I SOMETIMES tell newcomers to California that we do not have
weather - just climate. We can expect rain in the winter and early
spring; otherwise, it will be dry. The coastal summer will be kept
cool by the fogbank just offshore. But the joke is increasingly on
us, now, as signs of climate change appear everywhere. The one we
are seeing now is drought.
This rainy season is nearly half over, without having yielded
significant precipitation. The days are unusually warm. The
vegetation is as confused as the people, and cherry trees and
flowering quinces are in full bloom weeks before their usual time.
One hears a repeated refrain of pleasure mixed with guilt: "Lovely
weather we're having; but I guess I shouldn't really be enjoying
it. We need rain."
As a city-dweller, I can almost ignore it. The worst thing we
have to worry about just now is a bit of water rationing -
something we have learned to live with, in past droughts. My
sister, on the other hand, has a vineyard that depends entirely on
rainfall for water. Larger issues are in the balance for a state
that is not only a wine producer, but also the source of much of
the nation's fresh produce.
The year 2013 was our driest on record, but formal records go
back only to the late 19th century. The typical pattern of this
period has been that droughts last only a couple of years. Now we
know, however, from investigations that take the matter further
back, with the help of tree rings and other data, that it is
possible for droughts in the American west to go on for a century
Water has long been the most precious resource here, the focus
of long-term planning and ever-renewed conflict. Long canals carry
water from the wetter north to the more populous south. Shortages
pit farmers against urban dwellers, and both against the need to
respect the natural environment.
Every period of drought creates anxiety, but this one more so
than usual, because it is more severe, and because we are newly
conscious that climate is not immune to change. The difference
between climate and weather, it turns out, is not that one is
immutable and the other changeable; the difference is more a matter
of the scale and pace of change.
And there is strong evidence that climate is changing more
rapidly now, thanks to human interventions. In some parts of the
United States, there is still a kind of obscurantist denial that
anything is amiss, much less that humans are contributing to the
problem. By this time, however, there is little sympathy for such a
view in California.
California has long been a leader in efforts to improve air
quality. We had Los Angeles smog to serve as a warning bell. Now,
the difficult process of not only managing but reducing water usage
across the board is beginning to impose itself, and we will have to
learn to accommodate.
We Californians are in no position to ask the rest of the world
to feel sorry for us. The consequences of global warming are far
less severe for us than for, say, the Sahel, or the small island
nations of the world. We are getting a strong reminder, however,
that we are intrinsically no less vulnerable to the uncertainties
of the near future than anyone else. No one is exempt.
The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New
Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley,
California, in the United States.