THE BLOG

Watering Holes

11/05/2013 03:44 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Climate change provokes not just water rising up over our heads but emotional flooding as well. If I had just heard William Collins and Chris Field at the 2013 Philomathia Forum on "Water, Climate, and Society," last week, I would probably have gone out and bought a Barcalounger and tried to develop a taste for beer and whatever is on television. Because: Good God! Collins heads the Climate Science Department at the Berkeley Lab, and Chris Field is founding director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology. Both made major contributions to the 2014 International Panel on Climate Change's upcoming report, which summarizes the state of our knowledge for darned sure about what is happening -- I want to say, "out there," but that doesn't do it. Climate change is everywhere: it's in the water.

In sum, in addition to the usual flooding and droughts you've heard about, we can look forward to massive starvation in undeveloped countries, increased violence (people fight more when it's hotter, and they will have more basic things to fight about, like water) and widespread force migrations. Subsequent speakers laid out the big water problems we have closer to home, mainly that our water capture and delivery systems were developed for a hydrological cycle that warming temperatures have irrevocably altered. Here in San Francisco, we're going to have to figure out another way to turn on the tap, because the snowmelt we depend on from the Sierras is not going to be there anymore.

The moderator asked his own question of Field and Collins: "is there such a thing as too much information"? This got a sort of laugh, but I knew what he meant. How do we sort through this fire hose barrage of bad causes and bad effects to formulate an actionable intention?

Luckily, we also heard from Antonio Villaraigosa, Mayor of Los Angeles from 2005 to 2013 who told us how he set his intention to clean up Los Angeles water and air and the Port of Los Angeles, and how he did it: with multiple partnerships, and "not without push back." Lisa Jackson, until recently the Administrator of EPA (she's come west to Apple) addressed a current debate about the usefulness of a humanities-oriented education when there's so much practical work to be done. An engineer by training, Jackson said "one of the most important things about being an engineer is that you learn to state the problem. That's huge." But she boosted the softer subjects as well, like social sciences, "because we have to understand how people make decisions and do things if we are going to fix these problems."

Claire Kremens from UC Berkeley gave a pithy drill-down on the bass-ackwards way we do agriculture, recounting the perverse returns of 1.3 billion chronically hungry people and 800 million obese people at opposite ends of a falsely propped up food system -- which incidentally also wreaks environmental degradation. Like the vested interests Villaraigosa referenced, industrial agriculture is holding fast to the methods of its poisonous assault. But these are issues we can choose to fight at the supermarket. Or at the farmer's market.

A very useful addendum to this forum was its concluding panel, a group of journalism grad students from Berkeley, who both suggested story ideas they had gleaned from the day, and also gave the scientists some feedback on their presentations. My favorite: "Your PowerPoints are horrible. If people have to think about what they mean, they don't work." As one who often stares bewildered at scientists' power points, I was gratified.

I was telling Kenyon Fields, executive director of the Western Landowners Alliance, about the forum, and he told me that water issues are serving a really useful purpose in the ranching precincts of the west where the phrase "climate change" gets you a kick out the door. "They won't talk about the whole thing, but they will talk about water, because they are feeling the change already. In their lifetimes, they have never seen anything like this." Since ranchers need to adapt to stay in business, they are confronting truths about perverse water incentives and the other layers of encrusted bureaucracy that get in the way of reforming our relationship with water. Since healthy grazing practices, as enumerated by Kremens, naturally conserve water, ranchers can turn themselves into everybody's best friend. And they'd better, because as was reiterated several times at the forum, we can replace fossil fuels, but there is no replacement for water.

Yes, despair that our federal government is doing nothing about the greatest threat to mankind's physical and moral well-being since Satan tempted a certain savior in the desert. But rejoice, cities are on the case -- for example, San Francisco, which likes to turn a bad trip into a good party.