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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.

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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.”

Precisely.