises in various spots around the world should be more than enough to make us collectively leap into action. But it’s not nearly as well defined an event (as measured by the human time scale for danger), like an asteroid bearing down on us, so I’m not optimistic it will do the trick.

  4. Tim Ream says:

    Is the Director of California Water Resources really named Les Snow?! That is just too ironic to be believed!

  5. jorleh says:

    Some people don´t like to take potential energy out of Greenland ice masses, but perhaps they now understand even the where is the water question, the answer being in Greenland water as ice masses.

  6. Bob Wright says:

    Right wingers are trying to scoff global warming study funds out of the stimulus package. We still don’t have a political consensus.

  7. JeandeBegles says:

    The Chu statement is very crude. In short, for California, no agriculture and also ‘they cannot keep their cities going’. What will be left for California? Nearly nothing.
    This is not the worst case scenario, this is the BAU (Business As Usual) scenario, according to the IPCC.
    So Chu is trying to raise the public awareness about the size of the problem we face. And he needs some time to present the real solutions needed. I don’t think education or cap and trade will be enough.
    Everyone must be involved in the huge CO2 emission cut that we must perform. A price signal is mandatory. This is the purpose of a carbon tax.
    Again, James Hansen will prove to be right on this topic.

  8. jorleh says:

    This is a real piece of history. And I hope this is not the last piece of history from the Obama team.

    Some kind of a miracle. Three weeks after the monsters, you know.

  9. Greg N says:

    It’s strange to read such announcements from a Cabinet Secretary.

    I’m too used to hearing politicians repeating poorly understood briefs. Weird to hear a political leader who genuinely sees the whole picture!

  10. I’ve lived in Southern California for 30 years and have been a Los Angeles Times subscriber that entire time. While I was trilled to see the interview with Secretary Chu yesterday morning, the half-ass way the Times presented this interview drove me to blog about it yesterday under the title: “News FAIL – L.A. Times Blows Global Warming Story”

    This is a front page story, but what’s left of the L.A. Times editor staff buried this story in the California section and missed the major point Secretary Chu made more than once in his 30 minute interview with the paper.

    Chu lamented how far behind the public is from the science facts. Besides asking for a wake up call, Dr. Chu also made clear to the Times,”that he sees public education as a key part of the administration’s strategy to fight global warming.”

    But the public isn’t going to get that education from the LAT. Not when they provide no reporting or context to help back up Dr. Chu’s warnings and not when they choose to end their piece by again playing the stenographer’s role. The Times made me throw up in my mouth a little when they cut the legs out of the Dr. Chu’s graphic wake up call by ending this story with a predicable quote from Denier poster boy Senator Inhofre. Why not just ask the KKK what they think of Obama’s performance so far?

    Thankfully a lot more people will read this story on Climate Progress with the added bonus of Joe’s perspective and reporting as well as the superb interview on KCRW’s To the Point.

  11. Stuart says:

    Wow, cabinet-level straight talk about climate? Great!

    Unfortunately the right wing noise machine is going full blast – look at this crap

    Some idiot pasted that whole screed into a thread at Sadly, No!

    And they accuse US of propaganda. Hah!

  12. Dano says:

    This issue is one of the many reasons why I left Gullyvornia. Back in 2001-ish, with the overage from the Colo River going to the IID and San Diego negotiating to get water, the economic arguments were that ag is only 7% of state GDP, so let cities have their water.

    Seriously, this was an argument used often. There are so many serious flaws in this argument it is hard to know where to begin, but in my mind the people who believe this are the first ones to get food rationing when the water deliveries start to fail on a semi-regular basis.



  13. Barry says:

    Mexico City is already having to turn off the tap.

    Reservoirs are so low that city will turn off water to 2 million people for 3 days per month until at least May. People are going to love getting no water when they turn on the tap. Preview of coming attractions everyone.

    California State Water Project: supply = 15% of demand this year

    “The Water Resources Department currently estimates that it will be able to send out only about 15 percent of the water people to farms and urban areas are requesting from the Delta via the State Water Project.”

    Lake Oroville reservoir at 43% of normal.

    Lake Mead has 50% chance of being functionally dry in just 12 years.

    Bye, bye summer water supply. Thirsty yet?

    Chu is a hero!

  14. Uosdwis says:

    I’m waiting for him to say there will be no agriculture in OKLAHOMA, Senator Inhofe!!

  15. Rick C says:


    Given Chu’s outspokenness on the future of California agriculture why did Chu, apparently, cave in to coal industry propaganda during his confirmation hearing when he said there would be a future for coal?

    He is also promoting nuclear. I take nuclear a little personal because TMI happened just 1 day after my 18th birthday and I am from New Jersey shore area and would likely have been irradiated had the nuclear core melted all the way through its containment area and caused the resulting radioactive steam emissions. I probably wouldn’t have made it to my 19th birthday if that had occurred. That was also 1 week after I saw “The China Syndrome” and the events depicted in that film, while not entirely on the mark, came pretty close to predicting what happened at TMI. Yet Chu still believes in a future for nuclear? C’mon Steven you know better than that!

    [JR: With a physicist you always have to define your terms, so I wouldn’t worry about it. The trick is to say as little as possible during his confirmation, and he did. He knows the score and has been blunt when needed.]

  16. What other baseload power source can there be, other than coal and nuclear? Wind and solar and conservation are not enough to meet America’s power needs, and India and China are even more out of reach.

    It is good that there is fact-based policy for a change, although some of the facts are frightening.

  17. Rick C says:


    I see a promising future for concentrated solar thermal power generation. It can be sighted in our deserts and power output levels will not drop should a puffy cumulus cloud cover the sun for 30 seconds due to the heat stored in a molten sodium storage tank. It is a reliable source of base load power. The two main problems are first they high voltage transmission cables where the plants are to be sighted aren’t built yet and there will be an issue with using water to condense the steam into liquid water to start the whole process over again. It will probably have to be air cooled and as has been addressed on this sight that reduces efficiency but better to have CSP than to rely on coal and nuclear for base load power.

  18. Andy Gunther says:

    As a Californian who has been following these issues for a long time, there is no doubt that we are facing a new water future. However, I think we’ve got a ways to go before our major cities disappear! Remember, about 80% of our developed water is used for agriculture. Of that, a huge fraction goes to growing alfalfa (to feed livestock), rice, and cotton. Half of the residential water use in California is used for irrigation.

    Lawns and growing rice in the desert will soon be things of the past here, although the public is still very slow to realize this. But it will still be a while before we lack water for our cities.

  19. James T says:

    I’m so glad that everyone in the scientific community believes in this man-made global warming crisis. Good thing there aren’t any scientists that don’t believe anything contrary,we would be in alot of trouble then.

    [JR: The scientists who are actually expert on the climate understand the science. This isn’t about belief.]

  20. Roger says:

    It’s about time we had straight talk from key scientists to the public on this.
    Now, as Joe has said, we need to hear more about climate disruption from Obama’s team. This is how we can quickly fill the Hansen knowledge gap.

    I recantly met with a Holdren friend who promised to pass along the idea that Obama himself should go on prime-time, national television to speak bluntly to the American people specifically about climate disruption…

    I’d have Obama say: ~”Climate disruption is real, it’s serious, and it needs our urgent attention. I am therefore today declaring a war on climate disruption. I hope that I can count on your help. Here is our basic, ten-point plan…” (to include a ‘planet preservation fee’ on fossil fuels; a new, TVA-like, national utility dedicated to producing electricity from wind, solar and other non-fossil sources… and etc.).

  21. Dano says:

    Of that, a huge fraction goes to growing alfalfa (to feed livestock), rice, and cotton. Half of the residential water use in California is used for irrigation.

    Lawns and growing rice in the desert will soon be things of the past here, although the public is still very slow to realize this.

    I may be glad I left, but I do miss these discussions. Certainly alfalfa can go away, and cotton too (replace with hemp and flax, please!) in Westlands dirt. Interestingly, tho, the rice has become a nice replacement for the sloughs we paved over, and waterfowl use them. I don’t expect us to ever fund replacing the wetlands we ruined, so rice is the next best option.

    And having owned a landscape design business there, I can attest to the fact that far, far too much water is lavished on landscapes. Will we ever break our environmental psychology paradigm of the lawn?



  22. JeandeBegles says:

    I’d have Obama say: ~”Climate disruption is real, it’s serious, and it needs our urgent attention. I am therefore today declaring a war on climate disruption. I hope that I can count on your help. Here is our basic, ten-point plan…” (to include a ‘planet preservation fee’ on fossil fuels; a new, TVA-like, national utility dedicated to producing electricity from wind, solar and other non-fossil sources… and etc.).
    I completly agree with you. This is what a grass root movement should target.

  23. NedK says:

    It’s encouraging (and rare) to hear straight talk from a high-ranking politician, even if the news is alarming. Because of the uncertainty associated with all predictions about global warming and climate change (No agriculture in California in 2050? Or will 2075 be the year?) it’s easy for the conservative right to be skeptical, and given the power of the right-wing media, large numbers of people are easily confused.
    I don’t know how much time we have to change prevailing North American lifestyles based on excess and waste, but despite increased awareness of the issues, action at the national and international level is positively glacial (pre-global warming era). To mobilize support for political action at all levels of government, I and a few others are exploring what we consider an unrecognized force for change: the universal human spiritual connection with the natural world. That’s an immense concept, I know, but we have a suggested starting point for practical application of spirituality: raising awareness of the sources of food, water, and air–the keys to human life. Dr. Chu’s statement relates directly to the sources of food and water. You’ll get a better idea of our approach, which is still at the experimental stage at Whether we have time enough to change is a big question, but our view is “Let’s try it,” and to skeptics we say “Why not?”
    PS:Climate Progress is a great website; it helps us believe in the concept of progress.

  24. chris lindsey says:

    Has anyone heard of Paul Chesser? He just came to Alaska telling stories of the myth behind global warming, siting cooling across the globe like Antarctica (I guess he doesn’t read Science or Nature) or the great winter we are having across the US (I guess he isn’t concerned with long term trends). I was surprised by the warm response he got after his presentation. But, given we live in a resource driven economy here in Alaska, I should not be that surprised. I was interested in hearing another’s perspective on Mr. Chesser.

  25. Rick C: You were never in danger from 3 Mile Island. The containment building worked as we knew it would. Go get a degree in Physics or Nuclear Engineering before proving your ignorance again.
    PS Generation 4 American reactors are impossible to melt down even if you try.

    The only solution is to replace ALL coal fired power plants with 4th Gen nuclear ASAP or immediately.

  26. A reminder that when the drought/desertification covers the midwest, there will be no more food and civilization will fall, killing everybody who is able to read this on a computer.

  27. Hi, Joe. Great post. As you say,

    “Eight years of disinformation and muzzling U.S. climate scientists has left the public largely unaware of the catastrophes that we face of the business as usual emissions path.”

    The denial among most of the American public is frightening, particularly since it leaves citizens so unprepared for any extreme weather events that will come their way.

    I raise some of these issues on my blog An American in Lima, where I write about daily life in Lima, Peru (my new home) and the effects of climate change on Andean culture (which I’m documenting with a photographer). The Andes region is on the frontlines of climate change, so we’re seeing GLOFs and extreme weather events already. People on the coast of Peru are finally waking up to the fact that their water supply is vanishing into thin air and that Lima will face a catastrophic drought.

    Feel free to visit my post: “California to Die of Thirst Like Coastal Peru?”

  28. Почитал, прикольнуло :) А может и на самом деле всегда думать только о хорошем, а все плохое переворачивать?