Longform

Claims That Metro Phoenix Is Doomed Because of Climate Change Are Exaggerated

A  scorching, 120-degree breeze stirs dust in the streets before passing through the windowless ruins of former mansions on the flanks of Camelback Mountain.

The largest ghost town in history extends to every horizon of the Valley of the Sun — now a superheated no man's land of crumbling walls, dead trees, and dry, debris-filled pits that used to be swimming pools. Only a few settlements remain, mostly to provide services for people passing through.

The date is January 1, 2114.

Phoenix, like the mythical bird it was named after, has died once again. Only there will be no hope-affirming resurrection this time.

As the Hohokam abandoned the area in the 1400s following a good run of more than a millennium, modern settlers also now have fled.

The catastrophe didn't happen overnight. It followed decades of little to no flow from the Colorado River, extended drought in the Gila and Salt watersheds, and the pumping of all groundwater. The southwestern United States was seen as the bull's-eye of climate change in the early 21st century, and central Arizona was slammed with an epic drought as bad as or worse than anything in the prehistoric record.

Time-travel back to 2014: Warnings of such a bleak future are sounding.

Looking into their crystal balls, some environmentalists and climate experts envision this science-fiction-like destiny for the region, give or take a few decades. At best, they see a region beset by extreme global-warming effects that spur not total abandonment, perhaps, but an economic tailspin, population decline, and far fewer days of pleasant weather for the hardy souls who choose to remain here.

"Temperatures could regularly hit the 130s in Phoenix by the second half of this century due to human-caused climate change," University of Arizona climate-change scientist Jonathan Overpeck told an Arizona legislative panel in 2009.

The question isn't whether the manmade Colorado River reservoirs Lake Mead and Lake Powell will go dry, it's when, Overpeck said. And it might happen by 2050. Economic calamity would result.

"Once the Central Arizona Project [canal] goes dry for one year, our state is dead," Overpeck warned. "People won't want to live here anymore."

In the 2010 book Dead Pool, geologist James Lawrence Powell offers a more comprehensively bleak future for the Valley than the one presented. It says it will happen in the 2020s.

Following a water emergency and economic collapse, Powell describes how residents will flee: "Businesses and families begin to abandon Phoenix, creating a Grapes of Wrath-like exodus in reverse. Long lines of vehicles clog the freeways, heading east toward the Mississippi and north toward Oregon and Washington. Burning, hot, parched, and broke, the city that rose from the ashes achieves its apogee and falls back toward the fire."

A 2011 book about Phoenix, Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City, paints a gloomy portrait of an area burdened by insurmountable challenges. The author, Andrew Ross, a New York University professor of social and cultural analysis, plays up the apocalyptic visions of future Phoenix for full effect.

Ross' book quotes Jeff Williamson, former director of the Phoenix Zoo who now lives in Los Angeles, stating that modern civilization based on self-destructive human decisions will fall faster here than anywhere else.

"I hope that Phoenix goes down to about 40,000 people," Williamson is quoted as saying.

Ross shares with readers the belief of San Francisco essayist Rebecca Solnit, who stated: "Phoenix will be like the Jericho or Ur of the Chaldees, with the shriveled relics of golf courses and the dusty hulls of swimming pools added on."

Recent doomsayers include conservationist William deBuys, who lives on a remote farm in New Mexico and imagines Phoenicians "taking the road out of town" sooner rather than later — perhaps "one or several decades" from now.

"If cities were stocks, you'd want to short Phoenix," says the first line of a widely published March 14 op-ed by deBuys, author of 2011's A Great Aridness.

Though the article originally was headlined "Phoenix in the Climate Crosshairs: We Are Long Past Coal Mine Canaries," it was picked up by countless blogs and Internet news sites and placed under headlines like, "Phoenix May Not Survive Climate Change" (salon.com) and "Could Phoenix Soon Become Uninhabitable?" (thenation.com).

Surrounded by blackened wildlands scorched by fire and plagued by epic dust storms that "bring life to a standstill," deBuys' future Phoenix is Hell on Earth.

After describing a litany of challenges faced by the country's 13th-largest metro area, deBuys concludes that when Valley residents "clog the interstates heading for greener, wetter pastures, more than the brutal heat of a new climate paradigm will be driving them away. The breakdown of cooperation and connectedness will spur them along, too."

Locally, the Arizona Republic has jumped on the Phoenix-is-doomed bandwagon.

Say goodbye to the beautiful autumns and winters we love, according to a November 2012 Republic article by Michael Clancy: "Ultimately, in a worst-case scenario, the experts predict a 'summer' season running from April to January, with temperatures near or above 100 degrees."

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern