Sept. 22, 2017
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The New Normal

The world’s climate has already changed. Now what?

July 13, 2011, 1:00 am

Smoke quickly turns skies from blue to yellow around Rodeo.
Credits: Laura Paskus

As Las Conchas raged—and Santa Feans had a front-row seat to a megafire—Patrick McCarthy was shocked by the fire’s ferocity. “No one has quite seen anything like this in New Mexico in terms of wildfire behavior, the speed at which it travelled, the incredible flame lengths,” he says. “It was even creating its own weather in a roaring vortex.” 

McCarthy is The Nature Conservancy’s director of conservation programs and also director of the Conservancy’s Southwest Climate Change Initiative. He has authored a number of reports detailing changes already occurring, predictions and adaptive management. He also works on what used to be called “ecological management” and is now known as “transformation ecology.” As one of the first places hit by human-caused climate change in New Mexico, the Jemez Mountains have become a laboratory. (The only place in the state that has warmed more in recent years is southwestern New Mexico’s boot heel.) “We’re moving beyond denial to acceptance that we can’t restore these forests anymore—because the forest of 50, 100 years ago wouldn’t survive in 2050,” McCarthy says. “So the question becomes: What is an ecosystem that’s sustainable in 20 or 50 years?”

Watching Las Conchas rage in the Jemez Mountains—it burned between the 2000 Cerro Grande fire and the 1996 Dome fire, then reburned the Cerro Grande scar—was a difficult experience for many researchers, including McCarthy. 

“It was affecting places we care about, places we’ve been working on in some cases for decades,” he says. Scientists are methodical, cautious. But bearing witness to the destruction of landscapes is an emotional experience. “It’s reached the point for me [where] the changes are so evident that they’re really reaching deeply into my soul and how I feel about the relationship between humans and the climate, and especially our relationships with these places.”

As certain ecosystems—like deep, dark pine forests or certain perennial streams—fail to survive, humans will need to decide where and how we live. “What kind of ecological processes that sustain people—like in Santa Fe or the Gunnison Basin, or Bear River in Utah—are we going to be able to sustain in the face of climate change?” McCarthy asks. “You can walk out of the discussion, keep it at arm’s length; but at strange, odd times, it comes back to me. It’s poignant, riveting.” 

Climate change is already measurable, but may also prove itself unpredictable. 

“It’s going to continue to bring this combination of projected effects and surprises that involve the crossing of these ecological or physiological thresholds that bring phenomena the likes of which we haven’t seen before,” he says. “There are things we can predict—droughts, larger wildfires—and there are things that are going to surprise us, things we can’t predict.”

It’s clear that the changing planet calls for changes in human behavior. Unfortunately for us, humans are slow to change. Confronted with events that confuse or frighten us, we cling all the more fiercely to what we’ve known.

Last spring, I sat rapt while Santa Fe archaeologist Eric Blinman delivered a lecture titled “The Rear View Mirror: 2,000 Years of People and Climate Change in the Southwest.” New Mexico is an excellent place to study how people adapt to changes in their climate. Not only are there tree ring and pollen records, but archaeological remains show where people lived and farmed. As a former archaeologist—I spent six years surveying and occasionally excavating the remains of prehistoric communities in the Southwest—I find myself reading and rereading the notes I scrawled out during Blinman’s talk. Whenever hiking, I still scan landscapes for signs of human habitation, gauging the closest water source and evaluating food sources. That fascination has only deepened since I began writing about climate change and the environment. 

Taken in combination with climate data, the archaeological record offers a comprehensive view of the past—of how in AD 300, when a prolonged drought began, it was too cold for farmers to move upslope to chase the rains. There is evidence of violence and of migrations to the south. Three hundred years later, a warming trend opened higher elevations to farming. As the moisture also increased, agricultural communities returned to the Four Corners. This warp and woof continues through time. It’s plain to see in the record.

Climate change is both a crisis and an opportunity, Blinman pointed out during his lecture, calling the Galisteo Basin the “poster child for climate change.” Beginning in the 1190s, corn farmers, who relied on monsoon rains for their crops, moved into the Galisteo Basin. By the 1300s, the hamlets had begun growing larger. A hundred years later, the isolated hamlets had consolidated into eight large pueblos. This growth, Blinman said, was fueled by corn—in an area where corn can no longer grow. 

By around 1500, the system crashed. The climate pattern had returned to “normal,” and significant rainfalls were no longer falling in the Galisteo Basin. Unable to coax reliable crops from the high desert basin, the communities could no longer survive in the area.

Blinman drew four lessons from these people who relied upon corn and rain: Cultural expectations are abandoned with difficulty; people try to persist until too late; social conflict and breakdown make the economy worse; and migration is the ultimate solution to climate change. 

I’ve copied down these four lessons and posted them above my desk. There are lessons for the present, as well. “The climate will change, regardless of cause,” Blinman said. “And we have the potential for preventative adaptation.” 

Here in New Mexico, we’re not yet exercising that potential. As a journalist, I watch this play out time and again when covering the news. I’ve grown weary, in fact, of reporting one event or announcement without drawing attention to connections, repercussions. 

The week before the Fourth of July, for instance, Gov. Susana Martinez and many others called for statewide bans and boycotts on fireworks. With fires burning around the state, that made perfect sense. But it didn’t make sense to blame
fireworks for the state’s wildfire woes while not acknowledging—let alone addressing—the larger causes behind the Southwest’s forest fires. 

In fact, the same day the governor declared a state of emergency regarding the use of fireworks statewide, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in which the nonprofit New Energy Economy was seeking to intervene in an appeal filed by Public Service Company of New Mexico against the Environmental Improvement Board. By providing electricity to New Mexicans via two coal-fired power plants, PNM is the state’s largest source of carbon emissions. The energy company is asking the Court of Appeals to invalidate New Mexico’s 2010 carbon pollution reduction law—a law Martinez tried unsuccessfully to overturn immediately upon becoming governor. 

As the signs of climate change spring up across the state and the consequences of our fossil fuel consumption become more pronounced, I find myself trying to balance my different roles and responsibilities. As a reporter, my duty is to inform the public. As an archaeologist, I’m watching aghast as an over-confident society overuses its resources, ignores global changes and clings ever more fervently to destructive behaviors. And as a mother, I’m fierce about protecting the future.

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