Tag: International Energy Agency

No hiding from the truth!

Michael Klare courtesy of Tom Dispatch.

I’m conscious that there have been a number of republications recently. Partly that’s because there has been a run of great articles that have gone down well with you, but also because the ‘task list’ arising from the move into our home in Merlin, Oregon continues to dominate our lives.  Even before Mother Nature demonstrated that our bridge needed repairing!

So onto another republication of a TomDispatch special.  But what a special.  Here’s Tom’s introduction:

Let’s face it: climate change is getting scarier by the week.  In this all-American year, record wildfiresrecord temperatures in the continental U.S., an endless summer, a fierce drought that stillwon’t go away, and Frankenstorm Sandy all descended on us.  Globally, billion-dollar weather events are increasingly dime-a-dozen affairs, with a record 14 of them in 2012 so far.  So is a linked phenomenon, the continuing rise in the volume of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, especially from burning fossil fuels, that get pumped into the atmosphere.  The latest figures from 2011 indicate that those gases once again made an appearance in record amounts with no indication that abatement is anywhere on the horizon.

With new studies and more data, it seems, come ever more frightening projections of just how much the temperature of this planet is going to rise by 2100.  After all, as Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular and author of the invaluable The Race for What’s Left, points out, the International Energy Agency’s latest study suggests a possible temperature rise by century’s end of 3.6 degrees Celsius.  That should startle the imagination, involving as it would the transformation of this planet into something unrecognizably different from the one we all grew up on.  And keep in mind that it’s by no means the top estimate for temperature disaster.  A new World Bank report indicates that a rise of 4 degrees Celsius is possible by century’s end, a prospect that bank president Jim Yong Kim termed a “doomsday scenario.”

In the meantime, the most comprehensive study to date of how humans have affected the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere predicts that the planet’s temperature could rise by an unimaginable 6 degrees Celsius by 2100.  These days, it increasingly looks like we’ve entered the lottery from hell when it comes to Earth’s ultimate temperature — especially now that a recent report from the United Nations Environment Program suggests carbon in the atmosphere has increased by 20% since 2000 and that “there are few signs of global emissions falling.”

With this in mind, consider the latest “good news” reported (and widely hailed) in the world of fossil fuels, courtesy of Michael Klare.  Tom

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World Energy Report 2012 
The Good, the Bad, and the Really, Truly Ugly 
By Michael T. Klare

Rarely does the release of a data-driven report on energy trends trigger front-page headlines around the world.  That, however, is exactly what happened on November 12th when the prestigious Paris-based International Energy Agency(IEA) released this year’s edition of its World Energy Outlook.  In the process, just about everyone missed its real news, which should have set off alarm bells across the planet.

Claiming that advances in drilling technology were producing an upsurge in North American energy output, World Energy Outlook predicted that the United States would overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the planet’s leading oil producer by 2020.  “North America is at the forefront of a sweeping transformation in oil and gas production that will affect all regions of the world,”declared IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven in a widely quoted statement.

In the U.S., the prediction of imminent supremacy in the oil-output sweepstakes was generally greeted with unabashed jubilation.  “This is a remarkable change,”said John Larson of IHS, a corporate research firm.  “It’s truly transformative.  It’s fundamentally changing the energy outlook for this country.”  Not only will this result in a diminished reliance on imported oil, he indicated, but also generate vast numbers of new jobs.  “This is about jobs.  You know, it’s about blue-collar jobs.  These are good jobs.”

The editors of the Wall Street Journal were no less ecstatic.  In an editorial with the eye-catching headline “Saudi America,” they lauded U.S. energy companies for bringing about a technological revolution, largely based on the utilization of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to extract oil and gas from shale rock.  That, they claimed, was what made a new mega-energy boom possible.  “This is a real energy revolution,” the Journal noted, “even if it’s far from the renewable energy dreamland of so many government subsidies and mandates.”

