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17 year old Brittany Trilford of NZ addressed world leaders at the Rio20 Earth Summit today and asked them if they were going to ensure her future and the future of her unborn children and grandchildren.

By proxy, she was asking for your children and grandchildren as well as mine.

If she asked each of us her questions, how would we answer? Hopefully, we could say that we are at least trying.

I wonder how the world leaders she addressed will respond? Will they consider the approaching precipice and act or shrug it off and go back to arguing for their rights to continue polluting? If they do, this is what they will leave as a legacy:

An issue of water

Scientists tell us that adding energy (in the form of heat) to any large, dynamic system (like the atmosphere) eventually causes it to become unstable. It will tend to swing back and forth between extremes as it struggles to find equilibrium, or a point of balance. In the case of our atmosphere, those extremes will be hot and cold, wet and dry. These are the first signs of chaotic behavior. For example, the winters of 2009 and 2010, were brutally cold with a lot of snow. Winter of 2011? Strangely warm and strangely dry except for a freak October snow storm.

Now, if nothing else changed, the atmosphere would eventually find an area of equilibrium, a new range of normal behaviors. The trouble is, everything keeps changing. We’re pumping millions of tons of heat trapping gases into the atmosphere every day. We’re making it worse, driving it farther and farther away from any equilibrium and into dangerous chaos.

What will be the effect of that?

According to scientists, overall rainfall will increase because more and more of the water in and on the ground will evaporate as the climate gets hotter and hotter. A good case in point is the cyclone approaching Taiwan as I write this. It’s expected to dump up to 1500mm of rain.

Yes, you read that correctly. 1500mm. That’s 59 inches of rain. Almost 5 feet! That 5 feet will fall over about 48 hours.

That’s biblical. Tie that to what recently happened in Pensacola, Florida and Nashville in 2010, and you start to see a pattern. A lot of water is falling out of the sky. Way too much. Rain like that washes away everything. Homes, farms, crops, livestock, highways. Name it. Gone. It causes sewers to back up and spreads disease. We can’t drink it or use it. Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

But the problem of water and climate isn’t simply too much rain. It cuts both ways. The other edge of the blade is drought.

While its true that more water will be falling out of the sky during these extreme precipitation events, where it falls–and where it doesn’t–will be the problem. As the amount of water in the atmosphere increases, the distribution of rainfall changes, but in a weird way. Instead of moving the rain around, Areas that are wet will get more rain and areas that are dry will get even less. So, the northeast of the US will get a lot wetter and the west, south and southwest of the US will be getting a lot hotter and a lot drier.

Now comes the irony. Much of the US’s agriculture in the west, south and southwest is in areas that are classically dry. The central valley of California, the Texas panhandle and the Great Plains states just north of it.

Before you shrug off those areas (assuming you don’t live there), be reminded that a great deal of the country’s produce comes from those very areas. Most of those areas are desert reclaimed by irrigation. Many of our other vital crops are grown in the south of the eastern third of the country.

The northeast, where the rain will be falling, doesn’t have anywhere near the agricultural capacity the south and west have. It’s too built up now.

So, in one sense (excluding sea level rise) climate change is an issue of water. It is energizing the earth’s hydrological cycle. Speeding it up. Making it more intense.

Water is the key to life and the blade that can end it. We can’t live without it. In fact, life as we know it cannot exist without it. Whenever we ponder whether another world might also be a home to life, the first question NASA asks is always: is there liquid water? Aside from some sort of a breathable atmosphere, water is the vital ingredient. It’s in everything. It’s part of every cell, every plant, every natural process, every living being on Earth. Without it, a human has about four days to live.

And we take it for granted that we control it at our faucets.

The trouble is, one day there won’t be enough on or in the ground to go around. In many parts of the world, the situation is already dire. Do we really think we will be spared? There are already ongoing fights over water in this country. I’ll get to those in later posts.

So, the question is: how much would you pay for clean water? There are those who really want to know.


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