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Home / Articles / News / Local News /  Feel The Heat
Ponderosa-l

Feel The Heat

Behind the headlines, scientists warn that climate change is already hitting New Mexico

August 27, 2008, 12:00 am

Signs of ancient life are scattered across the mesas above the Chama River as it winds along highway 84 in northern New Mexico. The ground here is strewn with pieces of black and white pottery, and bumps and divots in the soil reveal the lines of stone rooms and walls.

Rambling across these archaeological sites, it’s not difficult to imagine the lives of those who lived here, crouching next to fires smelling of juniper and piñon, eating the plants they harvested, animals they hunted. The river’s waters are too far away to hear. But the Chama runs nearby, offering life in the desert.

In the quiet that follows twilight, it’s even possible to conceive how many things have remained the same since these sites were occupied centuries ago. Farmers still rely on the consistency of the seasons to plant and harvest crops; settlements still spring where waters remain nearby. Even the smell of piñon smoke rises from a campfire below the lip of the mesa.

Despite all the changes that conquest, modernization and urbanization have wrought, much has really remained the same—at least until recently.

Rio Chama

Few people on the planet are unaware of climate change—reducing one’s carbon footprint has practically become a fashion statement. But behind the headlines and slogans, scientists are tracking the impacts global warming is already having—and projecting what is yet to come.

At the global level, the effects of climate change are becoming more and more apparent: During the 20th century, sea levels rose approximately six inches. Arctic sea ice is melting. Hurricanes have changed both in frequency and strength and, following the dramatic Midwestern flooding this summer, Reuters reported such floods will become increasingly common in that region. Glaciers worldwide are retreating and growing seasons are lengthening at the same time that water supplies in many regions are tightening. And in July, the San Francisco Chronicle declared the warming western United States as “ground zero” for wildfires.

Here in New Mexico, state officials are devising plans to cut the amount of greenhouse gas emissions New Mexicans contribute to the atmosphere, scientists are saying water resources must be managed differently and activists are urging the fossil fuel industry to change the way it does business.

“A lot of people are concerned about sea level rise in coastal areas, which is obviously a very serious and legitimate concern, but I think that the kinds of problems we’re projecting here in New Mexico, in some ways are worse—and they are going to hit us faster,” Jim Norton, director of the Environment Protection Division within the New Mexico Environment Department, says.

Norton points to scientists’ projections that the southwestern United States will experience longer droughts. Longer droughts, combined with hotter temperatures, will cause greater evaporation—from soils and reservoirs—so the effects of the droughts will also be more severe. “You can argue,” he says, “that we’re going to get hit harder and faster than the coastal areas that get so much attention.”

Hotter temperatures are already occurring in New Mexico, he says, and scientists have been predicting the likelihood of more extreme weather events. “Well, we’ve certainly seen that here in New Mexico in the last five years: droughts and floods,” Norton says, adding that scientists warning of climate change have indeed been correct. “It’s not anymore just a future worry,” he says, “It’s an issue that’s right here in front of us.”

Indeed, the effects of climate change are already visible in New Mexico: One need look no further than Santa Fe or the nearby Sangre de Cristo or Jemez Mountains to see evidence of a massive dieoff of piñon trees.

Between 2002 and 2004, millions of acres of piñon trees in the Four Corners region died. The trees, already weakened by severe drought, fell prey to an explosion in the population of bark beetles, encouraged by the warmer temperatures.

The drought and the bark beetle outbreak fall in line with some of the projections the state’s Climate Change Advisory Group makes about how climate change will hit New Mexico (see box, page 20).

Around the same time the advisory group was established, Gov. Bill Richardson declared New Mexico would steadily reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2012, 10 percent below 2000 levels by 2020 and 75 percent below 2000 levels by 2050.

Right now, the state’s Climate Change Implementation Team is making progress on more than 40 of the original 69 recommendations from the advisory group, according to Sandra Ely, environment and energy policy coordinator for the New Mexico Environment Department.

For example, New Mexico now requires polluting industries to report their greenhouse gas emissions. The state also adopted a “clear car standard” to enforce higher fuel economy standards for vehicles. (Although that rule is supposed to take effect in 2011, a number of lawsuits have been filed against the state, including from car dealerships. The US Environmental Protection Agency denied New Mexico and 12 other states the right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.)

Jim Norton fills up a state hybrid vehicle

What both Ely and Jim Norton seem most excited about, however, is the Western Climate Initiative. The organization was formed in 2007 in the absence of federal leadership on climate change; it has set regional goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and is exploring how market-based programs, such as cap and trade, might achieve those reduction goals. Cap-and-trade programs set limits on emissions. Then, polluting industries either cut their emissions accordingly or trade credits from “cleaner” companies at a market-based price.

“Cap-and-trade programs have worked for other pollutants, like sulfur dioxide—the Acid Rain program was very successful—and that’s the basis for the Kyoto Protocol as well,” Norton says. He adds that the WCI has set an emission reduction goal of 15 percent below 2005 levels for all its members. In September, he says, the final document will be released, and implementation of the program will begin soon after that.