Other commentaries were similarly focused on the U.S. outpacing Saudi Arabia and Russia, even if some questioned whether the benefits would be as great as advertised or obtainable at an acceptable cost to the environment.

While agreeing that the expected spurt in U.S. production is mostly “good news,”Michael A. Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations warned that gas prices will not drop significantly because oil is a global commodity and those prices are largely set by international market forces.  “[T]he U.S. may be slightly more protected, but it doesn’t give you the energy independence some people claim,” he told the New York Times.

Some observers focused on whether increased output and job creation could possibly outweigh the harm that the exploitation of extreme energy resources like fracked oil or Canadian tar sands was sure to do to the environment. Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress, for example, warned of a growing threat to America’s water supply from poorly regulated fracking operations.  “In addition, oil companies want to open up areas off the northern coast of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean, where they are not prepared to address a major oil blowout or spill like we had in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Such a focus certainly offered a timely reminder of how important oil remains to the American economy (and political culture), but it stole attention away from other aspects of the World Energy Report that were, in some cases, downright scary.  Its portrait of our global energy future should have dampened enthusiasm everywhere, focusing as it did on an uncertain future energy supply, excessive reliance on fossil fuels, inadequate investment in renewables, and an increasingly hot, erratic, and dangerous climate.  Here are some of the most worrisome takeaways from the report.

Shrinking World Oil Supply

Given the hullabaloo about rising energy production in the U.S., you would think that the IEA report was loaded with good news about the world’s future oil supply.  No such luck.  In fact, on a close reading anyone who has the slightest familiarity with world oil dynamics should shudder, as its overall emphasis is on decline and uncertainty.

Take U.S. oil production surpassing Saudi Arabia’s and Russia’s.  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  Here’s the catch: previous editions of the IEA report and theInternational Energy Outlook, its equivalent from the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), rested their claims about a growing future global oil supply on the assumption that those two countries would far surpass U.S. output.  Yet the U.S. will pull ahead of them in the 2020s only because, the IEA now asserts, their output is going to fall, not rise as previously assumed.

This is one hidden surprise in the report that’s gone unnoticed.  According to the DoE’s 2011 projections, Saudi production was expected to rise to 13.9 million barrels per day in 2025, and Russian output to 12.2 million barrels, jointly providing much of the world’s added petroleum supply; the United States, in this calculation, would reach the 11.7 million barrel mark.

The IEA’s latest revision of those figures suggests that U.S. production will indeed rise, as expected, to about 11 million barrels per day in 2025, but that Saudi output will unexpectedly fall to about 10.6 million barrels and Russian to 9.7 million barrels.  The U.S., that is, will essentially become number one by default.  At best, then, the global oil supply is not going to grow appreciably — despite the IEA’s projection of a significant upswing in international demand.

But wait, suggests the IEA, there’s still one wild card hope out there: Iraq.  Yes, Iraq.  In the belief that the Iraqis will somehow overcome their sectarian differences, attain a high level of internal stability, establish a legal framework for oil production, and secure the necessary investment and technical support, the IEApredicts that its output will jump from 3.4 million barrels per day this year to 8 million barrels in 2035, adding an extra 4.6 million barrels to the global supply.  In fact, claims the IEA, this gain would represent half the total increase in world oil production over the next 25 years.  Certainly, stranger things have happened, but for the obvious reasons, it remains an implausible scenario.

Add all this together — declining output from Russia and Saudi Arabia, continuing strife in Iraq, uncertain results elsewhere — and you get insufficient oil in the 2020s and 2030s to meet anticipated world demand.  From a global warming perspective that may be good news, but economically, without a massive increase in investment in alternate energy sources, the outlook is grim.  You don’t know what bad times are until you don’t have enough energy to run the machinery of civilization.  Assuggested by the IEA, “Much is riding on Iraq’s success… Without this supply growth from Iraq, oil markets would be set for difficult times.”

