Mother Nature Dissents

From Texas to California, voters are enduring rude wake-up calls about the future of our country.

Illustrative collage of power lines, the ocean, and the Supreme Court
Getty; The Atlantic

Mother Nature is entering a dissenting opinion on last month’s Supreme Court decision that weakened the federal government’s ability to combat climate change.

With record heat in Texas that is testing the state’s power grid, a California wildfire that has threatened an ancient grove of sequoias considered a foundation stone of the national-park system, and persistent drought across the West that is forcing unprecedented cutbacks in water deliveries from the Colorado River, the summer of 2022 already is shaping up as another season of extreme and dangerous environmental conditions.

The paradox is that precisely as these events are dramatizing the rising costs of inaction on climate change, Washington faces more difficulty in taking action. That’s not only because of the Supreme Court but also because of the resistance to sweeping legislation in the Senate from every Republican as well as Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who represents one of the top coal-producing states, West Virginia. Adding to the strain: The states most integrated into the existing fossil-fuel economy—almost all of them controlled by Republicans—are escalating their efforts to block action on climate change from the federal government and even the private sector.

In all of these ways, both the magnitude of the threat and the difficulty of responding to it are simultaneously rising—a trend that climate scientists find equally frustrating and frightening.

“In a world where facts are no longer the currency, it actually is very hard to make arguments in favor of doing what seems very logical,” Kathy Jacobs, the director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona, told me. “People are questioning really fundamental scientific principles and/or just choosing to ignore them. This post-fact world we are operating in makes dealing with this problem much more difficult.”

In 2021, the American West struggled through what I called a “summer of extremes”: record high temperatures, pervasive drought, widespread wildfires. The year before that, California endured a record season of wildfire damage. Now, unprecedented events are already stacking up at an ominous pace across the region again this summer.

In Texas, the story is unrelenting heat. The National Weather Service recently reported that the period from June 1 through July 8 was the hottest ever recorded in both Austin and San Antonio. In June, Dallas/Fort Worth recorded nine days of at least 100-degree temperatures (tied for the fourth-most-ever). After a relative break to 95 on July 1 and 99 on July 2, the area has recorded another 11 consecutive days at the century mark or above from July 3 through Wednesday; the city has already registered more 100-degree days this year than the past three years combined. The state’s power-grid system is buckling under this strain; officials are urging families to avoid blackouts by turning up the temperature in their home despite the suffocating heat. “They said the grid failed last year when it was too cold, but now the grid is failing because it is too hot,” Elida Castillo, the program director for Chispa Texas, a grassroots environmental group that is a project of the national League of Conservation Voters, told me. “We can’t even use these utilities that we pay a high price for.”

Even this could be just the beginning of what’s ahead for Texas. Jay Banner, the director of the Environmental Science Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, told me that models prepared for the latest U.S. national-climate assessment forecast that the average number of 100-degree days in Texas could triple from about 40 a year over the past decade to 120 annually toward the end of this century if carbon emissions are not curtailed.

While Texas is roasting, California is burning. Again. A large wildfire that started last week threatened what is considered sacred ground in the national-park system: a grove of ancient sequoia trees in Yosemite that Abraham Lincoln set aside before the nation had even established any national parks. After enormous exertions to fight the fire and protect the trees (which included more than 1,000 firefighters and setting up a sprinkler system for the Grizzly Giant, an especially majestic sequoia), state officials are now projecting confidence that they are safe. But the early fire is an ominous signal that California could face another perilous wildfire season: In four of the past five years, the state has seen wildfires burn at least 1.5 million acres (including a record 4.3 million acres in 2020 and 2.6 million last year), after reaching that level only twice in the previous three decades.

One reason for that increased vulnerability, of course, is that across the West, drought is deepening. Park Williams, a UCLA climate scientist, recently co-published a study documenting that the region’s drought since 2000 ranks as the West’s driest 23-year period in at least 1,200 years. Williams told me that even with some relatively better years along the way, he “wouldn’t be shocked” if this drought lasted longer than 30 years. What’s more, he added, as the climate continues to warm, there will be fewer “good years” in between droughts and less precipitation during those better interludes. “Even though there is going to be a lot of variation from year to year and decade to decade, we are on this trend toward drying,” he said.

These changes are already affecting the region. In testimony before a Senate Committee last month, Camille Calimlim Touton, the commissioner of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, said that Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two principal reservoirs providing water to the Southwest, were each down to 28 percent of their normal capacity. Drought conditions, she reported, are also evident for water bodies in Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, among other places. “Almost 93 percent of the western United States is experiencing drought or abnormally dry conditions, and more than 70 percent of the western United States is experiencing severe or extreme drought conditions,” she reported.

The conditions are so dire, Touton testified, that the bureau is now negotiating unprecedented reductions in water supplies of 2 to 4 million acre-feet annually to the seven states that rely on the Colorado River. By comparison, Jacobs said, the total annual supply from the Colorado has recently been running at about 12.5 to 13.5 million acre-feet, meaning the cuts could reach nearly one-third of total supply. These reductions are most likely to squeeze the agriculture industry, the region’s largest user, but the reductions may affect homeowners too. Separately, California, after a disappointing response to voluntary conservation requests, has ordered significant cuts in water usage, including a ban on irrigation of “nonfunctional” grass at businesses or the common areas of subdivisions.

