Archive‎ > ‎2018‎ > ‎

Climate Summer

July 31, 2018

We primarily need to address the causes of climate change -- industrialism, capitalism, inequity, militarism, imperialism, institutional destruction of and disrespect for nature and people ... the list of contributors is very long.

But, in parallel ...

Extreme swings in weather are a
mong the most notable consequences of cataclysmic climate change. Today everyone is entangled in a practical question: how can we protect ourselves, and our built and natural environments, from these windy and fiery "new normal" summers, and their complementary heavy rain and flooding events? And how can we do so in a way that helps to reverse climate change?

How about watering?

Now, I suppose it's predictable that someone living in Oregon, writing for Rain, would ask this question. There's no doubt that in some of our more seriously drought-afflicted regions on earth, this sounds gratuitous, because there seems to be no water at all. 

But even though aquifers are collapsing, we need to remember that there are ancient cultures and indigenous populations that created oases for themselves in desert conditions, using hand-built infrastructure. Consider artificial lakes, ponds, and wetlands, as well as qanats, hand-built canals, terraces, swales & berms, ecologically-sensitive infrastructure still in use today. It's not strange to suggest that we work harder to water plants, because they serve as a counter to heat (since they provide shady microclimates) and floods (since they protect soil from runoff). We need to do the equivalent of replacing the season-balancing role of snowpacks.

But this is not a 'geo-engineering' proposal. Those mega-projects have a poor history. The first principle of any proposed action, large or small, should be to do no harm, to people and ecologies, and create incremental improvements using techniques accessible to everyone, so everyone can get involved. I will not be rushing towards 'big technological solutions', such as massive dams and canals. They are harmful and inequitable. Always. We can find more natural routes, which will be more sensitive, coöperative and successful.

We want to reduce desertification, wildfires, extreme heat, etc.. Then, roughly, we need to retain more winter rain, for use throughout these summers. It's a kind of imposed balance, to correct an anthropogenic imbalance that will wipe out the environment we depend upon. But we don't want to do this by further hurting our aquifers, lakes, and rivers. We want to enhance them, and, if appropriate, to stabilize them. In the most abstract sense, we need to keep the rainwater out of the ocean, by identifying and preventing the loss of wasted water (stormwater runoff, lost graywater, polluted waters, etc.) and preventing floods.

We don't want to hurt our ocean estuaries, but as far as we know winter runoff does them little good, and sometimes great harm. We can help our estuary ecologies in other ways -- we've been very bad to them in general, polluting the waters and denuding the shores of plant life -- to compensate for lowering river flows. A serious and massive movement of people to engage in ecological restoration is necessary everywhere, for everything I'm suggesting here.

Hypothetically, retaining runoff will also help to reduce sea-level rise. But since restoration may only be possible in places where there are enough people do to so, this will have limits -- the primary-contributing melting surface ice in Antarctica and Greenland are not suffused with workers and infrastructure. Even in crowded temperate climes, it will take a great deal of human effort, and reorganization of the economy, to compete with the travels of water vapor increasingly retained in our warming air -- in addition to worldwide deglaciation -- sufficiently to prevent sea-level rise. But where we can prevent runoff, every bit will help.

One of the easiest and most efficient approaches to water retention, again to avoid slow and expensive mega-projects, is to save winter-water on the local level: in the home, farm, village, neighborhood, city, and rural district.

New big dams would be too expensive to build and maintain, but as a start, if the populace was to draw off more water in the winter, when it's plentiful, through existing infrastructure, they could store the necessary-yet-wasteful dam overflow-prevention releases in the winter.

What would this local water storage be like? Many small reservoirs, ponds, swales, restored aquifers, tanks, cisterns ... Do we have the infrastructure to store and use this extra water properly during the summer? Some, but nowhere near enough yet. We will need to consider distribution strategies, the volume equivalent of a gradient of lakes and rivers, as if we were building sprinkler systems throughout our urban and wild forests.

