The Future of California?

November 13th, 2005 by David

    A recent study (see a summary of it here), involving a team of researchers and two state-of-the-art climate computer models, estimates the future effects of climate change on California. The study considers two scenarios, one in which we significantly reduce our use of fossil fuels, and one in which we continue to use fossil fuels unabated.

Telles Family in Fresno
Street Vendor in Fresno

    The most surprising find is that summer temperatures are likely to be much hotter 100 years from now—4 to 7 degrees F for the lower scenario and 7 to 14 degrees F for the higher. And this is the average for California—inland areas, such as the central valley, are likely to see more warming.
    I asked people in Fresno what they would think if every summer day was 10 degrees F warmer. Most shuddered at the thought. Fresno already sees many summer days over 100 degrees. A vendor I talked to in downtown Fresno said he would not want to work on the street. The family I stayed with (who extremely generously shared with me the meal on the left) remarked that even a few degrees in the summer makes a huge difference for comfort.

Lots of Cows

    Agriculture, the foundation of the central valley’s economy, will likely suffer under such high temperatures. The same study estimated that dairy production and wine grapes, the two most profitable products, would see declines in their production. The farmer who I talked to in the last entry, after saying that such a warming would definitely not happen, said he would simply use more water if it did.

    Unfortunately, using more water will be tough in a warmer California. Most of California’s precipitation falls in the winter in the north, yet most of the water is used in the summer in the south, and, in particular, by agriculture around Fresno. This water use is possible because the Sierra Nevada mountains store an incredible amount of water in their snowpack, which they release over the spring and summer. If the temperatures warm, we will lose the snowpack. In the higher emissions scenario, California lost 70% to 90% of its snowpack (and its ski season, for that matter), and in the lower emissions scenario, between 30% and 70%. The models also predict that there will be a slight decrease in total precipitation, only adding to the problems.

California Aqueduct

    Warmer summers, decreased agriculture, and reduced water availability are just three of the findings of the study. While not entirely disastrous, the effects are bad, and there is a very big difference between the high emissions scenario and the low emissions scenario.

4 Responses to “The Future of California?”

  1. Kate says:

    I love that you are getting to talk to so many different people along the way. I will be interested to see how the conversations go as your travel further away from the US. Good for you! We miss you. Stay safe.

  2. Kate says:

    It is interesting to me to hear people so easily dismiss the serious effects that relatively small changes in temperature can produce. I am right now in the field of economics, where many people readily understand the concept that small changes can produce huge effects. For an example of this, just look at the number of people who sit on the edge of their seats waiting to see if the Fed raises interest rates one-quarter of one percent.

    What I find even more interesting is that the very same people (largely the politically conservative) who argue that the government should not interfere in the economy because of the possible unintended negative consequences seem to dismiss the idea that there may be serious damage to the environment from small changes in our atmosphere.

  3. Jeff says:

    I echo what I have heard and read in many places: most of us lack ability to significantly change our behavior based on cognition of likely events in the ‘distant’ future, where ‘distant’ may be as little as a few hours, weeks, months or years. We seem to need some immediate sensory reinforcement to compel change. We reacted intensely in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but largely ignored years of prior warnings of exactly this kind of disaster. It seems sad, but many will deny there is a drought until the lake or river is dry. Then it is too late for prevention. Can we put our heads together and think of ways of motivating change now? I love your site Dave. You are doing something about this, beautifully combining head and heart. I hope others are inspired to bicycle by your example. Great way to reduce CO2 emissions, and great way to gain valuable insights into self and interaction with environment through lots of sensory input.

  4. Ryan Donoghue says:


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