Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The California Way (With Update)

There are many reasons that California is the state making the most news in confronting the drought that affects much of the West.  One reason is that California is able to confront it directly, because its state government actually works--at least on this issue.

California has become even more of a Democratic party state in recent years, reflected in the state legislature as well as the state house.  But Republicans in state government have largely supported Governor Brown's efforts on the drought.  His $1.1 billion drought relief package sailed through and became law within days of its proposal. The new policies he announced on April 2 also got quick and wide support.

So the arguments about water and the drought tend to be pretty substantive.  There are charges of political influence, but those charges transcend parties.  Mostly the questions are of responsibility and efficacy--of who needs to do what.  So far it seems to be a healthy debate.

That doesn't mean that nothing is happening in the meantime.  Regulators are dealing with local water boards and water use in that locality.  As the Washington Post put it:

"State regulators are naming and shaming local water departments that have let water wasters slide — and forcing agencies to slash water use by as much as a third....Since Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency last year, they’ve largely taken a soft, educational approach to curtail water use. That’s no longer enough, he says.

In response, state regulators have drafted plans that show how much each community has conserved and assign mandatory water reduction targets. A third of the water departments must make the deepest 35 percent cuts because they have high water use."

Another way to put it however is that municipalities with the least per household water use are rewarded, so it's not a 25% cutback for everybody-- for San Francisco with relatively small use they are 10% but for places like Beverly Hills that guzzle the stuff, it's 35%.

Meanwhile, Governor Brown is asking for cooperation among the various uses--households, industries, farming-- rather than blaming each other.  A New Yorker piece suggests there is responsibility to go around.

The erstwhile Governor Moonbeam ( a nickname he got when he was governor during the 70s--and ironically, during the last major California drought) is also looking to the future with his executive order that toilets and faucets sold in California beginning in 2016 must be low-flow.  The state is expected to support the home purchase of new technologies that save water, perhaps including greywater systems, which an advocacy group claims needs only 10% of southern CA home use to save more water than a new billion dollar desalinization plant will generate.

There are still rabid right crazies like apparent presidential candidate Carly Fiorina who blames the drought on "liberal environmentalists."  (The substance of her case is dispatched in the aforementioned New Yorker article.)  But by and large the state is confronting this constructively.

Governor Brown has himself linked the CA drought to the climate crisis, and so far, California is becoming a model of how a polity can address both the causes and effects of the climate crisis--with government action and substantive debate.

Update: An example of this comes from state water officials, stating that some responses to the drought aren't temporary measures, that water use in California will never be the same:

"California needs to use “this crisis as an opportunity to accelerate what we know we are going to have to do under climate change anyway,” said Felicia Marcus, chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees the state’s complex system of water allocations, and this spring is tasked with writing new usage regulations."

In this Sacramento forum, she specifically mentioned greywater systems as one of those permanent features.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Retreats and Advances on Climate Crisis Fronts (With Update)

According to Washington Post's Dana Milbank: "There is no denying it: Climate-change deniers are in retreat. What began as a subtle shift away from the claim that man-made global warming is not a threat to the planet has lately turned into a stampede."

Milbank cites denials of denialing at rabid right organizations American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heartland Institute.  Some, like Heartland, are admitting that greenhouse gases have caused and are causing global heating, to concentrate on fighting effective measures to slow down and stop them.   Others--particularly prominent officeholders still beholden to dirty energy money--are professing a wimpy agnoticism, singing along to the strained strains of "Don't Ask Me, I Am Not A Scientist."

Meanwhile, with these enemy forces in a stumbling though still stubborn retreat, the Obama administration is advancing on several fronts, anticipating the upcoming global climate conference in December.

Today the Administration focused on the climate crisis as a public health issue.  A White House conference on this will be held later this spring.  But today, President Obama, other administration officials and several medical experts focused mostly on one effect: the increase in asthma and other respiratory conditions and allergies directly related to the climate crisis.  Global heating enhances smog and other air pollution.

A study by the American Thoracic Society concluded that seven out of 10 doctors reported climate change as contributing to more health problems among their patients.  These include premature death.

The climate crisis creates or exacerbates a number of public health threats.  Addressing these threats means addressing both the causes and effects of the climate crisis.  Public health systems and medical care in general must be aware and able to respond to higher incidences of these illnesses, as well as the spread of insect-borne diseases and epidemics.  The cause of further public health threats must be addressed by limiting and finally ending greenhouse gas pollution.

