Global Climate Change Lessons from the Southwest

By John Buell

Political commentators, even many who acknowledge the danger of human-induced global climate change, assert that its risks will be greatest in the so-called underdeveloped world.

Picture low lying tropical areas engulfed in floods and the total loss of some island nations. Correct as that picture may be, it is insufficiently attentive to the strong possibility that global climate change is already having a major effect on much of the US, that it is taking a major economic bite out of US growth.

Furthermore, even when the most severe effects of climate change occur in the Third World, its effects will not stay there. In a mobile and interconnected world, the populations damaged by climate change cannot be expected to stay put. The borders constructed by the affluent north will in all likelihood prove insufficient to staunch the flow of populations.

Steps can be taken to slow the pace of climate change and reduce the likelihood of violent upheavals. William deBuys’ A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, is a sensitive and provocative introduction to these themes. For readers like myself who have not followed the scientific literature on climate change closely, deBuys provides a readable and entertaining story of the emergence of our theoretical understanding of climate change.

Scientists have been able to project estimates as to climatic conditions in earlier eras, projections that have been widely confirmed through such measurements as tree rings from many hundred- year- old trees. The great Native American civilizations of the Southwest, such as the Hohokam of present day Arizona, saw their civilization deteriorate in the face of droughts and population incursions.

DeBuys writes: “… over centuries the Hohokam scaled up their irrigation system to meet the needs of a large and growing population. They mastered life in an austere land. Yet the system they built, past a certain point, paradoxically became their nemesis. It could not be scaled down when external circumstances and the capability of their society changed.”

Much of the great Southwest is built on intensive water storage and transport systems, the capacity of which is not equal to needs that would be occasioned by droughts equaled at several points in the last thousand years. If the banks that made the Southwest housing boom and bust possible were leveraged at obscene levels, so too are the Southwest’s water systems.

Yet current models suggest that climate change will be more rapid than ever before and that future droughts will be drier and even more long lasting.  Droughts, probably intensified by climate change, are already occasioning extraordinarily massive forest fires whose course is highly unpredictable.

We need not go back to the Hohokam to observe the ugly possibilities of population flows occasioned by widespread human suffering.

The border with Mexico divides the wealthiest area in the world from one of the poorest.

Population flows from south to north reflect the extreme poverty and desperation of our neighbors to the south. But just like their confidence in an endless supply of water and the technologies to deliver it, many Americans have an equally facile solution — build a wall and they will not come. The wall and the accompanying military presence have only made the border more dangerous.

Nor have they substantially discouraged population flows. (The wall actually discourages return to Mexico.)

Solving the problem of climate change in the American Southwest, DeBuys says, will require action on several fronts. Land use planning can encourage denser development and reduction or elimination of heat islands.

Mass transit and more energy saving heating and cooling systems would reduce green house emissions and save commuting and shopping time.

According to DeBuys, the future of the Southwest depends on more than its own internal politics. Immigration reform premised on the economic rights of all who work in our workplaces is one key.

John Buell is the author of Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2012

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