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Climate report warns of impact on Southwest

December 3, 2018

A recent dire climate report released by 13 federal agencies has some bleak but unsurprising news for the Southwestern U.S., still shaken from the effects of the most destructive wildfire in California’s history.

The National Climate Assessment — unveiled Nov. 23 and dismissed by President Donald Trump despite its alarming forecast of devastating impacts to Americans’ health, the environment and the U.S. economy — predicts rising temperatures and increased drought in New Mexico and across the Southwest, worsening wildfires, a decline in available water supplies and food sources, and a rise in diseases.

The report’s findings are not new, say climate experts in New Mexico, but rather a confirmation that current trends will continue and accelerate.

“The report clearly shows that the impacts of climate change are already here in the form of reduced water supplies in New Mexico and the Southwest,” said John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program.

“We’re already doing a good job of reducing our water use in New Mexico,” he added, “but the report’s findings are a reminder that we’ve only just begun. Adapting to climate change is going to require a lot of work.”

An increasing population, combined with groundwater depletion, “suggest the need for flexible water management techniques that address changing risks over time, balancing declining supplies with greater demands,” the report says.

One of the biggest concerns for the region is the vulnerability of crops and livestock amid deepening drought conditions. Food insecurity is expected to rise, a prediction that gives pause to those who deal with food supplies daily.

“We could have far less food available to us,” said Sherry Hooper, executive director of The Food Depot, in Santa Fe a regional food bank that supplies some 450,000 meals each month to families in need in nine Northern New Mexico counties.

“Though we can access food from states outside the Southwest, the cost of accessing and transporting the food may increase drastically,” Hooper said. “And the cost of food we purchase could skyrocket.

“The bottom line,” she said, “is The Food Depot will see high numbers of hungry New Mexicans, while finding it increasingly difficult to access enough food to meet their emergency food needs.”

The report specifically points to the likely effects on indigenous people in the Southwest.

“Traditional foods, natural resource-based livelihoods, cultural resources, and spiritual well-being of Indigenous peoples in the Southwest are increasingly affected by drought, wildfire, and changing ocean conditions,” the report says. “Tribes are implementing adaptation measures and emissions reduction actions.”

Following the deadly wildfire in November that consumed Paradise, Calif., killing at least 88 people and destroying 18,000 buildings, the climate report offered a foreboding forecast of more extreme fires in coming years. Forests across the region are in decline due to human-caused climate change, the report says, with exponential growth in the past two decades of the acreage burned by wildfires — and the worst is likely yet to come.

Recent modeling documents a new normal for wildfires, said David Gutzler, a UNM professor.

“The trend toward more fires is projected to continue in future decades as climate continues to warm up, unfortunately,” Gutzler said.

The new report, he said, “is a clear call here for aggressive policy to both mitigate the impacts and to mitigate future emissions.”

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