“The program is not voluntary, it’s mandatory,” Ely says. “So, it’s not just a good idea [to cut your company’s emissions], it’s required by law. And there will be enforcement mechanisms around this. [Companies] are obligated to comply, and if they don’t, they’ll have to pay the consequences.”

Over the course of the past few decades—while an industry-funded public affairs campaign worked to stir up doubts over the issue of human-caused climate change—climate scientists and ecologists have continued amassing more and more data concerning the planet’s future.

By their very nature, scientists are pretty low-key folks; communicating accurately about their data means speaking in terms of probabilities, likelihoods and trends. And it’s precisely that commitment to their data that has allowed the public—and particularly, the media—to avoid taking climate change seriously.

But now, some scientists also speak of climate change as a moral issue. They are not only discussing their data, but also speaking of the urgent need for action.

The most outspoken scientist on the issue is probably NASA climate scientist James Hansen. In 1988, Hansen testified to Congress that the earth was warmer than at any other time in recorded history. Scientists could ascribe a cause and effect relationship between the planet’s rise and temperatures and the greenhouse effect, he said, and computer simulations showed that global warming was already affecting the probability of events such as summer heat waves.

James Hansen

Then on June 23, the 20th anniversary of his original testimony, Hansen spoke again before Congress. There is one big difference between what people knew in 1988 and what they know now, he said: “The difference is that now we have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb.”

He also noted that fossil fuel companies have thwarted the transition to a renewable energy future, instead funding public relations campaigns—even paying textbook companies to shape how global warming discussions are taught within classrooms. About casting doubt on climate science, he had this to say: “In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.”

(Lest anyone think Hansen is exaggerating, consider that in May, Exxon Mobile acknowledged it was funding anti-climate change propaganda; after activist shareholders protested, the company announced it would stop funding nine different climate change denial groups. And in June, a paper in the academic journal Environmental Politics analyzed 141 “environmental skepticism” books and found that 92 percent were linked to conservative think tanks.)

Here in New Mexico, scientists also have been speaking out. For example, Dave Gutzler, professor in the University of New Mexico’s earth and planetary sciences department, is currently pulling together climate scenarios for different regions of the state. To do so, he is using projections developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as data gleaned from 20th century observations here in the state. The idea, he explains, is to put projected climate change into context with natural, shorter-term fluctuations.

But in a rather remarkable paper—remarkable both for its readability and distribution to the public—published in the state’s Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources newsletter last summer, Gutzler points out that New Mexicans have some hard choices ahead.

Warming trends will continue, he writes, even if greenhouse gas emissions are controlled. New Mexicans must decide how water resources will be managed in this warmer world—while water supplies are sure to shrink, the demand for water is projected to increase—and also consider the need to adapt to the changes already occurring.

“If I had one single overarching message to convey, it would be that we already see significant climate warming in New Mexico, and continuing warming is highly likely to continue and have profound effects in terms of both temperature and water management in the 21st Century,” Gutzler writes in a recent e-mail to the SFR. “So we should get serious now about planning for New Mexico’s future in a much warmer climate.”

It’s not just the future. Last spring, The Nature Conservancy released a report looking at the current climate change data for New Mexico. Although the report was drafted to help the nonprofit organization prioritize its own conservation efforts, it offers an illuminating look at how climate change has already begun to affect the state.

Aside from the massive piñon dieoff, the report’s authors point to other changes already occurring in the state. These include shifts in bird populations, a change in the timing of egg hatchings in Mexican jays and a shift in when certain plant species bloom. And there are more changes to come, including the outright loss of species.

Dying Pinon

“From the perspective of wildlife and habitat conservation, many of these [changes] involve species populations declines in both sensitive and non-sensitive species,” Carolyn Enquist, a conservation ecologist who co-authored the report, says. She points out that it isn’t just rare species that face extinction but, rather, perfectly common species and entire ecosystems. Those changes also will impact ecosystem services, “which can include how we recreate fire hazards, erosion hazards, much less what happens to all the other species that once used the forests that [will] have died,” she says.

The report’s other author and director of science for TNC in New Mexico, Dave Gori, says he hopes the project will help people understand how to mitigate the effects of climate change. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to—for certain landscapes—work out activities and actions to lessen the impacts so that we can keep extinctions at a minimum, prioritize areas that are susceptible to climate change and be smart about how we allocate money and take action,” Gori says.

Gori believes part of what makes the issue of climate change so complicated is that it presents a two-pronged problem. On the one hand, humans need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid the most frightening of projections. “But given that, even if we cut our emissions down to almost nothing, this machine is set into motion, and we’re going to experience climate change,” he says. “[And we need to decide] where do we go and what do we do on the landscape to try to mitigate the effects of climate change, so that species can adapt…”

As for what happens, much depends on how New Mexicans choose to adapt.

“To a degree, you can focus on the bleak future that’s presented for New Mexico in particular,” Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, director of the Taos-based Southwest Office of the Western Environmental Law Center, says. “But the reality is, this is also a great opportunity for our state and for our country to really move forward with policies that I think will benefit us long-term, socially, culturally, economically, politically.”