Continuing Reliance on Fossil Fuels

For all the talk of the need to increase reliance on renewable sources of energy, fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas — will continue to provide most of the additional energy supplies needed to satisfy soaring world demand.  “Taking all new developments and policies into account,” the IEA reported, “the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path.”  In fact, recent developments seem to favor greater fossil-fuel reliance.

In the United States, for instance, the increased extraction of oil and gas from shale formations has largely silenced calls for government investment in renewable technology.  In its editorial on the IEA report, for example, the Wall Street Journal ridiculed such investment.  It had, the Journal’s writers suggested, now become unnecessary due to the Saudi Arabian-style oil and gas boom to come.  “Historians will one day marvel that so much political and financial capital was invested in a [failed] green-energy revolution at the very moment a fossil fuel revolution was aborning,” they declared.

One aspect of this energy “revolution” deserves special attention. The growing availability of cheap natural gas, thanks to hydro-fracking, has already reduced the use of coal as a fuel for electrical power plants in the United States.  This would seem to be an obvious environmental plus, since gas produces less climate-altering carbon dioxide than does coal.  Unfortunately, coal output and its use haven’t diminished: American producers have simply increased their coal exports to Asia and Europe.  In fact, U.S. coal exports are expected to reach as high as 133 million tons in 2012, overtaking an export record set in 1981.

Despite its deleterious effects on the environment, coal remains popular in countries seeking to increase their electricity output and promote economic development.  Shockingly, according to the IEA, it supplied nearly half of the increase in global energy consumption over the last decade, growing faster than renewables.  And the agency predicts that coal will continue its rise in the decades ahead.  The world’s top coal consumer, China, will burn ever more of it until 2020, when demand is finally expected to level off.  India’s usage will rise without cessation, with that country overtaking the U.S. as the number two consumer around 2025.

In many regions, notes the IEA report, the continued dominance of fossil fuels is sustained by government policies.  In the developing world, countries commonly subsidize energy consumption, selling transportation, cooking, and heating fuels at below-market rates.  In this way, they hope to buffer their populations from rising commodity costs, and so protect their regimes from popular unrest.  Cutting back on such subsidies can prove dangerous, as in Jordan where a recent government decision to raise fuel prices led to widespread riots and calls for the monarchy’s abolition.  In 2011, such subsidies amounted to $523 billion globally, says the IEA, up almost 30% from 2010 and six times greater than subsidies for renewable energy.

No Hope for Averting Catastrophic Climate Change

Of all the findings in the 2012 edition of the World Energy Outlook, the one that merits the greatest international attention is the one that received the least.  Even if governments take vigorous steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the report concluded, the continuing increase in fossil fuel consumption will result in “a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 degrees C.”

This should stop everyone in their tracks.  Most scientists believe that an increase of 2 degrees Celsius is about all the planet can accommodate without unimaginably catastrophic consequences: sea-level increases that will wipe out many coastal cities, persistent droughts that will destroy farmland on which hundreds of millions of people depend for their survival, the collapse of vital ecosystems, and far more.  An increase of 3.6 degrees C essentially suggests the end of human civilization as we know it.

To put this in context, human activity has already warmed the planet by about 0.8 degrees C — enough to produce severe droughts around the world, trigger or intensify intense storms like Hurricane Sandy, and drastically reduce the Arctic ice cap.  “Given those impacts,” writes noted environmental author and activist Bill McKibben, “many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target.”  Among those cited by McKibben is Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes. “Any number much above one degree involves a gamble,” Emanuel writes, “and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up.” Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank’s chief biodiversity adviser, puts it this way: “If we’re seeing what we’re seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.”

At this point, it’s hard even to imagine what a planet that’s 3.6 degrees C hotter would be like, though some climate-change scholars and prophets — like former Vice President Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth — have tried.  In all likelihood, the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets would melt entirely, raising sea levels by several dozen feet and completely inundating coastal cities like New York and Shanghai.  Large parts of Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the American Southwest would be rendered uninhabitable thanks to lack of water and desertification, while wildfires of a sort that we can’t imagine today would consume the parched forests of the temperate latitudes.

