Portraits of the Southwest in the Shadow of Drought

NOTE:  NY Times readers who want to see an extended excerpt of my Nature article can go here: “Nature Publishes My Piece on Dust-Bowlification and the Grave Threat It Poses to Food Security.”

The NY Times reviews two new books on Dust-Bowlification — A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, and Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City:

Both authors cite the work of Jonathan Overpeck, a geologist and a director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona, whose tracking of simultaneously increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall leads him to conclude that a new era of drought is dawning in many regions. He is not alone. The NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies had already predicted that extreme droughts would be an every-other-year phenomenon in the United States by the middle of this century.

And of course, the American Southwest is not the only region experiencing drought apparently tied to climate change. According to the journal Science, of the 12 driest winters the Mediterranean has experienced since 1902, 10 have occurred in the last 20 years. Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say climate change can explain half of the added dryness.

See NOAA Bombshell: Human-Caused Climate Change Already a Major Factor in More Frequent Mediterranean Droughts

“The coming droughts ought to be a major driver — if not the major driver — of climate policies,” Joseph Romm wrote in a recent issue of the journal Nature. Dr. Romm, a physicist who edits the blog Climate Progress, added, “Raising public awareness of, and scientific focus on, the likelihood of severe effects of drought is the first step to prompting action.”

People who read these books will understand that message.

CP will run a full review of deBuys’ A Great Aridness shortly.

Dr. deBuys explains what we need to do and what we are likely to do:

Dr. deBuys puts it somewhat differently. History teaches that people have difficulty adapting to prolonged, extreme drought, he writes. Faced with it, they typically abandon efforts to cope and simply abandon their homes. That is why we call dry places deserts — they are deserted.

Is that tactic likely for today’s Southwest? No. But, he writes, any answers to the water challenge will require “strong social will and collective commitment.”

At the moment, though, the region’s politics tend to embrace the idea that collective action of any kind is inherently suspicious or even evil; government is the problem, never the solution; and regulation is the bane of economic growth.

These ideas are not in accord with Dr. deBuys’s prescription, which is to “get on with what we should have been doing all along, including limiting greenhouse gases.”

There is no silver bullet, he writes. “There is only the age-old duty to extend kindness to other beings, to work together and with discipline on common challenges.”


11 Responses to Portraits of the Southwest in the Shadow of Drought

  1. Wes Rolley says:

    I am afraid that we will first have to go through a period of trying all of the local technological responses to drought, or in well known language, adaptation. There will be a demand for more dams, more irrigation systems, less regulation, etc. There will also be a strong reaction against any effort to make the water user pay the full cost of such adaptation. The anti-government, “wise use” memes of the Sagebrush Rebellion ( still resound throughout the West.

    In the long run, major industry, especially industrial scale agriculture, will be the only place where such funding can be found.

    You only have to look closely at the manner in which the fate of the Sacramento / San Joaquin Delta plays out. There, the most powerful water users have secretly inserted their own employees into the official government planning process and secured the special legislative benefits from Sen. Feinstein.

  2. dex3703 says:

    Having spent some time here, I doubt there is any human scale solution to continued presence in the desert Southwest. Once it becomes impossible to live there–which, really, it always was with more than a very small population–people won’t live there.

    I think this century will see the abandonment of a wide swath of modern ideas and entitlements, and with breathtaking speed. Dostoyevsky comes to mind: make us slaves, but feed us.

  3. thanes says:

    When I read the policy prescription above, “to extend kindness to other human beings, to work together and with discipline on common challenges” I get to both understand and marvel at modern English-speaking Conservatism.
    Outside of warfare, the federal government is strictly forbidden in being relevant for this prescribed behavior, as an article of faith, by Jesus Christ in consultation with the Founding Fathers, so much so that the mere possibility you would have to alter that short-circuits rational consideration of what may be suicide for our species (global warming). How did the American Right get there? How does it get back?

  4. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Yep, prolonged extreme drought has a way of changing behaviour and ideas rapidly and slow learners are helped along with their learning in no uncertain ways, ME

  5. Grant Foster says:

    Hey Joseph where’s the post about arctic methane?

  6. Colorado Bob says:

    If one has the money, and the time. Contact the Ute’s in extreme Southern Colorado, South of Mesa Verde’ even.
    There in small groups with a Ute guide, you can ride on horse back into the ruins they have kept. Same culture as Mesa Verde’, but without the Modern American tourist infrastructure imposed on it.

    What one see’s there is a people that just got up and left. Corn cobs , ghosts, and broken pottery are everywhere.

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    We mustn’t worry Merrelyn. With all that desert blossoming we might get a new wave of desertic mysticism, like the patriarchial monotheism that has served humanity so well, and appears to have sprung from the deserts. More prophets from the desert-just what we need. As for the planet-she’ll be right, in a few thousand, or hundred thousand years, time.

  8. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I have often wondered about the propensity of deserts to create prophets. I met a few in my desert where people like my dad used to give them a feed and a beer and try to keep them out of the looney bin.

    But alas Mulga, today, prophets have multiplied like rabbits eating the internet out of house and home and generally devaluing the mystical currency, ME

  9. Joe Romm says:

    Posted a week ago. Google it. I’m on vacation.

  10. jcwinnie says:

    I tell older people (older than my 62 years) that they should warn their great grandchildren about what to expect in terms of consequences from climate change. Such advice is not well received. That’s O.K. The catastrophes they will face will be much harder to face than my smart-ass advice.

  11. mulp says:

    I pray for Texas to have drought for as long as Rick Perry denies the Texas drought is caused by man.

    So far, God is listening to me and not to Gov Perry and his followers.

    Every time I see the animated US weather map I say, “please God bypass Texas” and my prayers are repeatedly answered.