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A Great Aridness

By now a number of books have been written about climate change and its daunting implications, and regular reporting about it has become a focus of serious environmental journalism. While there is still a detectable bias toward hope that we can act quickly and comprehensively enough to head off the worst of its effects, there is a growing recognition that the distorting effects of climate change are now a determining factor in everyday life.

In one particularly dramatic presentation, the Natural Resources Defense Council published an Extreme Weather Map on its website in late 2011 that depicted the locations of weather events that broke close to three thousand monthly weather records around the United States that year – including record temperatures, record rain and snowfall, flooding, drought and wildfires. You can scroll through the months of the year and see the range and variety of different events for each month in each state. In its totality, it is startling and provides one of the few images of climate change that gives the palpable sense that it is here, now and constantly changing – and it is everywhere.

Very few books have actually taken a close look at how climate change is currently affecting the environment and human society in a particular geographical area. One of those that has is A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest by New Mexico author William deBuys. DeBuys has been writing about the Southwest and its changing environment for several years. With A Great Aridness, he started off writing an environmental history of the Southwest until he realized that the present and likely future impact of climate change was such a game changer that it deserved his focus. He writes with the grace and sensitivity of a poet and historian, which makes the book more compelling than many of the more clinical accounts that are currently available. 

DeBuys writes about abandonments of thriving Anasazi settlements during climate swings close to a thousand years ago, and refers to the "evocations of a lost Southwestern civilization – a sort of dehydrated Atlantis, its wind haunted ruins dark with mystery." Such imagery offers resonance for many of us who try to imagine what our current civilization might look like to someone a thousand years from now. But he also points several times in his narrative to the remarkable ability of past civilizations to survive climate catastrophes and to the tenacity of several species that have endured years of habitat loss at the hand of human civilization.

What deBuys has done is target a small handful of locations that embody particular dilemmas that are being pushed hard by increasing heat and accompanying drought. The simplest explanation he offers for what is happening now is that the increasing warming of our climate will be added to an existing series of recurrent drought cycles that have characterized the climate of the Southwest for centuries – and brought earlier civilizations to the edge of survival. Current human civilization in the American Southwest is already living dangerously close to its own edge even without the ominous specter of more heat and drought, so climate change could push us beyond our manageable limits.

"The Southwest is actually one of those places where it’s the perfect firestorm," notes Tom Swetnam, director of the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree Ring Research.  "It's not all climate change; it's not all warming; it’s not all fuel changes; it's not just the problem of people moving into these landscapes. It is all of the above."

The big dramas involve water and population. DeBuys writes of life on the Mexican border and of the steady stream of economic migrants crossing into the United States every day. He cautions that with the increasing aridity brought on by accelerating climate change, migration will likely increase rather than decrease, and no amount of obstruction – whether in the form of laws or the giant wall separating the two countries – is likely to slow it down for long, much less stop it.

There will be increasing demands upon the water of the great Colorado River as well as on underground supplies. Both Lake Meade and Lake Powell – the giant reservoirs on the Colorado that provide an enormity of water to agriculture and the major urban centers of the Southwest (including Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix) – are already at less than half capacity. In a sign of just how desperate planning may become in years ahead, the city of Las Vegas is entertaining the idea of putting a drain at the bottom of Lake Meade, below the last out-take valve, in order to take advantage of whatever water remains should things get dramatically worse. The predictions for water availability in coming years are not reassuring at all, suggesting a five to 20 percent flow reduction in the Colorado River by 2050 (at a time when continued population increase is almost a certainty).

What makes this particular story about climate change so sobering are the author’s explanations of just how complex the existing problems of land management and water supply are. Any attempts to resolve problems of growing scarcity in the future will be burdened with an enormity of factors, from the tangle of government agencies and generations of law, to the competing ambitions of human beings, to a growing population and continued urbanization. "Sustainability... it's the IQ test for humans in the 21st century," says Brad Udall, an engineer and member of the famous Udall family.  "And I am not certain that we are going to pass the test."

A Great Aridness is not a cheery read, nor should it be. There are perhaps too many books that recount the endless hypothetical scenarios of climate change as some upcoming threat and then take the easy way out by telling us the five or ten things we can do to prevent it. By situating the story of climate change in the present day realities of the already parched Southwest, deBuys provides his readers with a realistic assessment of what is in store, and he also provides one of the best depictions of climate change that we now have.

Photos are copyright protected and may not be reproduced without permission. Copyright information for images are as follows: 1)Hovenweep, photo courtesy of Jonmikel and Kathryn Pardo; 2) Dune, photo courtesy of Todd Shoemake and used with the permission of Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 Generic; 3) White Sand Dunes NM, photo courtesy of the LaMadrileña and used with the permission of Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0 Generic.

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John Richardson
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