Cornelia Dean reviews A Great Aridness by William deBuys and Bird On Fire by Andrew Ross, two works looking at Southwestern drought:
Cornelia Dean via NYTimes.com
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.
“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.
One step, Dr. Ross writes, would be to begin rectifying the environmental inequality that already consigns the poor to bad air, polluted water and general environmental degradation.
“Can the well-provisioned respond in kind to the environmentalist claims of the poor?” he asks. If an era of real water scarcity dawns, as many scientists now predict it inevitably will, the ability of states and localities to allocate supplies fairly will be a telling test. If they fail that test, Dr. Ross writes, they face a future of “eco-apartheid.”
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.”
I disagree with deBuys: The American southwest will be deserted, because people cannot easily live in climates without abundant water. Given the option to move away — which we have in the US today — people will migrate.
I expect a serious flight of people from the southwest this year. For example, the 500M trees that died in Texas last year — around 10% of all the state’s trees — will likely lead to serious brush fires. That, coupled with another year of record drought could lead millions of people to migrate north, back to the heartland: Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan.
In northern Mexico, the 2011 drought has already led to the migration of over 2.5M people.
I am predicting 20M Americans will eventually leave the southwest, moving north and east, over the next few years.
I also predict the Water Wars will be the most divisive issue confronting us in the next decades, and they will rage worldwide. We are not prepared for 100 million ecological refugees disregarding borders in order to get to water.