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On Climate Change, We’re Heading Into the Rapids All Wrong

My experience running a rapid on the Payette River in Idaho offers a metaphor and lesson for our time.

Sandra Postel

Lately, as I ponder our societal response, or lack of it, to the challenging times ahead – the droughts and floods and heat waves and crop failures, which we’ve tasted only as appetizers so far – I find myself recalling one of the scariest moments of my life.

Two decades ago I was thrown into a class-four rapid while rafting the South Fork of the Payette River in Idaho. For an interminably long few minutes, I thought my number was up.

The rapid was called Staircase, a five-mile run known for its riotous whitewater, deep holes, big waves and pointed rocks. It’s a challenge for even seasoned kayakers, so barely shy of dangerous for anyone else. Although fatalities from running Staircase are rare, close calls are not.

What got me into trouble was that we paddlers didn’t properly heed or execute our guide’s commands. As a result, our boat headed into a giant wave at completely the wrong angle. My friend and I, manning the front of the raft, got pitched out.

The boat shot rapidly ahead, leaving us swirling in whitewater, ricocheting between boulders, and gasping for air as the wild river had its way with us. The notion of “swimming” Staircase, even in a lifejacket, was a joke.

Within minutes, as I felt my energy draining away, I grasped the hard truth that Staircase might consume my last breath. Into the din of its roaring whitewater, I called out for help.

Whether due to luck, fate or providential intercession, my friend and I both survived Staircase. But I know it could just as well have gone the other way.

Today, society is making the same mistake in its approach to the coming turbulence due to climate change and water stress that our paddling crew made as we headed into Staircase: we’re not fully alert to the danger, executing a plan that will see us through, or adequately prepared for the consequences.

In other words, we’re heading into the rapids all wrong.

Instead of endless debates over appropriate income tax rates, we need to craft and levy a carbon tax that will bring our consumption of fossil fuels down to safe levels. The danger of going over the fiscal cliff pales in comparison to going over the climate cliff. Moreover, higher taxes on carbon fuels would allow for a reduction in taxes on income, thereby penalizing work and savings less and climate-altering carbon emissions more.

Likewise, burning fossil fuels to de-salt seawater attempts to solve the problem of water shortage by further disrupting the climate, which will only worsen droughts and water shortage—therefore, no real solution at all. And proposals for more giant pipelines to move water from one place to another are akin to moving deck chairs on the Titanic. They might buy time, but they don’t solve the problem: we’re nearly all sunk if we don’t figure out how nine billion people can live sustainably on a finite water supply.

Spurring public and private investments in water conservation, efficiency, recycling and reuse; market shifts that result in greater value per gallon consumed; and consumer choices that shrink our individual water footprints remain the best options for sustainably meeting water demands – and they have barely been tapped.

What ultimately saved me from Staircase was a relatively calm patch of water downstream that allowed my fellow paddlers to wait for me while I attempted to make it through the treacherous whitewater.

Fortunately, we still have some calm waters in which to plan and prepare for the turbulence ahead. But the appetizers of wild weather we’ve tasted in recent years will soon be served up as main courses. With each passing day of inaction, our options for reducing the dangers diminish.

It’s time to ask our political leaders and communities to work together on a realistic plan to see us – and our children and grandchildren— safely through the turbulent times ahead.

It’s all about taking the rapids at the proper angle.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society.

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