Longform

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

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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.

One of the most esteemed doomsday prophets is Jonathan Overpeck, a scientist who writers such as deBuys and Ross call the state's leading climatologist. The label may be accurate, but Overpeck also is a climate-change alarmist.

Other Arizona climatologists don't necessarily share his views or interpretation of climate-related data.

Nancy Selover, Arizona's official state climatologist, says she doesn't believe "for a second" Overpeck's statement that Arizona is "dead" if the CAP canal stops flowing for one year.

Overpeck "overstepped his bounds by saying that," she says.

Though climate studies do reveal a likelihood of reduced river flows, and it's possible that the Central Arizona Project may someday run dry for a whole year, "we can still manage," Selover says.

The situation might result in a reduction of water for farms, and maybe crackdowns on watering lawns or washing cars in Phoenix, but never a dead state, Selover says. She adds that even if the CAP went dry for that year, this doesn't mean it would be dry the next year, too.

Overpeck didn't respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.

Selover, who's lived in Arizona since 1973, also takes issue with the November 2012 Republic story by Michael Clancy. The line about "summer" lasting from April to January in the future isn't attributed, and Selover's quoted immediately after it.

She tells New Times that she didn't say anything about a nine-month summer, nor would she have, because she doesn't think climate change will have such a result on the state.

The longtime resident gives good odds to Phoenix's future because it has "economic engines" that provide jobs.

Professor Chuck Redman, founding director of ASU's School of Sustainability, agrees with Selover that Phoenix's future will benefit because it's "relatively new" and is like a blank slate for sustainability ideas.

One shining example of this, he says, is the sustainability school. Redman credits ASU President Michael Crow with having the vision to confront the expected problems of climate change by launching the school, known by its abbreviation SOS. Though the school's mission is to help the whole world, "probably the majority of what we do is Phoenix-oriented," Redman says.

It only makes sense that ASU should help sustain Phoenix, of course. Since 2002, when Crow became president, the university has grown tremendously in student population, buildings, and satellite campuses. 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.

But Redman appears uncomfortable when discussing the projection that millions will move to Arizona in the next 30 years. Some people at the SOS doubt such growth is inevitable, says Redman. He'd only give it a 50-50 chance.

"If the masses come," he says, the new growth should occur under a "different model" with an eye toward long-term sustainability and minimal environmental damage.

While Redman denies that he believes in the burned-out future described by some writers, neither he nor current SOS Dean Christopher Boone have denounced the idea publicly. He says he's well aware that many people in Arizona and elsewhere believe a drought apocalypse is just a matter of time for Phoenix, and he admits that Ross' 2011 book leads readers in an inaccurate "direction."

Yet Redman participated as moderator of a panel for a downtown Phoenix event last year that helped Ross sell his book, and during his interview with New Times last month, Redman had Ross' Bird on Fire in a small stack of books on his desk.

Boone refused to comment about his stance on whether Phoenix is sustainable. Crow didn't respond to a request for comment.

Maybe they're worried that Phoenix is unsustainable but don't want to voice their concerns. Or maybe the myth of Phoenix's impending death is a handy tool in pulling in students from outside Arizona to the ASU School of Sustainability.

If climate change affects future weather, as some scientists say it will, Phoenix could end up hitting the sustainability jackpot. Instead of Phoenicians fleeing to water, as they do in Powell's bleak vision, water could come to them.

A map published in National Geographic in November shows how coastlines around the world would change if world glaciers and polar ice caps melted. Cities including New York, Boston, and Houston would be submerged, as would nearly all of Florida.

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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.