What climate change has in store for the Southwest

Jon Goldstein

The Phoenix, AR, sprawl.

Bernard Lafond /Flickr

Many areas in the United States can plausibly lay claim to being the most threatened by climate change. New Orleans and New York have shown how sea level rise and super storms will wreak havoc on coastal cities. But for my money, it’s the American Southwest — where drought, water shortages and the cumulative effects of a half-century’s uncontrolled growth are already serious problems— that is most directly in the crosshairs.

That’s why a new book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, is so important. In it, author William deBuys brings readers along as he talks to a broad array of scientists and policy experts, all of whom are attempting to come to grips with the biggest issue of our time in this imperiled region.

The litany of challenges climate change will create for the Southwest, as deBuys runs through them, are sobering:

•       Less winter snowpack in mountains like New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristos, the southern end of the Rockies, meaning less spring runoff for farmers, less drinking water in municipal reservoirs and an imperiled winter skiing industry.

•       Increased demands on already overburdened resources like the Colorado River, a primary water source for tens of millions of people across seven states. The once mighty Colorado is so over-tapped that it no longer reaches the sea, the reason American Rivers recently listed it as the nation’s most threatened river.

•       More ferocious wildfires, of the sort that have burned over many thousands of acres in recent summers, darkening western skies and increasing the incidence of asthma in the region.

•       A very real human toll as migrants are forced to move on in search of wetter, more fertile lands that can sustain them and their families.

As Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona, tells de Buys: Climate change will create winners and losers, but “in the Southwest we are going to be losers. There is no doubt.”

Reading A Great Aridness we get to rattle along in a pickup with rangeland scientist Ed Fredrickson, as he tries to understand how to restore Chihuahuan desert grasslands along the U.S./Mexico border. 

We also get to walk along with Luther Propst, the then-director of the Sonoran Institute, as he scans the sprawl of suburban Phoenix and wonders about the sustainability of continued growth in an ever hotter, drier Southwest. 

DeBuys’ book also introduces us to well-known experts like Brad Udall of the University of Colorado’s Western Water Assessment Cooperative Institute for Research, as well as to lesser known figures like Mark Varien, an archeologist seeking to understand how a changing climate may have affected the region’s ancient pueblo inhabitants. We also get to meet their decedent, Edward Wemytewa of Zuni Pueblo, a descendant of those pueblo dwellers, who is trying to come to grips with today’s changing environment.

All are, to paraphrase the old Boy Scout motto, helping us be prepared. Preparation for climate change, as this book makes clear, is no simple matter. It includes pushing us to better manage limited water resources, working internationally to reform border policies and improve lands that can help support local residents, and understanding how our ancestors in the Southwest did, and did not, successfully cope with mega-drought. Finally, most importantly, preparation means working to limit greenhouse gas emissions to stem the worst effects of global warming.

There are no easy answers. But by engaging with the issue, we can all begin to meet the call that deBuys lays out as our best path forward, Southwesterners, he says, “will need to call heavily on the same qualities that allowed their past successes if they are to meet the challenges of the decades to come.”