Discouraging.

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!

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Discouraging.

  1. Having spent a good deal of my journalistic life in both the water and climate policy worlds, I think the two realms are sufficiently different that I don’t find your analogy between these two realms persuasive, but I confess I’m having a hard time articulating exactly why. I think it has to do with the very different nature of polluting *into* the commons and extracting resources *from* the commons.

    My counter-example to your assertion of failure to choose an outcome would the Colorado River “4.4 Plan” – outcome chosen (“imposed”?) and target met. Ditto the 2007 Colorado River shortage sharing agreement, which was very much based on choosing an outcome and then allowing the states to accommodate their water futures within those parameters. So there are good examples of successes by setting targets and projected outcomes and then using that as a framework to manage water. The key here in these successes is that the numbers that came out of the outcome-setting process posed a very real physical constraint – there’s only so much water in the Colorado. Recognized as such, it became a constraint on the states’ subsequent policy-making process. Arizona knows exactly how much its CAP allocation gets cut when Mead hits elevation 1075, and has planned accordingly.

    In international climate change politics, there is no such constraint that accompanies the target. If Britain misses its target, as it has, nature doesn’t intervene, and it’s free to set new, more ambitious targets (as it has) without getting whacked by nature for missing the last ones. Politicians are incentivized for setting big muscular targets, and we end up with the politics all built around target-setting rather than policy execution.

    What I need to think hard about is what the difference might be between those Colorado River examples and the rest of California water, which remains a whole lot fuzzier to me.

  2. Robert Pyke

    I agree OtPR. In case yo’all have not read my comments on the third draft of the Delta Plan, (a wee joke), I am including a fragment of them:

    As a results-oriented engineer I would have approached this whole exercise differently. As I noted in my comments on the second staff draft, the legislative requirement that the plan include “quantified or otherwise measurable targets associated with achieving the objectives of the Delta Plan” is still not addressed. Many possible measures are now listed but specific targets are not. Such targets, whether quantified or conceptual, are not something that can be added at a later date. If you do not have a clear idea of the current situation and the future goals, how can you construct a plan to move from one to the other?

    I know that the staff and consultants prepared a series of white papers to describe the current situation but they were largely cut and paste of previous reports and the many errors that appear in previous reports were simply repeated. What was needed, and is still needed, is a more succinct and focused quantified summary of the current situation. Then, you need a vision of what the Delta might be in the future and a plan on how to get there. And finally, since you have essentially no power to initiate any positive actions at this time, you need recommendations on the additional legislation and financing to get from the current situation to the future – a much improved situation in which the Delta is the leading worldwide example how to balance sustainable water management and a flourishing estuarine ecosystem with sustainable fishing and farming, so that students and tourists come here from the Netherlands to see how these things should be done!