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Climate Heads Into Unknown

SANTA FE, N.M. — The Southwest, including New Mexico – like most of the world’s dry zones – is headed into unmapped territory, ecologically speaking, and the resulting changes may affect everything from regional water politics to international relations with Mexico.

So said Santa Fe writer and conservationist William deBuys, speaking Thursday at the New Mexico History Museum about his latest book, “A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest.”

Forthcoming from Oxford University Press in October, the book combines conclusions from decades of diverse climatalogical data – studies of everything from tree rings to monsoon patterns, “burn scars” or two centuries worth of recorded ocean surface temperatures – with startlingly familiar photographs of the Southwest landscape in its present state. The acres and acres of beetle-killed piƱon around Los Alamos and Ojo Caliente, for example. Or the acres and acres of torched ponderosa pine along the Arizona-New Mexico Mogollon Rim – once the largest such forest on the planet and now so full of fire-generated “holes” that, deBuys said, there is no way a new ponderosa forest can re-establish itself there.

The Wallow Fire is burning on the extended Mogollon Rim and this week surpassed in size the Rodeo-Chediski Fire of 2002, which destroyed 732 square miles of ponderosa and mixed conifer forest just to the northwest of the current, record-setting burn.

“We’re going into ecological territory that’s unmapped,” deBuys said. “We don’t know what these areas will look like in the future.”

And, said deBuys, there is no question that climate change is coming or, indeed, already under way. And, he said, there’s no question that it’s the result of human activity that, since the Industrial Revolution three or four centuries back, has caused steadily rising carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas levels, as well as steadily rising median global temperatures.

“It’s not a matter of conjecture; it’s not a matter of debate,” he said.

It’s also not too late to do something about the problem, deBuys noted as he short-listed the nonclimatological ramifications of the situation. Increasing aridity in the Intermountain West and California – something most scientific studies agree on – will create “a very strange situation” in which the water needs of Phoenix are pitted against those of Los Angeles, those of Tucson against demand for water in San Diego.

DeBuys dismissed water conservation – something Santa Feans have gotten very good at, boasting one of the lowest per capita water usage rates in the area – as “a hoax.”

“What happens to all the water we save?” he asked. “It goes to the next subdivision or the next strip mall down the line.”

The result is “demand hardening” – fewer and fewer discretionary uses that can be cut in emergencies like drought-related water shortages.

“We could deal with this by limiting growth,” deBuys said. But, he noted, when Bolinas, Calif., tried that, capping the number of water meters allowed in the small community north of San Francisco, the result was a premium price for changing the meter from one person’s name to another – from the seller to the buyer of a home, for example.

It began to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to gain access to a meter – and thus to municipal water, deBuys said. “That can be viewed as a human rights violation, since everybody has a right to access to water. Until we resolve this, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Deserts creep north around the 30th parallel because of global climatalogical patterns like the trade winds. So, deBuys noted, Mexico’s arid regions – already drier than the arid Southwest – are set to become even more so. The result, according to some, could be increased northward migration – and increased mortality among immigrants trying to cross the borderland deserts.

“More people have died crossing this border than there are U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan,” deBuys said. “It’s not a war, but it has warlike characteristics.”

We could cope with climate change by immediately lowering greenhouse gas levels, he said. But we will nevertheless have to adapt to changes that have already been set in motion, including severe drought as “the new normal,” and catastrophic fires, floods and increasingly violent weather.

And instead of squandering water savings on new development, for example, we should be using them to create “serious and defensible water reserves,” deBuys said. But, he also noted, “we’re not even talking about this the way we ought to be.”

“If you really want to see change, you’ve been born into the right time,” he told his listeners. “But if you’re attached to a place – to a stand of trees or a river – you could be disappointed.”

Photo Credit – Photo Credit
Cutline – DEBUYS: Climate change already under way