Drought in California: When climate change affects the USA

By Sarah Becker


As part of one of my PhD research studies I conducted a 10 week interview-based study in California to talk to people about their experience of the ongoing drought and how they thought it related to anthropogenic climate change. (Throughout this article when I refer to climate change I mean anthropogenic climate change.) I won’t focus on reporting my findings here but give a summary of some of the aspects of the drought in general that most struck me.

In some of my first interviews in the UK and also in some of the literature on climate change (e.g. “The Giddens Paradox”) it is suggested that because the consequences occur in the future and affect developing countries first, there has not been more action to mitigate climate change so far. The idea being that people in the West (responsible for most of the emissions) cannot feel the immediate effects now and therefore do not reduce emissions. To my surprise some of the news coverage of the drought in California, was being reported in relation to climate change[1]. This is contrary to what I find when there are floods in the UK, which may be because it is difficult to link one particular extreme weather event to climate change. In fact scientists do connect a change in climate to modified weather patterns, including more frequent and intense extremes.

Appeals to the public in bathrooms to use less water and report leaks

Appeals to the public in bathrooms to use less water and report leaks

When I visited different parts of California, I met a lot of people who accept anthropogenic climate change evidence and are very concerned about it, partly because of the drought. But, I also crossed many people who do not think anthropogenic climate change even exists, let alone think that there is any link between the extreme drought and climate change. Those people dispute that the local drought is linked to anthropogenic climate change, in a similar way in which global climate change is disputed in general; namely by referring to natural cycles of change versus a long term change caused by humans.

In the case of the drought, some people argued that California has always been dry: “It’s a desert”, “We have seen many droughts”, “It’s natural cycles, they come and go, people have to adapt and we need to build more reservoirs”. Parts of California are very dry and there have been droughts in the past so the question is what evidence there is and what evidence it will take to convince people that anthropogenic climate change is affecting the drought differently from how it would have been otherwise. Others may have half joked: “Isn’t the drought over? This is an El Niño year and we will be dealing with floods soon.” What also struck me, is to what extent views about climate change are intertwined with many other beliefs and make a whole different framework of seeing the world. For instance, religion (those who were religious identified as Christian) is a major factor, because of belief in a God who is relied upon and trusted to sort things out. Another factor is political beliefs, with quite a few people who deny climate change referring to Al Gore in particular as a liar who made climate change up for political benefits.

In restaurants water is no longer served automatically but only upon request

In restaurants water is no longer served automatically but only upon request

There are some communities in the Central valley that have actually run completely dry.

Most affected inhabitants are low income Latino farm workers, who no longer have access to clean drinking water because they are not connected to a state water supply and have always relied on groundwater from their wells. The wells are dry or the groundwater is polluted[2]. In some cases, the local council is stepping in and transporting drinking water in large tanks. Many communities are organizing and mounting pressure to demand support for access to drinking water, but some are reluctant to get in touch with officials or even local organisations such as the Community Water Center, because they are scared their children will be taken from them, as a result of them being seen as unable to adequately provide for their children.

Low water level at Lake Tahoe in the East of California, usually water would have been covering where I was standing and well beyond

Low water level at Lake Tahoe in the East of California, usually water would have been covering where I was standing and well beyond

Some of the big agricultural businesses have pumped up so much ground water that the ground has started to sink[3]. Smaller farms are struggling to keep their crops growing and some have gone out of business.

I also spent three days with fire fighters in a camp which works with prison inmates to extinguish fires[4]. These programs were introduced in the 1940s as a means of rehabilitation. The camps may be preferred by inmates because they are safer and less influenced by prison gangs and politics and provide more opportunity for education. However, this might also be an example of how economic and social relationships of power come into play with environmental issues, as the economic drive towards cheap or free labour results in prisoner fire fighters. The long term trained fire fighters reported that fires were changing in intensity and becoming increasingly challenging to put out.

How or whether some of this will affect the US’ official stance and actions on climate change remains to be seen. For now, it looks like even within more “developed” countries such as the USA, climate change will affect those who are already more vulnerable, reflecting the global pattern. This seems to reinforce the point that environmental and social justice are not only related but are one and the same thing. I would be very happy to receive any feedback, questions or comments at s.becker@sussex.ac.uk.



[1] http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/september/drought-climate-change-092914.html



[2] http://www.communitywatercenter.org/

[3] http://www.usatoday.com/videos/news/2015/12/10/77028550/

[4] http://uk.businessinsider.com/inmates-fighting-california-wildfires-2015-8?r=US&IR=T

Tagged with: ,
Posted in PhD research, Research

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.