In the most recent El Niño year, the winter of 1997-98, heavy rains resulted in 35 California counties being declared federal disaster areas. Piers and oceanfront homes were washed away. “In Ventura County, a landslide ruptured an oil pipeline, releasing 8,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean, and severed a natural-gas line, igniting a 100-foot flame.” L.A.’s drainage system proved so ill-equipped to deal with the rains that in Santa Monica Bay, “120 million gallons of urban runoff and wastewater overflows created a plume of polluted water extending six miles offshore and to a depth of 130 feet.” By the beginning of the next century, Environmental Defense warns, such events may accompany the “‘normal’ climatic pattern.”
The warming of the oceans will also have severe effects on the marine ecosystem, likely causing “significant population declines for a wide range of species, including fish, marine mammals, and seabirds, as well as shifts northward in many species‘ traditional ranges.” The financial impact, both on tourism and on commercial fishing, could be enormous. If some species are simply pushed to cooler climes and replaced by others, Oppenheimer adds, “Some of your charismatic species like California sea lions and sea otters may decline or disappear entirely.”
The Environmental Defense report also predicts that global warming will bring “a more variable and uncertain hydrologic future,” i.e., a less secure water supply. Additionally, the combination of thicker undergrowth, produced by high winter rains and increased summer heat, could mean more wildfires. This risk may be offset, Oppenheimer says, if the rains keep the vegetation moist. But what’s bad for humans is good for other critters: The same plants that could provide fuel for fires also provide food for rodents. In past wet years, the increased availability of vegetation, nuts and insects has caused the rodent population to soar as much as tenfold. This, of course, is also bad for humans, and not just because rodents make such poor company: The droppings, urine and saliva of deer mice can carry hantavirus, which is fatal to humans in more than 40 percent of known cases.
Hot Prospects describes a future that doesn‘t have to be. The solution to global warming has long been well-known: reduced reliance on greenhouse-gas-producing carbon fuels through a combination of conservation and a shift to alternative energy sources. The Environmental Defense report adds to these basic recommendations a number of short-term “adaptation strategies,” including everything from planting trees to strengthening emissions controls to improving health care for the poor.
Californians should take the current energy crisis as a wake-up call, Oppenheimer says, and as an opportunity to reverse the warming trend. “Climate policy is energy policy and energy policy is climate policy,” he explains. “The same things that you’re going to do in California this summer to prevent a situation of many, many blackouts from developing are some of the same measures one would take to keep global-warming emissions down.” So dim the lights and trash the SUV, or learn to live with the heat. And the floods. And the hantavirus.