In a report that leads with the “good news” of impending U.S. oil supremacy, to calmly suggest that the world is headed for that 3.6 degree C mark is like placing a thermonuclear bomb in a gaudily-wrapped Christmas present.  In fact, the “good news” is really the bad news: the energy industry’s ability to boost production of oil, coal, and natural gas in North America is feeding a global surge in demand for these commodities, ensuring ever higher levels of carbon emissions.  As long as these trends persist — and the IEA report provides no evidence that they will be reversed in the coming years — we are all in a race to see who gets to the Apocalypse first.

Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, ofThe Race for What’s Left (Metropolitan Books).  A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at http://www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here.

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Why do I have this inner feeling that 2013 will be bringing some surprises!

Too hot to handle!

A stark reminder that more of the same will hurt us.

On the 14th August I published a post with the title of From feeling to doing.  The post was a 15-minute video presented by David Roberts of Grist showing, in essence, how fundamentally simple was the issue of climate change and how profound the implications if we didn’t halt the rise in the temperature of Planet Earth.

I’m not going to insert that video in this post because you can click on the link above and do that yourself.  What I will do is to draw your attention to the accompanying article on Grist under the title of Climate change is simple: We do something or we’re screwed. That article includes the slides that were in the video, such as this one:

So with that in mind, here’s what the BBC published on their news website yesterday morning,

Science advisor warns climate target ‘out the window’

Pallab GhoshBy Pallab Ghosh, Science correspondent, BBC News

One of the Government’s most senior scientific advisors has said that efforts to stop a sharp rise in global temperatures were now unrealistic.

Professor Sir Robert Watson said that the hope of restricting the average temperature rise to 2C was “out the window”.

He said that the rise could be as high as 5C – with dire conseqences.

Professor Watson added the Chancellor, George Osborne, should back efforts to cut the UK’s CO2 emissions.

He said: “I have to look back (on the outcome of sucessive climate change summits) Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban and say that I can’t be overly optimistic.

“To be quite candid the idea of a 2C target is largely out of the window.”

As the BBC points out Professor Watson is a highly respected and world renown scientist on climate change policy and is currently Chief Scientist at the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and a former Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Professor Watson was also with the World Bank and an advisor to former Vice President Al Gore.  The BBC item goes on,

Professor Watson, who is due to step down from his role at Defra next month, suggested that the Chancellor, George Osborne, reconsider his opposition to tough measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Mr Osborne has said that the UK’s ambitious targets for CO2 should be relaxed so as not to drive businesses to countries which have set themselves much lower targets.

“I would say to George Osborne, ‘work with the public sector. Work with the public on behavior change. Let’s demonstrate to the rest of the world that we can make significant progress here” Professor Watson argues that the UK and Germany should continue to take the lead in driving efforts to reach an effective international treaty.

Hurt Poorest

“If we carry on the way we are there is a 50-50 chance that we will get to a 3 degree rise,” he said.

“I wouldn’t rule out a 5 degree world and that would be quite serious for the people of the world especially the poorest. We need more political will than we currently have”.

The IPCC 2007 assessment summarised the probable impact of various temperature rise sceanrios.

It shows that the impact on human health, the availability of food and water, the loss of coastlines becomes progressively worse as the average temperature of the planet rises.

The 2C target was agreed at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in 2010.

The majority of countries though prefer a lower target of 1.5C.

A number of analyses have also concluded that the 2C would be missed. The most recent was by the International Energy Agency earlier this year.

Professor Watson added that deep cuts in CO2 emissions are possible using innovative technologies without harming economic recovery.

“This doesn’t take a revolution in energy technology, an evolution would get us there.”

What I would add to this report that has been widely circulated is that while it’s natural to assume, ‘We need more political will than we currently have‘, that political will flows from the will of the people.

