The southwestern United States is moving headlong toward an environmental catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions.
The already drought-prone region is almost entirely dependent on a shrinking snowpack and sparse rain in the Colorado River Basin. As the planet’s climate changes, an already overtaxed and volatile water supply is expected to get even more unstable.
“A lot of people say that in global warming there will be winners and losers. In the Southwest, we’ll be in the losers’ category,” University of Arizona climatologist Jonathan Overpeck said at a symposium on global warming’s effect on the Southwest.
Overpeck discussed the latest scientific consensus on climate change at the Feb. 19 symposium, hosted by the Urban Land Institute at the Palms.
He was joined by Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy, who discussed what can be done on a local, national and international scale to head off disaster.
The problem of climate change in the Southwest is fairly complex, but can be summed up in one word: water.
The Southwest is the most persistent hot spot on the globe and has a history of severe drought.
As a region, we depend almost entirely on the Colorado River Basin for our water, and all climate change projections estimate that the basin will be among the most heavily hit by drought as the world warms. Most projections say the region will warm by about 7 degrees by 2050 and 10 degrees by the end of the century.
There is a 10 percent chance the warming in this region could be double that — about 20 degrees warmer by 2100.
At the same time, the region will experience its typical drought pattern. That means it will be hotter and dryer from the mountaintops to the valley floors and we’ll have a lot less water available to deal with it.
The most up-to-date climate models available show that if humans reduce carbon emissions significantly starting now, water flow in the Colorado River Basin will be reduced by 5 percent to 40 percent over the next few decades.
If we do nothing, it will be worse, Overpeck said.
“We’ve had low rain and low snow for many years; there’s no doubt we’re already in a drought,” he said. “The thing is, with climate change, we may never come out of the drought.”
The global scientific community agrees that climate change is occurring and is caused by the activities of humans, mostly from deforestation and growing greenhouse gas emissions.
“We need to adapt to drought and climate change because whether we cause it through global warming or Mother Nature causes it or both, we’re still going to suffer,” Overpeck said.
Much of the responsibility for reversing the emission trend falls on Americans, who create about 25 percent of the carbon being spewed into the atmosphere each year.
“The United States is a voracious consumer of natural resources,” Mulroy said. “Those days are over. We can’t afford to use natural resources at the rate we’re currently using them.”
Much also must be done to halt growing production of polluting fossil fuel-fired power plants in China and India and to fund retrofits or replacement of polluting power plants in poorer nations around the world.
That change has to start at home, Mulroy stressed.
“We need to be part of the solution,” she said. “We can’t be in the eye of the storm and not look at our carbon footprint and energy sources.”
To start, she suggests massive regionwide management and conservation of water resources. This includes regulation of the agriculture industry, indicating what crops can be grown in drought-prone areas, decreases in water consumption by residents and industry, widespread wastewater recycling and more efficient management of snowmelt and rainfall through underground catchment basins.
She also said it’s essential to tap into alternative water sources for urban areas such as Las Vegas.
“The most daunting thing is adaptation, and adaptation has to happen at all levels from large institutional changes to individual behavioral levels,” Mulroy said.
That includes urban and suburban developers.
Mulroy said tomorrow’s neighborhoods need to be more condensed, more sustainable and more community oriented. That means smaller or no yards and no more brick walls, but shared recreation areas are necessary.
Not only would such a design be more efficient, it would also help rebuild a sense of community in places such as Las Vegas.
“We’ve built a community of people who share borders — that’s it,” she said.
She also urged Nevada builders and architects to put pressure on the Green Building Counsel to take a more regional approach to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certifications.
Specifically, she wants to see the end of LEED points for gray-water systems in Las Vegas to be replaced by points for sending the water down the drain, where 100 percent of it is recycled and sent back to Lake Mead.
This could encourage other municipalities to recycle wastewater as well.
“Gray-water systems won’t generate a single drop of new water,” she said. “You’re simply replacing a municipal water recycling program with an individual water recycling program.”
The region also needs to take advantage of the opportunity to turn renewable resources into electricity, both speakers
If fossil fuel-fired power plants were reduced and renewable energy were dedicated to charging electric cars, the country could significantly reduce its carbon footprint and slow climate change.
The key is to start working on these solutions now, Mulroy and Overpeck said.
“The Southwest needs a plan to adapt,” Overpeck said. “The longer we wait, the worse it will be and for a very long time.”
Future is 'bleak' warns Joschka Fischer
Joschka Fischer, the former German vice-chancellor, has issued a bleak assessment of Europe's prospects for surviving the financial crisis, warning that leaders of a "self-weakening" continent are failing to come to grips with its decline.
By Michael Levitin in Berlin
Last Updated: 7:09AM GMT 26 Feb 2009
Former German vice-chancellor Joschka Fischer Photo: PHILIP HOLLIS
"Modern capitalism is based on a global ponzi scheme," he said. "There is no quick fix to this very severe crisis. It will transform global reality in a similar way as the collapse of the Soviet Union transformed the global system 20 years ago."
