When the Caribbean island of Dominica, between the islands of Martinique and Guadalupe, was flattened by hurricane Maria late this September, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit was quoted as saying, “Eden is broken.” When I read that in a fine pieced called “A Perfect Storm” by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro in the New York Review of Books, I thought how easy it would be to break the paradise of New Mexico, already in vulnerable disrepair owing to its dire poverty, its famished children, and its compromised infrastructure.
Prime Minister Skerrit went on to say, “To deny climate change is to deny a truth we have just lived…. Heat is the fuel that takes ordinary storms — storms we could normally master in our sleep — and supercharges them into a devastating force.”
Heat supercharges local climate phenomena, too, from drought to rain, from snow to wind to fire. New Mexico and Albuquerque seem at the moment almost isolated from the worst disasters of climate change. But that sense of safety is a grand and treacherous illusion. Granted, we aren’t vulnerable to the direct impact of coastal storms and the full force of hurricanes. But we’ve had tendencies in the past to have brief but extremely heavy rains and snows. One snow storm in January several years ago closed all the roads in and out of the state for a week, almost emptying grocery stores all across northern and central New Mexico. The San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project, which feeds Colorado River water to Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and surrounds, went dry for the first time in 2014. And Albuquerque was deluged with nearly half its annual rainfall in a single day in 2013, sending flood conditions coursing down the Rio Grande through smaller communities. Those all appear to be weather events supercharged by heat, given that they all occurred in the hottest prolonged period in the state’s history. Drought and heat have already cut dramatically into the profitability of the state’s multi-billion-dollar agricultural enterprise, largely in southern New Mexico. Heat-induced wildfires are getting larger and more frequent, and they potentially threaten tens of thousands of homes.
But it doesn’t take more heat to give New Mexico extreme weather events. We seem to be prone to them. When the great drought of the 1950s ended, it did so abruptly with one of the biggest snow storms on record. This tendency to extreme, albeit infrequent, storms can only get worse with climate-change heat.
According to an analysis on climate change in New Mexico by the Union of Concerned Scientists last year, ours is the sixth fastest warming state in the nation, with a rise of about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970. And those of us who have lived here that long or longer can feel the changes in our bodies and our landscapes. We don’t need climate models to convince us of global warming.
What’s alarming is that it doesn’t seem at the moment that we are prepared to meet such events, much less cope with them as a trending “new normal.” New Mexico’s federally mandated State Hazard Mitigation Plan (SHMP), for instance, falls into an abysmal category of states with either “no discussion of climate change or inaccurate discussion of climate change,” along with Nevada, Wyoming, Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, and many southern states, according to a 2013 report on SHMPs by Columbia University’s Center for Climate Change Law.
Albuquerque does have a “Climate Action Plan” that came out with a list of recommendations that was developed under the administration of Mayor Martin Chavez in 2008 and 2009. But the plan isn’t about being prepared for supercharged climate-change disasters, it’s rather a greenhouse gas reduction plan. And in any case, it seems to be a document that slipped into oblivion during the eight years of the Republican administration of Mayor R. J. Berry.
Albuquerque, Bernalillo County, and other regional jurisdictions do have a detailed hazard mitigation plan that was completed in 2015. It is unhappily, however, a variant of the state hazard plan and shares its chief deficit — no recognition of climate change and its effect on supercharging extreme weather events. Both plans have a blind spot to the single most critical weather issue of the 21st century. Both plans are built around historical trends that fit long patterns of normalcy, even in their extreme limits. The point of climate change is that it is the source of weather events that are “off the charts,” unprecedented, in orders of magnitude so much greater than the worst of the past that they wipe out the usefulness of trend analysis and render obsolete the normal responses to even extreme destructive events. This is to be expected, I suppose, as both state and city plans were compiled by administrations with allegiances to a political party that denies the reality of climate change, that considers it a hoax and a scientific fraud.
Thinking about the Caribbean hurricanes, the suburban wildfires in Northern California, the drastically shrinking aquifers in West Texas, the massive monsoonal flooding around Phoenix, the smoggy killer heat waves in Los Angeles, the chronic drought conditions in Las Vegas and the shrinking Colorado river, it seems clear that Albuquerque needs an hazard-mitigation plan that is updated to contend with supercharged destructive events of climate change. It could be one of Mayor Tim Keller’s most significant achievements.
There are so many potential problems that it’s hard for one person to list them all. But an emergency climate change hazard response plan would include:
how to help seniors, young children, the invalid and infirm survive many weeks of above 90 degree weather; a thorough groundwater pollution cleanup plan that not only itemizes but aggressively mitigates the lethal potential of the city’s many dozens of contamination events in our aquifer; a plan to contain freakish flash flooding from monsoonal rains and even perhaps channel the water into cleanup and recovery areas for potential groundwater recharge efforts. A hazard mitigation plan would address the potential of widespread heat-induced urban forest die off and how to recover from it. It could model the potential for heat-powered wind storms in the city and the impact they could have on roofs and trees. It could make plans to meet the threat of paralyzing winter ice storms in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. It could even address the truly horrific planning it would take to prepare residents for airborne radioactive dust storms from a desiccated Cochiti Lake after a prolonged drought. The lake is said to be the final resting place of plutonium and polonium waste from decades of nuclear bomb manufacture and experiments polluting ground water and the Rio Grande. It’s not hard to imagine a perfect storm in which radioactive dust bowl conditions settled over Albuquerque, even if only for an afternoon before blowing off to contaminate crops and livestock around the state. Such a scenario is not a doomsday fantasy. But it would require the best minds in the city and state to figure out how to help the vulnerable to survive such a calamity.
The supercharged heat disasters this year make it clear that a piece appearing online at wired.com entitled “Climate Change Is Killing Us Right Now” is not in the least hyperbolic. Prudence requires that communities across the country begin to imagine what might be in store for them in the overheated world of the future and at least make a responsible stab at trying to get prepared. I know that if Mayor Keller put out the call, many dozens of qualified volunteers could be convened in panels of experts to probe both possible future risks and what to do about them.
It’s the only realistic thing to do.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
(Image derived from littlemoresunshine)