Take the effect of a 4C rise, as David Roberts explains,

Which is described in the Grist article as,

Here’s the edition of the Royal Society journal that came out of the conference on 4 degrees C of warming. Read through it and see if you think “hell on earth” is an exaggeration. Desertification, water shortages, agricultural disruptions, rising sea levels, vanishing coral, tropical forest die-offs, mass species extinctions, oh my. Kevin Anderson, one of the lead scientists involved, was moved to say that “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.”

So come on people, get real!  Make sure that the democratic systems work and that our leaders know the sort of change that has to take place.  As the wise Professor highlighted, ‘… deep cuts in CO2 emissions are possible using innovative technologies without harming economic recovery.’  Sort of makes sense to me.  How about you?

William deBuys, The Parching of the West

Once again, a powerful essay from the TomDispatch blog.

Quick introduction.  Tom Engelhardt, of TomDispatch, has given me a blanket permission to reproduce his essays.  As always, I am indebted to his generosity.  This particular essay is extremely timely coming after my Post yesterday about extreme weather.

Tomgram: William deBuys, The Parching of the West

Posted by William deBuys at 6:02pm, December 4, 2011.

The good news? While 2010 tied for the warmest year on record, 2011 — according to the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) — is likely to come in 10th once November and December temperatures are tallied. In part, this is evidently due to an especially strong La Niña cooling event in the Pacific.  On the other hand, with 2011 in the top ten despite La Niña, 13 of the warmest years since such record-keeping began have occurred in the last 15 years.  Think of that as an uncomfortably hot cluster.

And other climate news is no better.  A recent study indicates that Arctic ice is now melting at rates unprecedented in the last 1,450 years (as far back, that is, as reasonably accurate reconstructions of such an environment can be modeled).  As the Arctic warms and temperatures rise in surrounding northern lands — someday, Finland may have to construct artificial ski trails and ice rinks for its future winter tourists — a report on yet another study is bringing more lousy news.  Appearing in the prestigious science journal Nature, it indicates that the melting permafrost of the tundra may soon begin releasing global-warming gases into the atmosphere in massive quantities.  We’re talking the equivalent of 300 billion metric tons of carbon over the next nine decades.

Recently, Fatih Birol, the chief economist for the International Energy Agency, suggested that, by century’s end, the planet’s temperature could rise by a staggering 6º Celsius (almost 11º Fahrenheit).  International climate-change negotiators had been trying to keep that rise to a “mere” 2º C.  “Everybody, even the schoolchildren, knows this is a catastrophe for all of us,” was the way Birol summed the situation up.  If only it were so, but here in the U.S., none of the above news was even considered front-page worthy.  Nor was the news that, in 2010, humans had pumped more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than at any time since the industrial revolution began: 564 million more tons than in 2009 to be exact.  We’re living today with just less than a degree of those six degrees to come, and the results in extreme weather this year should have made us all stop and think.

If you want to focus in on damage here in the U.S., consider Rick Perry’s Texas, where, according to scientists, “daily temperatures averaged 86.7° in June through August — a staggering 5.4°F above normal.”  According to the WMO, that’s the highest such average “ever recorded for any American state.”  And still global politicians yammer on and do little; still, the U.S. shuffles its political feet, while Canada’s government has announced that it will make no new commitments and may even be preparing to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol, and countries with booming developing economies like China, India, and Brazil hedge their bets when it comes to action.

In the meantime, nature doesn’t care whether or not we do anything.  It’s on its own schedule.  And when it comes to the American Southwest, that schedule looks daunting indeed as William deBuys makes clear.  His new book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, is the definitive work on the subject of water and the West (and, as with all of his work, a pleasure to read). So get yourself a glass of water while you still can and settle in for a dose of the Age of Thirst. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which deBuys discusses the water politics of the American West, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

The Age of Thirst in the American West
Coming to a Theater Near You: The Greatest Water Crisis in the History of Civilization 

By William deBuys

Consider it a taste of the future: the fire, smoke, drought, dust, and heat that have made life unpleasant, if not dangerous, from Louisiana to Los Angeles. New records tell the tale: biggest wildfire ever recorded in Arizona (538,049 acres),biggest fire ever in New Mexico (156,600 acres), all-time worst fire year in Texas history (3,697,000 acres).

