Best case? Worse case? The Colorado River and the culture of exceptionalism


The human body can exist for up to 30 days without food, but only 3 days without water. Without it, civilization ceases to exist. John Fleck, director of the Water Resource Program at the University of New Mexico, and Brad Udall, professor at Colorado State University, wrote an article in the May 28 issue of Scientific magazine which warns that the decreased water flow in the Colorado River poses a danger to the 40 million Americans who depend on its water to grow crops, fill their water bottles and flush the toilet.

This shouldn’t be overstated, but just imagine for a moment what would happen to the American food supply if all the fruits and produce grown in the Southwest shriveled up and died from lack of water. If that doesn’t grab your attention, imagine if all the toilets in Albuquerque, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Diego suddenly stopped working. It’s not a pleasant subject, but sanitary sewers are essential to city life.

The Fleck / Udall article examines the tension between the worst-case scenario that scientists often focus on and the best-case scenario that policymakers and governments prefer to believe. They point out that 100 years ago, EC LaRue, a hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey, analyzed the Colorado River basin and concluded that the river could not reliably meet future water demands. “No one heeded his warning,” they write. “One hundred years later, the Colorado River’s water flow has declined by 20% and the Basin’s Powell and Mead Lakes – the country’s two largest reservoirs – are only expected to be 29% full by 2023. “

The critical moment is coming. The various agreements between the South West States are being renegotiated over the next 4 years. “There is an opportunity to deal with this crisis… Will decision-makers and politicians follow the science?” Fleck and Udall ask. “Colorado River water management has a long and difficult relationship with science,” they write. “LaRue’s analysis of the early 20th century was discarded in favor of larger and more ambitious estimates of the river’s flow made by bureaucrats who wanted to build dams. Scientists who agreed with LaRue – there were many – were ignored. This left the river over-allocated and put the basin at risk.

Here’s what the data shows. Over the past 5 years, the efficiency of runoff – the percentage of rain and snow that turns into river water – has declined dramatically. Half of the decline since 2000 is attributable to global warming. For every 1 ° C increase in average global temperatures results in a 9% drop in Colorado’s flow, scientists say. This year’s snowpack was 80% of the average, but provides less than 30% of the average river flow. Hot, dry summers cook the soil, reducing flow the following year.

The models that scientists use tend towards “worst case scenarios”. But governments and political leaders prefer to tell voters what they think they want to hear: “There is plenty of water for everyone. America will never run out of water. The future is so bright, we have to wear sunglasses. Build, baby, build!

“Climate science indicates that there will likely be less water in the Colorado River than many had hoped. This is not practical for 21st century decision-makers and overcoming their resistance can be the most difficult challenge of all, ”say Fleck and Udall.

Best case, worst case and willful ignorance

Write in The New Yorker on May 19, climate activist Bill McKibben takes a look at what he describes as The particular psychology of the destruction of a planet. In this article, he applauds the recent work of Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, two Harvard researchers who have meticulously documented how ExxonMobil has deliberately distorted the conversation about carbon dioxide and climate change for decades. The company has always pushed for the best scenario while demonizing scientists for being a bunch of Nervous Nellies who always scream about how the sky is falling.

“How is it that some people, or companies, can knowingly perpetuate the damage? Or, as people regularly ask me, “Don’t they have grandchildren?” McKibben asks. At TwitterSupran explains, “ExxonMobil has tapped into America’s unique individualistic culture and led it to fight climate change. Many of his strategies were based on lies launched by lawyers working for tobacco companies 50 years ago and which have now been adopted by the meat industry.

McKIbben says part of the explanation is revealed in a new book entitled “The psychological roots of the climate crisis», By Sally Weintrobe, psychoanalyst in the United Kingdom. The book is captioned “Neoliberal exceptionalism and a culture of recklessness. Here is the summary of the book on the Amazon site:

“Sally Weintrobe argues that achieving the shift to greater attention requires us to stop colluding with exceptionalism, the rigid psychological state of mind largely responsible for the climate crisis. People in this frame of mind believe that they have the right to have the lion’s share and that they can “rearrange” reality with omnipotent magical thought whenever reality limits those perceived rights.