Experts such as Williams, Jacobs, and Banner all say there’s no guarantee that every summer will produce so many extreme events. Climate change, they point out, hasn’t eliminated random variation in weather: There will still be years, Jacobs notes, with more and less precipitation or more and less heat. But that variation is occurring within a system that, because of rising carbon levels, is now trending toward a greater number—and increased severity—of extreme outcomes. “Terms like 100-year event or 1,000-year event assume that the baseline is understood to be stable over time, and once every century we’ll have such bad luck that we’ll have a heat wave of X degrees above average or we’ll get a fire X acres above average,” Williams said. “But as the temperature is warming, the baseline is changing … the rules are changing beneath us.”

The only thing that can slow this trend is reducing the amount of carbon the world emits into the atmosphere. But primarily because of opposition from Republicans in the states, Congress, and the courts, President Joe Biden is finding himself blocked on every major path toward reductions.

The decision last month from the six GOP-appointed Supreme Court justices enormously complicated Biden’s capacity to reduce carbon emissions through federal regulation. The Republican justices restricted the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate reductions in carbon emissions from plants producing electricity. The logic of their decision raised questions about whether the same justices also may eventually seek to strike down the Biden administration’s regulation requiring automakers to significantly improve the fuel economy of cars and trucks.

The legislative pathway has now seemingly closed. Lockstep opposition from every Senate Republican to significant climate action has left Manchin from coal-producing West Virginia with an effective veto over what, if anything, Congress can pass. Manchin early on killed a proposed clean-energy standard that would have required utilities to steadily shift their power-generating mix away from fossil fuels like coal to renewable sources such as solar and wind. And after negotiating for months over a reduced version of the $555 billion in funding the House approved last year in its version of the omnibus Build Back Better plan to promote the development of clean energy sources, Manchin apparently ended the excruciating talks yesterday, according to The Washington Post, by telling Democratic leaders that he would accept no new money for climate action. Given the likelihood that Republicans will win at least one congressional chamber in November, Manchin's move virtually eliminates the prospect of meaningful legislative action to reduce carbon emissions for the foreseeable future.

On a third track is the rising opposition to climate action from Republican-controlled states, almost all of which are among the country’s largest producers or consumers of fossil fuels. The Supreme Court’s decision restricting the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants was in response to litigation brought by 20 Republican-controlled states. All but four of those same states (joined by Kentucky) are also suing to stop the EPA from restoring California’s ability to set its own higher fuel-economy standards for cars and trucks, which typically have been adopted in more than a dozen other blue states. Another combination of the same red states is suing the EPA directly to block its regulations requiring greater fuel economy for cars and trucks.

Several of the states with the highest carbon emissions, including Texas, West Virginia, and Kentucky, have also taken steps to deny state business to investment firms that are disinvesting in oil and gas companies, or seeking to promote greater investment in green energy. Almost all of these states’ attorneys general have also signed onto a letter opposing a proposal at the Securities and Exchange Commission to promote environmentally conscious investing by requiring companies to report more information to investors on their carbon emissions and the risks to their business from climate change. “These requirements are about using the SEC’s regulatory authority to steer the economy away from fossil fuels,” the AGs complained.

As on many other fronts—including abortion and voting—blue states are moving in the opposite direction. Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters, points out that about a dozen Democratic-controlled states, which house roughly 40 percent of the nation’s total population, have committed to eventually obtaining 100 percent of their electricity from clean power sources. Several other blue states, including California, New York, and Washington, have taken steps to ban the sale of internal-combustion-engine vehicles by the 2030s. “The best action and progress is coming from the states,” he said.

But it’s highly unlikely that action in blue states (and cities) alone will be enough for the U.S. to meet the carbon-reduction targets that scientists say are required to avoid the most catastrophic environmental changes. Nor is it clear whether Biden and his team can pick a pathway to meaningful federal action around the obstacles erected by Manchin, Republicans in the Senate and the states, and the GOP justices on the Supreme Court (who, experts point out, did not entirely preclude regulation of power-plant carbon emissions, only made it harder). Market forces are encouraging a shift toward greater reliance on renewables such as wind and solar to generate electricity, and more consumers are buying electric vehicles amid high gas prices, but climate models show that without overhauls in public policy, those changes alone won’t produce anything near the reductions the U.S. is seeking.

What is clear already this summer is that climate change itself isn’t likely to let up the pressure. Like many experts, Jacobs cautions against viewing even the severe events the nation is experiencing this year as some kind of new equilibrium. “Until we stop increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases, we aren’t going to be in a stable condition. Change is going to be the norm, not a ‘new normal,’” she told me. “And so people need to get used to this idea that we are not returning to what we understand to be normal. We are currently part of a long-term trend that includes far more extreme events.”