The fires were a function of drought.  As of summer’s end, 2011 was the driest year in 117 years of record keeping for New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, and the second driest for Oklahoma. Those fires also resulted from record heat.  It was the hottest summer ever recorded for New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, as well as the hottest August ever for those states, plus Arizona and Colorado.

Virtually every city in the region experienced unprecedented temperatures, with Phoenix, as usual, leading the march toward unlivability. This past summer, the so-called Valley of the Sun set a new record of 33 days when the mercury reached a shoe-melting 110º F or higher. (The previous record of 32 days was set in 2007.)

And here’s the bad news in a nutshell: if you live in the Southwest or just about anywhere in the American West, you or your children and grandchildren could soon enough be facing the Age of Thirst, which may also prove to be the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.  No kidding.

If that gets you down, here’s a little cheer-up note: the end is not yet nigh.

In fact, this year the weather elsewhere rode to the rescue, and the news for the Southwest was good where it really mattered.  Since January, the biggest reservoir in the United States, Lake Mead, backed up by the Hoover Dam and just 30 miles southwest of Las Vegas, has risen almost 40 feet. That lake is crucial when it comes to watering lawns or taking showers from Arizona to California.  And the near 40-foot surge of extra water offered a significant upward nudge to the Southwest’s water reserves.

The Colorado River, which the reservoir impounds, supplies all or part of the water on which nearly 30 million people depend, most of them living downstream of Lake Mead in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Tijuana, and scores of smaller communities in the United States and Mexico.

Back in 1999, the lake was full. Patricia Mulroy, who heads the water utility serving Las Vegas, rues the optimism of those bygone days.  “We had a fifty-year, reliable water supply,” she says. “By 2002, we had no water supply. We were out. We were done. I swore to myself we’d never do that again.”

In 2000, the lake began to fall — like a boulder off a cliff, bouncing a couple of times on the way down. Its water level dropped a staggering 130 feet, stopping less than seven feet above the stage that would have triggered reductions in downstream deliveries. Then — and here’s the good news, just in case you were wondering — last winter, it snowed prodigiously up north in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.

The spring and summer run-off from those snowpacks brought enormous relief. It renewed what we in the Southwest like to call the Hydro-Illogic cycle: when drought comes, everybody wrings their hands and promises to institute needed reform, if only it would rain a little. Then the drought breaks or eases and we all return to business as usual, until the cycle comes around to drought again.

So don’t be fooled.  One day, perhaps soon, Lake Mead will renew its downward plunge.  That’s a certainty, the experts tell us.  And here’s the thing: the next time, a sudden rescue by heavy snows in the northern Rockies might not come. If the snowpacks of the future are merely ordinary, let alone puny, then you’ll know that we really are entering a new age.

And climate change will be a major reason, but we’ll have done a good job of aiding and abetting it. The states of the so-called Lower Basin of the Colorado River — California, Arizona, and Nevada — have been living beyond their water means for years. Any departure from recent decades of hydrological abundance, even a return to long-term average flows in the Colorado River, would produce a painful reckoning for the Lower Basin states.  And even worse is surely on the way.

Just think of the coming Age of Thirst in the American Southwest and West as a three-act tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions.