Update 4/8 : President Obama was interviewed on Good Morning America and talked about this subject, and his daughter Malia's attack of asthma as an infant.  He did not attribute it entirely to global heating, as some sites are saying.

Here's the ABC News site with the actual interview and a story derived from it that says in part:

Keep in mind that climate change is just one more example of how the environment will cause health problems, and I think most people understand that,” the president responded.

The science of climate and its effect on health is indisputable, the president said. More severe wildfires that send more particulates into the air and longer-lasting allergy seasons will lead to higher rates of asthma. Higher temperatures could also mean that heatstroke in cities will become a severe public health problem.

“So the idea here is that by having doctors, nurses, public health officials who've come together highlighting the consequences of warmer temperatures, not only can communities start thinking about adapting and planning around those issues but individual families can also recognize that there is a link here, and collectively we can start doing something about it,” he said.

Water Doesn't Grow on Trees Continued

The LA Times today has a short piece but with a lot of links on California water in history and literature.  It references this  commentary by Steven Johnson on why the New York Times and other non-California outlets are getting the CA water story wrong.  It's very complex for one thing.

Here on the North Coast for instance.  The local Lost Coast Outpost site, Ryan Burns posts that Humboldt County's problem at the moment is too much water.  The reservoir is full and our area retains water rights commensurate with a thirsty timber industry that is much diminished.  Yet in terms of use, we're to be under the same restrictions as Southern California.

At the moment our water surplus isn't helping anyone else, as it is still comparatively expensive to transport it.  There are also places within the county that may need help, and the possibilities of helping out parched streams and therefore the salmon etc. are being explored.  And anyway, maybe some of that surplus ought to be saved for non-rainy days.  (Although I'm happy to report we had hours of steady rain yesterday.)

Burns' piece by the way quotes our member of Congress, Jared Huffman, expressing similar sentiments to the aforementioned Mark Hertsgaard's piece about industrial agriculture in the state: “A new form of legalized gambling is rampant in our Central Valley: according to CA Dept. of Agriculture, in the midst of this extreme drought, 70,000 acres with 8.3 million NEW almond trees were planted! That’s the opposite of conservation.”

Meanwhile, the LA Times reveals plans for real water rationing in Southern California this summer.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Water Doesn't Grow On Trees

Mark Hertsgaard, one of the most perspicacious analysts of the climate crisis as well as a skilled journalist, has a biting story in the Daily Beast on California agriculture and the drought.

Hertsgaard, who lives in the Bay Area, points out a well known if not often mentioned fact: that California agriculture consumes 80% of the state's developed water.

That fact alone is worth focusing on.  For it means that no amount of reduced lawn care or shorter showers is going to be enough to deal with a drought that is being magnified and extended by global heating.  Not if agriculture is left out of the response.

California agriculture is immensely important to the food supply not only of the U.S. but other countries, including China, especially in particular crops like tomatoes, strawberries, almonds--and pistachios, which Hertsgaard chooses as the symbol of an industry raking in profits because they pay so little for so much water.

And while California agriculture is very important to the state, it constitutes just 2% of its gross domestic product, Hertsgaard writes.  He chronicles recent efforts to reform water rights practices, an arcane but very important system since before the days depicted in Chinatown.  But political and economic interests have successfully limited reforms.

Meanwhile, the thirstiest crops have continued to expand in production and acreage.  Hertsgaard writes;

One striking aspect of California’s water emergency is how few voices in positions of authority have been willing to state the obvious. To plant increasing amounts of water-intensive crops in a desert would be questionable in the best of times. To continue doing so in the middle of a historic drought, even as scientists warn that climate change will increase the frequency and severity of future droughts, seems nothing less than reckless.

On Sunday, the Guardian quoted Governor Brown responding to charges that agriculture is being left out of his latest round of cutbacks, although it did not say to whom Brown was responding or where. “The farmers have fallowed hundreds of thousands of acres,” Brown said. “They’re pulling up vines and trees. Farmworkers are out of work. There are people in agriculture areas that are really suffering.”

Brown said shutting down agriculture production in the state was possible but “that would displace hundreds of thousands of people, and I don’t think it’s needed.” “If things continue to at this level, that’s probably going to be examined,” he said.