Last year, the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board created a new rule mandating the oil and gas industry report its carbon emissions. That rule is just a first step; it still doesn’t require that industry actually reduce its emissions.

According to Schlenker-Goodrich—who represented a coalition of environmental groups that worked with the state and industry to create the new rule—the oil and gas industry has a significant footprint in terms of greenhouse gas pollution and has an obligation to reduce those emissions. Beyond that, however, he says that if industry leaders start tracking emissions, they will have further incentive to keep those waste gases, particularly methane, within the system and make the energy production system more efficient.

“So when we’re talking about greenhouse gas pollution from the oil and gas industry, the solutions to that problem not only deal with climate, but they also deal with energy,” he says. “In terms of that, if you put those solutions into motion, into practice—if you implement them on the ground in the gas patch, in the oil patch—then you put more of the product in the pipeline for consumers.”

Schlenker-Goodrich also represents activists trying to change how the federal government allows oil and gas development on public lands to occur. (Currently, the US Bureau of Land Management has 5.4 million acres of public lands leased to oil and gas companies in New Mexico alone.)

Activists have asked the BLM to quantify greenhouse gas pollution from federally-authorized oil and gas operations and consider measures to reduce that pollution. Although the agency rejected the coalition’s challenge to the April oil and gas lease sale, activists have now contested the July sale.

Despite the magnitude of the problem—and the federal government’s stubborn resistance to confronting climate change—Schlenker-Goodrich harbors a fiercely optimistic streak. “We’ve become a nation of pessimists at some level—and that’s only a recent phenomenon,” he says. ‘We truly are a nation that has historically prided itself on being self-reliant, prided itself on having a can-do attitude—and perhaps at no time in our history, have those two values, our self reliance and our can-do attitude, been more important.”

Being engaged and educated on the issue of climate change is crucial, he says. But focusing on local community is important as well. People can make use of energy resources available in their own backyards—such as solar and wind—and stop relying on coal-fired power plants hundreds or thousands of miles away whose electricity is transmitted across inefficient lines. Working with local and state governments—and forcing them to become accountable—is key to a sustainable future.

“If we think long term, if we get out of this vicious trap of crisis-by-crisis management and really take in the long view, I think we can really do it here in New Mexico,” Schlenker-Goodrich says. “Frankly, I’m optimistic…It’s going to be a lot of hard work, but its going to be a lot of good work.”

From his post at the Jemez Mountain Field Station at Bandelier National Monument, ecologist Craig Allen is at the epicenter of New Mexico’s changing climate. As The Nature Conservancy report shows, the Jemez Mountains have experienced some of the state’s most drastic warming increases, as well as precipitation decreases. Its piñon and ponderosa pine trees died back during the bark beetle epidemic at the turn of the 21st century, and the forest has been slow to recover from events such as the 2000 Cerro Grande fire and the 1996 Dome Fire. In fact, the forest isn’t so much recovering as changing. Gambel oak, more of a shrub than a tree, is now replacing the pine forests that burned or were destroyed by beetle infestations.

Dead Pinon

Working for the United States Geological Survey, Allen also has been collaborating with scientists in other parts of the world, looking at forest diebacks in places such as the southwestern United States, Australia, the Mediterranean Basin and the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert.

“All these places are seeing signs of diebacks of forests and woodlands—it’s patchy in places, but it’s starting to show up, and people are starting to see it,” he says. Warmer temperatures in these places—considered “vulnerable” ecosystems because they are already arid—are pushing forests over the edge, Allen says. “We’ve started to see patterns emerge that perhaps, in these most vulnerable places, the forests are starting to be killed by climate stress,” he says. “It’s a precursor for what we can predict: That the dominant vegetation is going to have to change.”

Ecosystems will be forced to reorganize themselves as the climate becomes unsuitable for the species that dominate landscapes today, he says. In other words, the forest you see now will not be the same one your children or grandchildren experience in 50 or even five years from now. “It’s not going to happen nice and gradually,” he says. The dominant vegetation will be pushed past its threshold for survival—by changes in temperatures and precipitation—and die rapidly. He admits that it sounds gloomy to talk about ecosystem changes, but he does believe people still under-appreciate the risk to the forest’s dominant vegetation. “Obviously, it takes 100 years to grow a 100-year-old tree,” he says, “but it can be knocked out in a couple of months.”

Allen and his colleagues are trying to understand how disturbances—such as fire or beetle infestations—work in the region’s ecosystems and how they are affected by things such as climate variability and even land-use practices. “All those things are kind of melded together,” he says. “That’s how ecosystems work: Everything is connected.”

He and other scientists studying the effects of climate change try to remain hopeful, he says—hopeful that individuals and society as a whole will make the right choices in the coming days, months and years.

“It’s not too late,” Allen says, “We have maybe a decade yet to really change how much greenhouse gas emissions we’re putting out into the atmosphere to avoid ‘dangerous climate interface,’” he says. “But the trends that we see out there are worrisome. And if those trends continue, a lot of things that we value are going to be increasingly at risk.” 

 

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