Global power was shifting from West to East, "and it's completely short-sighted to believe that other powers will look after our interests", Mr Fischer said in a speech to the London School of Economics.
"We are ignoring the basic facts – we're discussing whether we are creating super-states or not, whether to help Berlusconi or not – but we don't discuss our relative decline."
The result, he predicted, would be an acceleration of the transfer of power from West to East – something that did not bode well for an inward-looking Europe.
"If you walk through the corridors of Washington these days, everyone's talking about China. Add India, Indonesia and Southeast Asia," he said. "It was not by chance that Hillary Clinton made her first foreign trip to Asia."
As Eastern EU economies crumbled, "there is a serious question mark: whether richer European economies understand that they must contribute to the refinancing of those economies. Otherwise, enlargement is in danger... [and] we will invite other powers to play games in a very unstable and insecure situation. I'm not talking just about the economy, but about peace and insecurity on the European continent."
Mr Fischer, 60, who was foreign minister and vice-chancellor under Gerhard Schröder, the former chancellor, from 1998 to 2005, added: "Europe is in a very precarious situation because we are strongly integrated with the common market and the euro zone. On the other hand, Europe is not integrated enough to act decisively. We don't have streamlined institutions. We don't have a strong common foreign policy or security policy."
He said Europe was weak in dealing with Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and crises in the Middle East.
Europe would become irrelevant – and vulnerable – if it kept failing to speak with a united voice, beginning with the creation of "a strong European pillar for Nato".
"America will follow its interests and the question will be simple: can you deliver? [If yes], then trans-atlanticism will have a future. If Europe cannot deliver in time, and deliver enough, then I predict huge problems."
John Kinsman: Nation's food system nearly broke
John Kinsman — 2/26/2009 12:30 pm
As our government enacts a stimulus package and President Barack Obama announces bold initiatives to stem home mortgage foreclosures, disaster threatens family farmers and their communities.
The government's response to plummeting commodity prices and tightening credit markets leads to the basic question: Who will produce our food? This is a worldwide crisis. U.S. policy and the demand for deregulation at all levels -- from food production to financial markets -- contribute greatly to the global collapse. The solution must be grounded in food sovereignty so that all farmers and their communities can regain control over their food supply. This response makes sense here in Wisconsin and was the global message from the 500+ farmer leaders at the Via Campesina conference in Mozambique in October.
Many U.S. farmers are going out of business because they receive prices equal to about one half their cost to produce our food. How long could any enterprise receiving half the amount of its input costs stay in business? As an example, dairy farmers in the Northeast and Midwest must be paid between 30 and 35 cents per pound for their milk to pay production costs and provide basic living expenses. Until 1980, farmers received a price equal to 80 percent of parity, meaning that farmers' purchasing power kept up with the rest of the economy. Unfortunately, a 1981 political decision discontinued parity, and today the dairy farmers' share is below 40 percent.
"Free trade" and other regressive agricultural policies have decimated farms. We are now a food deficit nation dependent on food imports, often of questionable quality.
Our food system is nearly broke, which is almost as serious as our country's financial meltdown. With fair farm policies, farmers would get fair prices that would not require higher consumers prices. The Canadian dairy pricing system is the best example that proves fair farmer prices can and often do bring lower consumer prices and a healthier rural economy. In addition, excessive middleman profits are taking advantage of both consumers and producers.
As more farmers face bankruptcy, we all face a food emergency. European farmers speak from thousands of years of experience on the importance of family farms when they warn us, "Any time a country neglects its family farm base and allows it to become financially bankrupt, the entire economy of that country will soon collapse. It may take generations to rebuild the farm economy and that of the country."
Despite the magnitude of this food emergency, the "farm crisis" does not appear in headlines, so politicians are not compelled to provide political or financial assistance to something that would likely fail to bring votes. As farmers, we are now only about 1 percent of the U.S. population, and have little power to expose and prevent our demise. However, our urban and rural friends could be vital voices and advocates.
Bailing out the financial giants will not solve the financial crisis in the country, but the right policies and stimulus dollars could prevent a severe food crisis by saving farmers and workers. Furthermore, farm income dollars remain in and multiply at least two to four times in the local economy.
Family farmers have proposed fair food and farm policies that can be implemented at a fraction of the present multibillion-dollar policies destroying us. As the Treasury Department develops plans to distribute the bailout funds, the National Family Farm Coalition and others urge it to require banks receiving funds to treat their borrowers fairly by providing debt restructuring as an alternate to home or farm foreclosure or bankruptcy.
Concerned citizens can call the White House, 202-456-1111, or your members of Congress, 202-224-3121, to urge them to support policies that enable farmers to earn a fair market price; request an emergency milk price at $17.50 per hundred weight; provide price stability through government grain reserves and effective supply management; support the TRADE Act to be reintroduced in Congress; increase direct and guaranteed loans to family farmers; and ensure that the food we raise can be marketed to local schools and institutions, providing a better food supply at a fair price. We need these immediate changes in our food and farm policy.
John Kinsman, a dairy farmer from La Valle, is president of Family Farm Defenders, based in Madison.