“Although the subject of this book is dark, its tone is thoughtful, ironic, light and at times humorous. It is free of jargon and full of examples drawn from history, culture, literature, poetry, daily life and the author’s experience as a psychoanalyst, and a professional life devoted to helping people face difficult truths.

Weintrobe asserts that our psyche is divided into caring and indifferent parts, and the conflict between them “is at the heart of great literature through the ages and of all great religions.” The indifferent party wants to come first. These are the narcissistic corners of the brain that persuade each of us that we are uniquely important and deserving, and make us want to exclude ourselves from the rules that society or morals establish so that we can have what we want.

“Most people’s benevolent ego is strong enough to contain their inner exception,” she writes, before adding that “ours is the golden age of exceptionalism.” Neoliberalism – especially the ideas of people like Ayn Rand who were brought into public policy by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – “crossed a Rubicon in the 1980s,” Weintrobe writes. Since then, the neoliberals “have continued to consolidate their power,” she said. For more on this topic, please read Naomi Klein’s The shock doctrine.

Weintrobe says the neoliberals who “pushed globalization forward in the 1980s” were enthralled by an ideology that whispered, “Cut regulations, cut ties with reality, and cut concerns.” Donald Trump, McKibben writes, was the logical end of that line of thinking, a man so self-absorbed that he interpreted all problems, even a global pandemic, as attempts to defeat him. “The self-confident neoliberal imagination has increasingly proven itself not to be equipped to deal with the problems it causes,” Weintrobe says.

In her conclusion, she opposes this narcissistic right to the activities of young people who are now calling for climate action so that they inherit a planet that continues to support human life. “They, who will have to live in a damaged world, need our support to stop further damage. The danger is that unless we break away from exceptionalism and mourn our exaggerated sense of narcissistic entitlement, we risk saluting them with kind words but throwing them overboard … while we continue as usually a carbon intensive life.

Plan for the worst

The problem with climatologists is that they cannot predict the future with precision. In the worst case, global average temperatures rise by more than 7 ° C (12.6 ° F). If that happened, humans would disappear from the face of the Earth, just as dinosaurs and pterodactyls did 65 million years ago. Earth will continue to exist and new life forms will emerge – eventually – but humans will cease to exist.

“Balderdash,” say the neoliberals. “This is ridiculous. These scientists are just trying to scare us so that they can continue to get lucrative research grants from governments that are stupid enough to believe all that puckey.

Experience teaches us that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but using the best scenarios as the basis of our plans for the future just doesn’t make sense. As German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke observed over a century ago, “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main force.”

Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower adopted variations on this theme. Sir Winston said: “The plans are of little importance, but the planning is essential.” Ike added, “The very definition of ’emergency’ is that it’s unexpected, so it won’t happen the way you expect.” And he’s no less of a character than Mike Tyson who perhaps summed it up better when he said, “Everybody has a plan until he gets punched in the mouth.”

Mother Nature is preparing a huge punch in the mouth for humans. We can see it coming. We have been warned. We have wasted opportunities to face the impending onslaught over the past 5 decades. Climate scientists create worst-case scenarios not because they are sick puppies, but because they don’t know everything and are willing to admit what they don’t know. The difference is that the fossil fuel crowd won’t admit what do know.

In the TV show Law and orderDistrict Attorney James McCoy has consistently suggested that people be prosecuted for “reckless endangerment, which is defined as” conduct which creates a substantial danger of serious bodily injury to another person. ” Think of it as walking through a crowd of people carrying an open gas can in one hand and a burning candle in the other. Does this person intend to hurt or kill people? Probably not. But if the worst-case scenario happens and an explosion kills or maims other people, a conviction for reckless endangerment could ensue.

Which begs this question: If a company knows its products are harmful to the environment, which puts all of humanity at risk, but hires armies of PR, lobbyists, and lawyers to hide their knowledge from the world, is it not reckless endangerment? And if so, why are the leaders of this company not in jail?


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