Apocalypse No: Claims That Metro Phoenix Is Doomed Because of Climate Change Are Greatly Exaggerated

Categories: Cover Story

The subtitle of Andrew Ross' book about Phoenix, Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City, is fact-challenged.

Phoenix is way ahead in the game of sustainability, owing to nothing more than America's wealth.

"Least sustainable" would apply more to Nogales, Mexico, a city of about 220,000 that has doubled in population since 1990 and has neighborhoods that receive only intermittent water supplies. And water quality in Nogales barely would qualify for use on a Phoenix golf course.

Or take Beijing. Sure, it's been a municipality for at least 3,000 years. But with unprecedented growth, it's facing huge sustainability problems. Per-capita water allotment in Beijing is a tenth of the international average. The city and its outskirts plan to rely on a $62 billion diversion project under construction that will tap the Yangtze River in southern China to bring water north, and the country is spending another $3.3 billion to build air-polluting, coal-powered desalination plants on its east coast. Even when these projects are completed in a few years, it's unknown whether Beijing will meet its growing water needs.

In the United States, several cities are in worse shape, sustainability-wise, than Phoenix. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, for example, received the highest risk rating by a group of utility investors in 2010. In Atlanta, which relies on just one main surface-water source, officials warned in 2008 that the city was just three months away from running out of fresh water. Closer to home, groundwater-pumping Tucson has more to worry about than Phoenix.

Yet Phoenix's sustainability prospects get the most attention in the media -- probably for no other reason than that it's really hot here.

"Will thirsty Phoenix survive climate change?" Natalie Muilenberg, a social-media editor for the ASU sustainability institute, asks readers in a July 10 article published on the university's news site.

Her short article, about a USA Today climate-change story on Phoenix, answers her own question with the statement "some believe so" -- suggesting that most don't believe so.

The irony of Muilenberg's article is that the USA Today story mentioned specifically that Phoenix was better suited for the drier future than most other places in the Southwest: "While Phoenix may be able to withstand a future with climate change due to its three water sources, other locations in the Southwest may not: [Greg Garfin, a University of Arizona climate scientist] says the most vulnerable areas for water in the Southwest are New Mexico, California, the Colorado Front Range, and Las Vegas."

Even without climate change, "mega-droughts" strangled the region periodically in the time of the Hohokam, lessening rainfall for decades at a time. If one of these mega-droughts takes hold and is worsened by reduced rainfall from climate change, according to a forthcoming article in the American Meteorological Society Journal, decades of stream flows "much lower than have been observed in the past 100 years would result."

But a regional mega-drought combined with climate change would affect other Western U.S. cities, too. Phoenix, more experienced in providing water for millions of people in a dry and drought-prone environment, indeed is better prepared for the possibility of a warmer, drier future than many cities.

Faced with less water and a larger population, the smaller towns and rural areas of Arizona will face stalled growth long before Phoenix.

"There is no new [Central Arizona Project] to unite Arizona water users with tantalizing visions of more water in the future," writes Thomas Sheridan in the 2012 edition of Arizona: A History. "The water we have now will flow up hills, down hills, and sideways toward money, and that money is in metro Phoenix. The rest of the state will fight over the scraps."

Reached at his office at New York University, Ross sounded embarrassed by his book's subtitle as he tried to defend it. He accused New Times of a fixation on the subtitle. But more exaggerations that attempt to back up the book's theme can be found in its pages.

"Phoenix is the most environmentally challenged of American cities," Ross wrote on page 50.

What about New Orleans, which sits below sea level in Hurricane Alley?

The statistics behind the first footnote in the introductory chapter are misleading, setting a bad precedent for the rest of the tome. Ross states that Arizona "added fossil fuels faster than any other state" since 1990. Though this may be true, it's only a function of the increased population. In fact, Arizona's per-capita fossil-fuel emissions were average among states before and after the latest population boom.

Ross argues that Mexican illegal immigration largely is the fault of climate change (the theory being that Mexicans are fleeing arid conditions in their country) and that Arizona's "ill treatment" of undocumented residents "was the first skirmish in the climate wars of the future."

It's an interesting hypothesis, but Ross' claim that the divisiveness of immigration enforcement creates metro Phoenix's greatest sustainability challenge fails to appreciate that multitudes of Hispanics, documented or not, move to the Valley. They find jobs and settle here, and now make up about 30 percent of the state's population. The growth of Hispanics in all but two counties, Pinal and Gila, has outpaced average growth for the past 20 years.

Their influx and presence makes this place more sustainable, not less -- despite the bitter feelings of some current residents -- or the pessimism of those like Ross.

