Longform

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

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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.

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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.