Opinion: Arizona must take action now to counteract climate change

Arizonans should look to long-term policy change to prevent permanent damage

A United Nations-led scientific panel released a report last month on global climate change, which painted a dire picture of our planet’s long-term climate if serious action is not taken to limit greenhouse gas emissions. 

The report cites rising sea levels, more extreme weather patterns and destroyed ecosystems among the major concerns facing humanity, should the world be unable to curb emissions to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the Paris Climate Accords of 2015 aimed to do. Arizona, with its primarily desert climate, faces increasing temperatures and potential water shortages in the coming decades.

This report has, so far, been greeted with a muted response in the U.S.— while the political left has interpreted it as further evidence of the need to take action to limit emissions, from the right is crickets, with the occasional weak-hearted insistence that while this is a problem, the cause is still up for debate. 

While studies estimate that a majority of Americans, specifically Arizonans, believe climate change is caused by human activity, the split between Democrats and Republicans mirrors that between party leaders. 

A Yale Program of Climate Change Communication 2016 study found that, among Arizona Democrats, 85 percent agree that climate change is occurring, with 66 percent believing that it is mostly caused by human activity. 

Among the state’s Republicans, 50 percent agree that climate change is occurring, while only 26 percent believe it is caused primarily by humans. 

These findings are well-supported — a recent meta-analysis of hundreds of studies researching what factors influence an individual’s belief in climate change determined political affiliation to be the strongest.

The seemingly endless cycle continues. Another warning of consequences has been issued, yet many remain unconvinced.

How seriously should we take this report, and the overall scientific consensus on climate change?What is being done to address it? Is this enough?

To begin with, we should take this report seriously. It was issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a panel of accredited experts convened by the UN to study the current state of human-induced climate change. 

Beyond the credentials of the report’s authors, the report aligned with the overwhelming consensus among the scientific community: the climate is changing, and human emissions are the primary cause

At this point, assertions to the contrary are simply out-of-touch with the conclusions drawn by the scientific community, and frankly, the only group we should be listening to on a question such as this is the scientific community. That many Americans refuse to accept this is unfortunate, but in no way substantiates their beliefs. Groupthink does not stand up to empirical evidence.

Climate change poses unique dangers to Arizona, according to Kelin Whipple, a geomorphologist and professor within the School of Earth and Space Exploration. The most obvious change is the first he mentions: warming. 

“The predictions are for a couple degrees Celsius warming, which is more like four degrees Fahrenheit, by the middle of the century,” Whipple said. 

While we can expect even higher temperatures, potential changes to rainfall are less clear. 

“Some models predict that we will get wetter, some models predict we will get drier,” Whipple explained. 

He cites changes in opposite seasons — while most projections forecast drier winters due to higher evaporation rates, climate change may also increase monsoon rainfall over the summers, as warmer temperatures increase the evaporation of oceans. 

However, Whipple also notes that, “a lot of our water resources that come from the Colorado River, (which) is dependent on the snowpack, are expected to reduce.”

The possibility of reduced flow from the Colorado River is especially concerning, as California gets all its water before Arizona gets the first drop, due to the state’s junior water rights. Reduced flow, combined with continued population growth in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas, (all of which depend on the Colorado), could spell trouble for the Phoenix region.

“If Lake Mead ever drops below a critical depth, we’ll have the first shortage of flow down the Central Arizona Project,” said Whipple, referencing the canal that diverts some of the Colorado to Southern Arizona. 

Because Arizona has a diverse water portfolio, drawing its supply from local rivers and groundwater as well as the Colorado, the region is not in any danger of a Cape Town-esque catastrophe. However, Whipple emphasizes that a shortage will bring added pressure to the region: “once that ever happens, it’ll change the conversation.”

So what is being done to address this? 

At the national level, we are not only ignoring the problem, but actively exacerbating it. The Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accords, the landmark 2015 treaty signed by 194 nations attempting to limit global warming to below the two degree Celsius threshold the IPCC report warned of.

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has seen its leadership replaced with fossil fuel allies, its budget slashed and its regulations rolled back zealously, including the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which the administration hopes to replace with a substitute that allows more leeway to states in regulating coal-powered energy. 

The Trump administration also remade vast portions of the EPA website, not an unusual move for a new administration but a novelty in its anti-information, pro-political expediency nature. Simply put, the President’s energy and climate policy may be looked back upon as the greatest mistake of his tenure.

Arizona has taken similarly little action to address the issue. The state already has in place a mandate of 15 percent of energy coming from renewable sources by 2025, but Proposition 127, which would have replaced this 15 percent mandate with a more aggressive requirement of 50 percent renewable energy by 2030, was resoundingly defeated. This same requirement is already in place in California and New York, which are among the nation’s current leaders in renewable energy.

Valid economic concerns about shifting to renewable energy remain. Wide fluctuations in power output from renewables pose concerns for energy companies in ensuring that demand can be met during periods of low energy production, while the grid won’t be overloaded at high-energy, low-usage times. 

Developments in battery technology appear to be the long-term solution, but are not there yet. California has been forced to sell its surplus energy from these latter scenarios to Arizona, a phenomenon called negative pricing

Opponents to renewable mandates such as Proposition 127 also argue a shift will raise energy costs for consumers. Supporters, however, point out that the state already relies in part on coal, which already costs more than some renewables, such as wind installations or some solar options — a gap that will only widen as technology improves.

These concerns, and others, continue to spur debate, but the discussion over the direction of our energy policy ultimately boils down to one factor. If you believe science, then you know that we are going to need to make a major shift towards renewable energy in the near future.

Delaying the inevitable only worsens the economic costs that climate change will impose. While our estimates are limited, many attempts to quantify the economic cost of global warming project a net economic gain from shifting to renewable energy. (The EPA has estimated a net gain of between $78 billion and $1.2 trillion.)

Taking action to limit fossil fuel emissions may limit economic growth in the short term, but will almost certainly help the economy, the environment and overall quality of life in the long term. 

While Arizona and the country as a whole have largely ignored the issue to date, we will continue to have opportunities to take action on climate change, and elect representatives in government who do the same. For the sake of ourselves and our posterity, let’s hope we choose wisely.


Reach the columnist at orisch@asu.edu and follow @RealOliverRisch on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the authors’ and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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