If it seems like the chattering classes are talking about carbon dioxide less than they were a couple of years ago, that’s because they are. Even drivers of the public climate conversation, such as the Carbon Disclosure Project, have begun to ask if “water is the new carbon.” As the group’s chairman Paul Dickinson has said, “If climate is the shark, then water is the teeth.”
The issue of water security on a heating planet emerged quickly after U.S. and international efforts to reel in carbon dioxide emissions fizzled in 2009. The Carbon Disclosure Project itself launched a new water program in 2010. At the same time, a water-and-energy specialist named Peter Gleick found the spotlight, having thought about the issue for more than a quarter century. He even came up with a memorable phrase, “peak water,” with a definition behind it, in 2010. Water as an issue engaged many of the same experts – and much of the same rhetoric – previously claimed by carbon.
Gleick is the founder and president of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit based in Oakland that for 25 years has conducted research and participated in policy debates about water security, biodiversity loss and climate change.
This week he invited anger, disappointment and charges of hypocrisy for his enabling role in the latest round of the Web-fueled climate change follies. The drama concerns the release of apparent strategy documents from an organization based in Chicago, called the Heartland Institute, which for years has excelled at keeping the science of climate change confusing by trying to discredit it. When somebody leaked Gleick confidential Heartland documents, he couldn’t restrain himself from probing further, even if it meant deceit. “Blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts — often anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated — to attack climate science and scientists,” Gleick says, he “solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else’s name.”
Gleick was one of the first experts to tackle the water-energy nexus, and his opinion is sought out by industry and public institutions alike, as evidenced by his almost ubiquitous presence on advisory boards of organizations involved in water. Gleick’s “Peak water” was the subject of a recent story in a Bloomberg Sustainability report about the global resource crunch. He is a man of Davos, and had shown a rare ability to draw the fractious constituencies of scientists, policymakers and financiers.
His voice often set the tone for policy and legislation in California, where he has been the perennial whistleblower for unsustainable privatized water efforts, such as the Cadiz project to “mine groundwater faster than nature refills it and sell it to urban centers in Southern California for profit.” Sometimes, he offered the sole critique of legislation, such as California’s 2009 $11.1 billion water bond. With decades of scientific expertise, Gleick has been a driver of discussion for pressing water issues that might otherwise be invisible.
The blogs have been writing Gleick’s professional obituaries all week. Water’s timeline is long, public memory is short and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quip, “There are no second acts in American lives,” has never felt quite right. Regardless, an important voice for water-use issues and water conservation, in California and beyond, goes silent for now.