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31 comments
BigBob
BigBob

The claims may be exaggerated, but that does not mean they are altogether false.  We have the data.  This really isn't that hard to see.  Turn on your evening news and notice how often we post record highs.  Then look up what the historic record highs are for any given date; they're all within the last 10 years.  "We" developed in every direction ten years ago, laying down asphalt and packing as many cookie cutter houses in as we could.  The outlying citrus farms are long gone.  "We" are still on the cookie cutter trend, and building in every direction.  Less and less space for plant life.  If we keep doing the same things, like we are, it can only get worse.       

arizonaeagletarian
arizonaeagletarian

Will people still want to live here when summer high temps routinely hit 130F? That may depend on the prospects for SOLAR energy as well as adequate water supply. Holed up in our homes or schools or offices far more than we do now.

I could have sworn I've seen ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability abbreviated "GIOS", not SOS. Where did Stern get that one?


Only touching on desalination of sea water from the Gulf of California in passing, I wonder how much energy desalination takes. Wouldn't that require an awful lot of electricity? Wouldn't SOLAR be the most logical place to look to develop that energy?


Even granting all of Sterns caveats, it all depends on whether massive numbers of people will still want to live here in a scenario where highs exceed 100F for 9 or 10 months every year.

How well will crops adapt to the higher night and day time temps? Stern says farmers will be able to produce more produce with less water. I'll grant that vision for agricultural technology, but how will trees and crops withstand persistent 130F summer days with lows rarely dipping below 100?.


Water, food supply (which depends on water) and energy -- there are way too many open questions to reasonably be able to say with the certainty that Stern does that Phoenix will still be thriving by 2114.

Stern seems to have set about to debunk doomsday climate scenarios, and may have partially succeeded. But he didn't make a very strong case for a thriving Valley of the Unbearably Intense Sun.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"The campuses' square footage has grown by 26 percent since 2007. All of Crow's work will be in vain if fears of unsustainability become reality by the time the current students are grandparents."

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"Though climate studies do reveal a likelihood of reduced river flows"

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"Nancy Selover, Arizona's official state climatologist"

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

Funny to hear libertarians who pooh-pooh energy efficient light bulbs champion water-efficient toilets.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"New development would continue." This is the politics of this article.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"A few more degrees won't matter" -- it will if you're farming/gardening.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

I like how the sentence ""worst-case scenarios are not likely" can exist in the same year we crashed heat records in the summer and in the winter.

Krazy Bill
Krazy Bill

i had expected better from the New Times.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

Also, MAG? Really? That's your expert? They never met a freeway they didn't love...

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

Developers: please keep coming here so we can keep selling you property!

Krazy Bill
Krazy Bill

i read this tonight; boosterism, that's all it is.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

Damn, I enjoyed that 82 degrees yesterday. Did you?

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

News Editors; 

Get up to date:

*Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.

*Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).

 *Julian Assange is of course a climate change denier.

 *Obama had not mentioned the crisis in two State of the Unions addresses. 

I believe history will look back upon this Reefer Madness of climate blame as a pure war crime and child abuse for goose stepping billions of innocent children to the greenhouse gas ovens of a knowingly exaggerated climate crisis. Not one scientist EVER said it will be "unavoidable" like they say comet hits are and almost all of their research was into effects not causes of an assumed to be real crisis. Maybe the real crime was those of us who chose to work so hard to believe in this misery and issue our own children CO2 death threats to a crisis we believed at the grunt of a headline. How can history not brand us all as end of the world freaks? Hopefully those of us who helped perpetrate 30 years of needless CO2 panic (news editors) will have the legacy of their grandkids explaining to their kids how they were all condemned so easily and with such sickening childish glee.

Science could end this debate instantly just by agreeing one way or the other from their consensus of just "could be" a cataclysmic climate crisis because there is no such thing as a little tiny catastrophic climate crisis so it's a yes or a no; Is a climate crisis from Human CO2 inevitable instead of just probable after 30 years of research?


fishingblues
fishingblues topcommenter

@BigBob   Big Boob  "We have the data"  --- fucking moron, who has the data?  You and Al Gore?  Temperature records have been kept for the last 130 years.  Temperatures on earth have been going up and down for the last 4 1/2 billion years.  Fucking illiterate hoser.  

gmanator31
gmanator31

It could be worse. You could be holed up in your little cubby hole called a house in cold ass Saint Louis where I live lol! Except here in STL you would be holed up for 6 months, not Phoenix's 3!

