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Climate Change in the Southwest: Should we stay or should we go?

Planning for disaster: The effects of climate change are not independent. The question for climate adaptation is how do we respond to multiple demands at once.

The University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment released its Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States this week.  At an event entitled Climate Change and the Tucson Region: Sustainable Living or Abandoned Wasteland?, the reports’ authors discussed some of the key findings of the report. No one, however, actually attempted to answer the main question that advertised the event. Each panelist expressed a mixture of concern and sufficient hope to imply that the region shouldn’t– or at least won’t–be abandoned. Whether people staying in place means that life would be sustainable or healthy in the Tucson region is an open question. The challenge, as Jonathon Overpeck put it, is to “identify what we can adapt to, and what we cannot adapt to.” Here are some of the highlight from the panelists on that issue:

Abandoned Wasteland: Reasons for Deep Concern

  • More Severe Fire Seasons: By mid century, fire activity is estimated to increase between 40-175%. Besides threatening human life, ecosystems, and property, fire is also financially costly. In 2012, the U.S. spent $1.45 billion on fire suppression. The 2013 season is expected to be worse.
  • Less Reliable Water Supply: Increased evaporative capacity and decreased snow pack will change how and when the Southwest gets water.
  • Persistence of Major Disease Vectors: Mosquitoes are hardly fun to begin with, but have had a shorter season in the west than elsewhere. But, temperature rises are expected to create extended seasons for mosquitoes and other disease vectors.
  • Inability to Meet Peak Energy Demands: Assuming that more people will use air conditioning in 120 degree weather, the increased demand during those times can lead to brown outs, as well as contributing to the total GHG emissions load.
  • Food Security Dependent on Climate-Compromised Global Chain: This is more difficult to dissect because of the complex interconnections in the global food supply. The short of it is though, is that the Tucson region cannot produce enough food to feed its current population, and so is dependent on importing food. As agricultural regions become compromised by climate change, food imports in the southwest become compromised too.

Sustainable Living: Aids to Adaptation

  • Abundant Renewable Energy Options: Not only does the Southwest have better energy options from solar and wind power than other parts of the U.S., it also has room to improve its current energy efficiency. It is estimated that by just using best practices for energy efficiency, the region could have a 21% reduction in electricity demand, reduce emissions, and save approximately 18.5 billion gallons of water.
  • Culture of Conservation: This does not apply evenly across the Southwest, but in Tucson, there is a culture of water and energy conservation both at the policy level and at the consumer level. It’s not sufficient alone, though positive that we’re starting from a good foundation.
  • Cultural Connection to the Land and “Dogged Frontier Mentality”: There are some people in the Southwest who won’t or can’t leave for a variety of reasons. A functional inability to leave makes these people more vulnerable to climate change. Among these, Tribes with land-based culture and religion. How is this an aid to adaptation? It can be one because it means there is a base of people who want to stay, and will have have to push for sustainable living if they are going to survive here.

This last point is the most salient to me in answering the question posed by the panel. If there are people who cannot leave, then we need solutions for sustainable living here, rather depending wholly on migration from the Southwest to more hospitable places.

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