Conservative Media Blame Environmentalists, Not Climate, For California's “Man-Made Drought”

Conservative media are attributing California's devastating drought to a “man-made” factor -- but not the one that is actually worsening it.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board recently recycled many of the same claims it made in a 2009 editorial titled, “California's Man-Made Drought.” Right-wing website Hot Air dubbed the drought “California's 'man-made' environmental disaster.” And when potential 2016 presidential candidate Carly Fiorina described the drought as “a man-made disaster” during an appearance on Glenn Beck's radio show, Beck demanded to know why “we don't hear that story on the news at all,” while Rush Limbaugh declared that “there is a man-made lack of water in California,” and "[Fiorina is] right."

No, these media figures haven't suddenly seen the light on climate change. Instead, they're using the historic drought as an opportunity to baselessly attack environmental policies.

This strategy is nothing new. For years, Republican Congressmen, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop have been repeating this same talking point on California's “man-made drought” to promote legislation that would redirect water to California's Central Valley at the expense of water currently dedicated to fish, wildlife, and habitat restoration under the Endangered Species Act. As my former employer the League of Conservation Voters put it, this legislation “uses California's current low water supplies as an excuse to weaken federal and state environmental laws.” The Los Angeles Times called it “a tired political tactic barely, and laughably, disguised as a remedy for the lack of rainfall.”

As the Times pointed out last year, these claims of a “man-made drought” due to environmental regulations are based on an “imagined 'people versus fish' scenario”:

In their imagined “people versus fish” scenario, towns are going dry and growers are going out of business because crazy environmentalists are hogging water to protect an obscure fish, the delta smelt. Water that could irrigate fields and keep people working is instead being kept in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and flushed into the ocean.

What they don't like to point out is that without that supposed flush pushing out into the Pacific, seawater would continue to intrude farther into the delta, leaving only useless salty brine to pump into canals and onto fields -- and then where would the growers and the rest of us be? Without restoring the dry stretch of the San Joaquin River, there can be no recharging of Central Valley towns' groundwater supplies and no hope that the river will rescue orchards and cities with southern Sierra snowmelt in the event global climate change forever reduces levels of snowfall in the mountains to the north. And as for the smelt, the Endangered Species Act protects not only that fish but all of us, by holding together the fragile environmental web we rely on.

The Times also observed of the House Republicans pushing the legislation: “Funny, isn't it, that folks who question man's ability to affect the global climate are so quick to assign human causes to the drought.” The same criticism applies to The Wall Street Journal editorial board, Hot Air, Beck, and of course Limbaugh, all of which frequently dismiss the threat of global warming.

The reality, scientists say, is that climate change will continue to make droughts like the one afflicting California more frequent and more severe. A recent study by Stanford University found that the atmospheric conditions associated with the California drought are “very likely” linked to human-caused climate change. And the National Climate Assessment describes how the Southwest United States will continue to grapple with these climate-induced challenges: “Severe and sustained drought will stress water sources, already over-utilized in many areas, forcing increasing competition among farmers, energy producers, urban dwellers, and plant and animal life for the region's most precious resource.”