Some areas of agriculture are hurting, and of course those who are suffering tend to be the lowest paid workers.  But according to Hertsgaard, some agricultural industries are doing very well for themselves and their stockholders.

California has had long droughts before.  But at least two things are different.  First and most important: 30% of the yearly water supply dried up when the Sierras could not retain the snow that fell in December, to a significant degree because it got too warm.  With some variation year to year, it's simply not going to stop getting hotter.

And second, California agriculture was not quite the scale of industry it is now, especially in its control by large corporations with their particular economic and political power within a system that doesn't care what a corporation does or makes or how, as long as it makes money from one quarter to the next.

So yeah, things probably are going to continue at this level at least, and agriculture is probably going to need to be examined.  As in a lot more.

Rolling Stone Meets the J-School

For a (mostly) former journalist, the Columbia School of Journalism report on the Rolling Stone rape story--now retracted-- was absorbing reading.

For context, here's the Reuter's story on the report, with some explanation of the story involved.  The Columbia School of Journalism is one of the oldest and most prestigious in the country. So the report itself--which Rolling Stone online published in full---is interesting both for what it says about RS and the article, and for what Columbia considers important about it all.  Update: Here is the report as published in the Columbia Journalism Review.

I have to say I was impressed by how much time the reporter in question spent on the story.  Only a writer salaried by a particular publication could afford to do that, and Rolling Stone appears to be one of the few that still does it, also paying for travel and other expenses.  So basic support was not the main problem.

 The report described failures of journalistic rigor or even procedure by not just the writer but her editors and the fact-checking editor. Rolling Stone (like most other such publications) has reduced its editorial staff, which probably meant that fewer people were doing more things more quickly. This could cause problems, especially when decisions are made with a deadline looming.

The Columbia report says that rape is among the hardest stories to cover, and that makes sense.  Everyone admits that the nature of the story--a woman describing a brutal gang rape--biased RS in her favor.  There are tangled roles played by psychologists and (particularly involving the university) the law.  There were also unwarranted but understandable assumptions made about the information available to each party.  (It turns out the university was dealing with an allegation that had significant differences from the allegation RS reported on, though both made by the same person.)

Part of what usually makes this crime so difficult to cover is the lack of corroborating information to check, especially when it is without witnesses, in a private setting.  But this allegation was of a gang rape committed by several men at a particular event, a pre-rush party at a fraternity house, on a particular date.  It was only after publication that the fraternity knew the specific allegation, and has since claimed that no such social event took place on that date.  That's information that should have been checked.  The report details several other instances of  information that others found faulty (other news organizations and the police) that RS didn't check.

So I have to agree with the L. Grove column in the Daily Beast--the nature of the story doesn't excuse professional failures that resulted in such a consequential story with repercussions that likely haven't ended. Though RS has announced everybody is keeping their jobs, some folks really should be fired, for the internal health of the magazine as well as its responsibility to the public.   (Although I would not be surprised if there were some resignations or reassignments in the near future.) Update: Now that the fraternity is apparently taking legal action, the personnel decisions at RS become more complicated.

However I don't agree with the high dungeon Grove and others express when RS editors dare to say that the self-described victim has some responsibility in all this.  RS founder and top editor Jann Wenner describes her as an "expert fabulist storyteller," which while redundant, doesn't seem inaccurate.  I have certainly encountered people who told extremely convincing stories that turned out to be complete fabrications.  Sometimes such stories are told by swindlers, and sometimes by those in need of mental health services.

 Certainly this news organization should not have let itself be taken in, and as the report indicates, several regular journalistic practices would have (if followed) revealed the single source--the narrator of the story-- to be unreliable.  But that doesn't mean the source is blameless, and some in the media who defend her story do her no favors.  To assume that (as apparently some of these critics do) is to make the same basic mistake as the RS reporter: an a priori belief about credibility that, most of the time, according to social science stats, would be correct.  But not, in the real world, all of the time.

Why would RS risk its credibility by not adequately questioning and checking this story?  Because it was a "good story"--i.e. sensational, full of detail (not to mention sex and violence) and exposing venal institutions (the fraternity, the university.)  A story that's just about adjudicated cases that have been reported elsewhere wouldn't be as "good a story."  This may be the most significant bias.

That's the biggest temptation of periodical journalism, and it applies to more than tabloids.  Avoiding that temptation is a lesson that I'm not sure the J-School emphasized enough.