Oh this kills me. It is a piece in the American Prospect, talking about a new approach to fixing climate change, one that acknowledges political realities. The piece reviews a book in which the author (Victor) recommends:
Above all, he says, climate campaigners must abandon their scientism and take emission-reduction targets off center stage. National leaders cannot credibly promise particular emission levels in the short- to midterm. … What leaders can credibly promise are policies, and policies, not numerical targets, should be at the center of climate accords, Victor argues.
That thoughtful people are turning to this approach is bad news. It may well be true that promising policies that head in the right direction without specifying the exact target is the only political option. But California water policy has been doing that for a generation and it sucks. One of my fundamental critiques of how we do a lot of state level water planning is that we don’t make a choice of an outcome and then figure out how to get there*. Instead we figure out a set of practices and amble off in that direction, hoping it will get us somewhere nice. This may sortof work, in the sense that it improves our situation somewhat. But we don’t know whether it gets us far enough. There are physical thresholds looming, such as TMDLs, groundwater pumping costs as groundwater levels drop, fish counts, irrigated acreages, levee heights. Improving things with best practices may get us closer, but in the real world it is possible to fall short of something important, and our “do some best management practices” approach doesn’t tell us whether we will meet thresholds that matter to us.
We don’t specify those thresholds and paint very detailed pictures of the futures we want because, like the article says, those pictures are politically untenable. Urban folk, you’re at 60 gallons per person per day, and no you can’t have your roses. Delta folk, this is the acreage that should become habitat; look! your farm is right in there! People of Ag, we’d rather have your water than cheap alfalfa and this is the acreage that will go out of production. The book from the Prospect article may be right, that trying to pick a numerical target and get there is what is killing political efforts to minimize climate change.
Maybe planning by picking a detailed future and working backward to figure out what we need to do to get there is politically untenable, since politicians must face their enraged constituents. But policy elites who are frustrated by the noodling around are starting to wish for it. I was delighted to see ACWA saying the same thing in their comments on the Delta Plan (pg 1)**:
… In order to be successful, the Delta Plan must start by identifying the goal and work backwards to implement the goal with policies and recommendations. Like a complicated puzzle, the full picture must be in place before the pieces are cut up. The Council has yet to identify the full picture; it has yet to identify what steps would contribute to water reliability and what actions would restore the ecosystem. Furthermore, there is no discussion with regards to an integrated approach to address the coequal goals. Instead, the third draft has begun to manufacture pieces, such as groundwater reporting and Delta levee evaluations, in hopes they fit together and somehow resolve the Delta’s problems.
I am left without much optimism. Here in California water policy, we are taking the approach recommended in the Prospect article and while it keeps policy processes limping along, a lot of participants worry that it is inadequate. Over on the Climate Change side, an author got a book published saying that picking a scientifically detailed future and figuring out the approaches that will get us there is a political non-starter. This suggests to me that our democracy doesn’t lend itself to doing particularized unpleasant things to get us to a better future. If that’s true, we should start thinking about what exactly we want to do when a severe crisis gives us the opportunity.
*It crosses my mind that other planning efforts may be better about this. Perhaps the Flood efforts are based more on mapped and specific futures. Basin Plans by the Regional Boards might be more specific and place-based, for all I know. On the other hand, locals fight them pretty hard. Maybe the Salts Plan is better? Couldn’t tell you.
**Which is not to say that I liked the remainder of their comments. I still have plans to write about those, ACWA!