The Age of Thirst: Act I

The curtain in this play would surely rise on the Colorado River Compact of 1922, which divided the river’s water equally between the Upper and Lower Basins, allocating to each annually 7.5 million acre-feet, also known by its acronym “maf.” (An acre-foot suffices to support three or four families for a year.) Unfortunately, the architects of the compact, drawing on data from an anomalously wet historical period, assumed the river’s average annual flow to be about 17 maf per year.  Based on reconstructions that now stretch back more than 1,000 years, the river’s long-term average is closer to 14.7 maf.  Factor in evaporation from reservoirs (1.5 maf per year) and our treaty obligation to Mexico (another 1.5 maf), and the math doesn’t favor a water-guzzling society.

Nonetheless, the states of the Lower Basin have been taking their allotment as if nothing were wrong and consequently overdrafting their account by up to 1.3 maf annually.  At this rate, even under unrealistically favorable scenarios, the Lower Basin will eventually drain Lake Mead and cutbacks will begin, possibly as soon as in the next few years.  And then things will get dicier because California, the water behemoth of the West, won’t have to absorb any of those cutbacks.

Here’s one of the screwiest quirks in western water law: to win Congressional approval for the building of a monumental aqueduct, the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which would bring Colorado River water to Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona agreed to subordinate its Colorado River water rights to California’s.  In that way, the $4 billion, 336-mile-long CAP was born, and for it Arizona paid a heavy price. The state obliged itself to absorb not just its own losses in a cutback situation, but California’s as well.

Worst case scenario: the CAP aqueduct, now a lifeline for millions, could become as dry as the desert it runs through, while California continues to bathe. Imagine Phoenix curling and cracking around the edges, while lawn sprinklers hiss in Malibu. The contrast will upset a lot of Arizonans.

Worse yet, the prospective schedule of cutbacks now in place for the coming bad times is too puny to save Lake Mead.

The Age of Thirst: Act II

While that Arizona-California relationship guarantees full employment for battalions of water lawyers, a far bigger problem looms: climate change. Models for the Southwest have been predicting a 4ºC (7.2ºF) increase in mean temperature by century’s end, and events seem to be outpacing the predictions.

We have already experienced close to 1º C of that increase, which accounts, at least in part, for last summer’s colossal fires and record-setting temperatures — and it’s now clear that we’re just getting started.

The simple rule of thumb for climate change is that wet places will get wetter and dry places drier. One reason the dry places will dry is that higher temperatures mean more evaporation. In other words, there will be ever less water in the rivers that keep the region’s cities (and much else) alive. Modeling already suggests that by mid-century surface stream-flow will decline by 10% to 30%.

Independent studies at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in California and the University of Colorado evaluated the viability of Lake Mead and eventually arrived at similar conclusions: after about 2026, the risk of “failure” at Lake Mead, according to a member of the Colorado group, “just skyrockets.” Failure in this context would mean water levels lower than the dam’s lowest intake, no water heading downstream, and the lake becoming a “dead pool.”

If — perhaps “when” is the more appropriate word — that happens, California’s Colorado River Aqueduct, which supplies water to Los Angeles, San Diego, and the All-American Canal, which sustains the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, will go just as dry as the Central Arizona Project aqueduct. Meanwhile, if climate change is affecting the Colorado River’s watershed that harshly, it will undoubtedly also be hitting the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

The aptly named Lester Snow, a recent director of California’s Department of Water Resources, understood this. His future water planning assumed a 40% decline in runoff from the Sierras, which feeds the California Aqueduct. None of his contemplated scenarios were happy ones. The Colorado River Aqueduct and the California Aqueduct make the urban conglomerations of southern California possible. If both fail at once, the result will be, as promised, the greatest water crisis in the history of civilization.

Only Patricia Mulroy has an endgame strategy for the demise of Lake Mead. The Southern Nevada Water Authority is, even now, tunneling under the lake to install the equivalent of a bathtub drain at close to its lowest point. At a cost of more than $800 million, it will drain the dregs of Lake Mead for Las Vegas.

Admittedly, water quality will be a problem, as the dead pool will concentrate pollutants. The good news, according to the standard joke among those who chronicle Sin City’s improbable history, is that the hard-partying residents and over-stimulated tourists who sip from Lake Mead’s last waters will no longer need to purchase anti-depressants. They’ll get all the Zoloft and Xanax they need from their tap water.