The extra-positive feedback effect of watering is also to lower CO2 in the atmosphere. The more we water and restore plants, the more CO2 they can withdraw. And the O2 they provide is very helpful for us animals.

The biggest risk is if this watering system fails. In these increasingly dry summers, the more vegetation that has grown in the wet season, or through watering, the more vulnerable that region is to wildfires, if that vegetation then dries out. 

But what is the alternative? An increasingly hot, desert world. We need to start getting good at integrating water-retention and watering strategies with our artificial, landscaped, and wild natural environments.

As a stopgap measure, we can also use traditional techniques to remove some dry plant material -- flocks of sheep and goats can do this quite well.

And, as it turns out, we have a vast population of mis-employed, under employed, and unemployed people, many of whom feel quite rightly that they're currently wasting their lives and their abilities as wages-slaves for a machine that is destroying the earth and the possibilities for genuine personal fulfillment. Instead, they could work creatively and coöperatively, with everyone doing their share, to solve these problems. We need to find a way to mobilize our transnational global population -- and for this, community organizing is the key.

I know the prospect of 'watering our way' out of this crisis seems unlikely when you look at, for example, the browning of Europe (obviously due to lack of water distribution) in one year's time (from NASA):

brown europe
Even to those of us who assiduously continue to garden in this weather, that looks like a lot of watering! And when you consider that aquifers are collapsing in these vast areas, the prospects seem even more dire.

So let's do some first-order calculations.

Denmark, above, has a land mass of 2.2 million square kilometers.

Let's assume that 100% of this needs to be watered.

5.7 million people live in Denmark.

So each person in Denmark would be responsible for watering 0.45 kilometers of land -- saving water in the winter, distributing it in the summer.

That's 45 hectares of land. Or 111 acres. This is enough land for a productive export farm for several families.

Let's assume that, somehow, with enough collaboration, water, swales, and channels, this level of responsibility is possible. Or enough of it to make a difference.

How much water would it take?

How much are we starting with?

The average annual precipitation in Copenhagen is 525mm. If you could capture all of that and balance it throughout the year, that's 1.43 milimeters of water each day. 

There's not much need to go further with the first-order approximation. 1.43mm of water on a hot summer's day doesn't sound like a lot to keep even some natural grassland green. However, that's water that will end up in plants, along with carbon pulled from the atmosphere, and cool the local environment. It will make microclimates that can induce rain, and make the world more tolerable for us and our fellow creatures. It will involve people in activities that will make them fight against a world of climate injustice and carbon emitters. It's the beginning of several virtuous feedback loops. 

I'm skipping over all the other good practices of ecological conservation and restoration, and thoughtful, careful enriching of our urban, agricultural, and wild areas. Soils need to be alive to retain water, which will otherwise just evaporate while the soil erodes. The permaculture people, for example, have compiled many good principles and techniques to help with this, which have become more broadly understood in the last few decades. These can help compensate for deficits in our first-order estimates. Additionally, low-cost sensible technology from indigenous peoples all over the world, who had to survive hot climates without modern air conditioning, need to be carefully studied, reproduced, and adapted. The way we cool ourselves -- with air conditioning that burns fuels and heats the outside further --- is not sustainable.

The work itself will need to be done with the lowest possible carbon footprint. Gangs of firetrucks, jumbo jets and helicopters carrying water are great in an emergency, but if we're doing fire-prevention work -- which like preventative medicine is intended to avoid emergencies -- it needs to be done as subtly and efficiently as possible. Otherwise we're not creating a sustainable economy and society around ecological water management.

But even this work will require breaking the chains of the modern economy, which is currently structured towards, and focusing our lives upon, the accumulating of money and power for the few. We must erode this terrible system, and the difficulties and debts it burdens people with, as we build the good. And we can only do it together. No single 'climate idea' will have an effect as long as people are trapped in the the current anti-climate system.

That's my 'hot take' on this 'climate summer'.

climate and the summer


dry grass


polluted river

firebird in clouds