Believe me dude, I've lived in both cities, and Phoenix beats STL by an astronomical unit lol!

ray.stern
ray.stern moderator

@arizonaeagletarian Hi, and thanks for writing. As my article suggests, (and state climatologist Selover backs up), the prospect of the sort of heat you're talking about is also quite unlikely. A few degrees hotter, maybe, but not nine months with highs over 100, and not routine 130-degree days. The highest temp ever recorded in Phoenix, 122, was 24 years ago. If Phoenix ever starts having "persistent" 120-degree days, the notion of persistent 130-degree days someday might become believable! Experts told me that climate change would be more like moving Phoenix (average elevation 1,124 feet) to a more southern latitude, not moving it to Death Valley, which is below sea level. One other thing I couldn't squeeze into the article is that a few folks told me that future buildings will be designed to limit the heat-island effect, meaning the nights might be cooler in Phoenix in, say, 20 or 30 years than they are now.


GIOS is the Global Institute. SOS is the School of Sustainability. As in, "All new freshmen take part in Camp SOS, which provides students with an introduction to the School of Sustainability, their major, faculty, staff, and their peers." -- http://schoolofsustainability.asu.edu/undergraduate/sos-camp


Lastly, I did ask experts about whether solar was a good energy source for desalination plants. The answer was "no," because desal apparently takes a lot of continuous energy, which solar doesn't provide. One possibility suggested by a physics professor I know is that solar could pump water to a large reservoir at the top of the hill, and when clouds pass overhead or at night, water would be released and used for hydro-electric power. I suppose that concept could be mated with a desal plant. (I'll be writing about that professor's ideas in a blog post soon...)


Happy holidays, everyone. And stay cool!

gmanator31
gmanator31

I thought it was a rather well informed and researched article! Very entertaining too!

The fact is that he is stating the obvious how it is not very fashionable to not believe in all of the modern climatology hype!

I've done extensive research on this topic and not only do I agree with the author, but I also have been telling people this for years!

Do yourself and most of those that have to listen to you a favor. Please put down the pot and acid for a solid year to get your head straight! Not everything in life is built around left wing dooms day, emo, hipsters saying how righteous (Ironically) that they are!

BigBob
BigBob

@fishingblues @BigBob  It's funny, I actually stated how one could, so to speak, "look up" the aforementioned data.  Either you are too stupid to understand what something that simple means, or you are a pathetic internet troll who tries to politicize everything.  Next time you're at the library trolling on their internet computers ask one of the nice ladies who works there to show you how to look it up.  Or, continue to try to make everything in your life about all the small minded political hot button issues that make you so angry.  Either way you are clearly a pathetic, worthless shit stain of a human being.  I take solace seeing how angry your ignorance makes you.  With ignorance comes anger. 

FRONTERA
FRONTERA

@fishingblues@BigBob yes gore won the 2000 electon ,bush stole it with  republican US SUPREME  COURT . If you don't think this planet is n trouble from unfeatered STATE CAPITALISM (you can suck the KOOKE BROS ) jaPAN  FUKAHIMA ,eat that tuna fishing blues ,radio active in your guts. Let me tell you ,you wallst. CAP.PIG... IM about to put the big bet on ,and go SHORT THE SP500 ,JUST LIKE JOE KENNEDY,BUST TIME HA HA ,GETTIN  HORNEY THINKIN BOUT ALL THE MONEY I GONNA MAKE  WHEN YOUR 401 K GOES BUST....PONZI SCHEME  CNBC..

1wayfaringpilgrim
1wayfaringpilgrim

@fishingblues @BigBob fishingblues, your appalling lack civility is exceeded only by your obvious inability to respond in an intelligent and articulate manner.  Fucking asswipe!

royalphoenix
royalphoenix

@ray.stern The US Navy has desalination plants on board their ships. I drank that water for a year. Desalination will be mired in political red tape for decades. peace

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@fishingblues <== the ignorant uneducated retard who doesn't know the difference between believes and beliefs now wants to teach the world everything he knows about science.


ROTFLMAO !!





fishingblues
fishingblues topcommenter

@BigBob @fishingblues Boob - angry?  dumb fuck - I suppose you think I'm a "hater "also.  You sound just like all of the other junior high girls.

If you don't think the crapola being put out as fact, relative to "global warming", isn't political and money motivated, than your big old melon of a head is way up your big old universe of an ass.  

Jazus!  You stupid fucking liberals are gullible.  

fishingblues
fishingblues topcommenter

@1wayfaringpilgrim @fishingblues @BigBob 


Well now fari, I suppose your response and "appalling lack of civility" is exempt from what you claim because, well, it is from you.


I find it difficult to respond in an "intelligent" fashion when the statement "we have the data" was so patently absurd.


Now, prove to the listening audience how "intelligent" you are by explaining exactly where I have been inarticulate.  numbnuts!


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