And only now do we arrive at the third act of this expanding tragedy.

The Age of Thirst: Act III

Those who believe in American exceptionalism hold that the historical patterns shaping the fate of other empires and nations don’t apply to the United States. Be that as it may, we are certainly on track to test whether the U.S. is similarly inoculated against the patterns of environmental history.

Because tree rings record growing conditions year by year, the people who study them have been able to reconstruct climate over very long spans of time. One of their biggest discoveries is that droughts more severe and far longer than anything known in recent centuries have occurred repeatedly in the American Southwest. The droughts of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, of the 1950s, and of the period from 1998 to 2004 are remembered in the region, yet none lasted a full decade.

By contrast, the drought that brought the civilization of the ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, centered at Chaco Canyon, to its knees in the twelfth century, by contrast,lasted more than 30 years. The one that finished off Mesa Verdean culture in the thirteenth century was similarly a “megadrought.”

Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona who played a major role in the Nobel-Prize-winning work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, tells me that the prospect of 130° F days in Phoenix worries him far less than the prospect of decades of acute dryness. “If anything is scary, the scariest is that we could trip across a transition into a megadrought.” He adds, “You can probably bet your house that, unless we do something about these greenhouse gas emissions, the megadroughts of the future are going to be a lot hotter than the ones of the past.”

Other scientists believe that the Southwest is already making the transition to a“new climatology,” a new normal that will at least bring to mind the aridity of theDust Bowl years. Richard Seager of Columbia University, for instance, suggests that “the cycle of natural dry periods and wet periods will continue, but… around a mean that gets drier. So the depths — the dry parts of the naturally occurring droughts — will be drier than we’re used to, and the wet parts won’t be as wet.”

Drought affects people differently from other disasters. After something terrible happens — tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes — people regularly come together in memorable ways, rising above the things that divide them. In a drought, however, what is terrible is that nothing happens. By the time you know you’re in one, you’ve already had an extended opportunity to meditate on the shortcomings of your neighbors. You wait for what does not arrive. You thirst. You never experience the rush of compassion that helps you behave well. Drought brings out the worst in us.

After the Chacoan drought, corn-farming ancestral Puebloans still remained in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. They hung on, even if at lower population densities. After the Mesa Verdean drought, everybody left.

By the number of smashed crania and other broken bones in the ruins of the region’s beautiful stone villages, archaeologists judge that the aridifying world of the Mesa Verdeans was fatally afflicted by violence. Warfare and societal breakdown, evidently driven by the changing climate, helped end that culture.

So it matters what we do. Within the limits imposed by the environment, the history we make is contingent, not fated. But we are not exactly off to a good start in dealing with the challenges ahead. The problem of water consumption in the Southwest is remarkably similar to the problem of greenhouse gas pollution. First, people haggle to exhaustion over the need to take action; then, they haggle over inadequate and largely symbolic reductions. For a host of well-considered, eminently understandable, and ultimately erroneous reasons, inaction becomes the main achievement. For this drama, think Hamlet. Or if the lobbyists who argue for business as usual out west and in Congress spring to mind first, think Iago.

We know at least one big thing about how this particular tragedy will turn out: the so-called civilization of the Southwest will not survive the present century, not at its present scale anyway. The question yet to be answered is how much it will have to shrink, and at what cost. Stay tuned. It will be one of the greatest, if grimmest, shows on Earth.

William deBuys is the author of seven books, including the just published A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (a Pulitzer Prize finalist), and The Walk (an excerpt of which won a Pushcart Prize). He has long been involved in environmental affairs in the Southwest, including service as founding chairman of the Valles Caldera Trust, which administers the 87,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which deBuys discusses the water politics of the American West click here, or download it to your iPod here

Copyright 2011 William deBuys