Southwest Likely to be Loser Thanks to Climate Change

Sep 17, 2012

Despite this year’s abundant monsoon season, researchers say climate change could be pushing the Southwest into a period of sustained drought. 

That’s the subject of a new book by William deBuys.

The Santa Fe author will be speaking tonight about his book, “A Great Aridness.”

He says climate change will produce winners and losers. And the Southwest will be a loser…

deBuys: The reason the Southwest is likely to be a loser in climate change is because it will become  more arid. And it will become more arid even if precipitation stays at current levels. And that’s because, in the hotter future, more heat means more evaporation.  And so as things heat up, there’s going to be less moisture available for  people to use, for plants and animals to use, even if precipitation stays steady. 

Smithson: You paint a pretty dark picture for the future of the Southwest. Can you describe what Northern Arizona might look like in the future?

deBuys: “I think one thing we can probably count on is that by mid-century there will be a lot less forests on mountains like the San Francisco Peaks, and there will be fairly chronic and continuous   water shortage in many communities throughout the region… We’ll see more fires, more insect outbreaks, and more direct  tree mortality caused just by heat.

Smithson: What effect will higher temperatures, less precipitation, more fires have on the people who live in Northern Arizona?   

deBuys: Well, I’m sure some people will become  very discouraged and some people will dig in deeper. It’s going to be a rough ride. We’re going to have to, all of us, we’re going to have to get  used to living with less water. And we’re going to have to be ready to adjust emotionally. And there will be heartbreak ahead, as we see familiar and much-loved landscapes change profoundly.

Smithson:  You talk about social problems in your book too, both in ancient civilizations that have collapsed and in other parts of the world where scarcity is already a reality. I wonder if you can talk about what social problems could arise in the Southwest because of climate change.    

deBuys: Drought tends to cause movement along the fault lines that exist in any society. Certainly the biggest fault line in the society of the Southwest is the international border where we’re building walls today. So I think we’re going to see probably strained relations and lots of different dimensions as the difficulties of climate change become more and more palpable. That certainly was the case hundreds of years ago when Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde went through their respective droughts. So if the past is prologue to the future, we can expect that kind of social strain again.

Smithson:  What should we be doing to prevent this, or can it be prevented? 

deBuys: There’s an awful lot of change already in the climate system. But as a society, we need to rally urgently to take action to limit greenhouse gases. There’s simply no question about that. We need to enact some sort of carbon tax, the sooner the better. But we also need to take measures to adapt to the changes that are already in the climate systems, that are going to come our way even if we do all the right things tomorrow. Even if we stop all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, the climate will still continue heating for at least another generation. So there’s a lot more we need to do in adaptation to become more drought resilient, more fire resilient, to become stronger communities, ready for the kinds of stresses that are bound to come our way.