A book review: A Great Aridness

Colorado River Basin Map. By Shannon1 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
DeBuys’ book, A great aridness: climate change and the future of the American southwest, examines how the West will adapt to drying and warming in an era of climate change. Despite the complexity of the issues involved, deBuys is able to convey his key ideas in poetic language, while never oversimplifying his topic. This is a book written by someone with a deep knowledge and love of the southwest. He begins his work by discussing the earlier peoples of the Southwest -such as the Ancestral Puebloans/Anasazi and Hohokam- and their own experience of drought and water management. He then moves on to discuss the central issues of water distribution in the modern era. Why are Arizona’s water rights junior to those of California, so that that in a crisis California will receive its allocation of water, while Arizona’s will be cut? The answers are as fascinating as they are strange.

The central theme of denial runs throughout this work. People don’t want to know the details of how they receive water, or how vulnerable Lake Meade may be. Real estate developers in particular do not want an informed community discussion of this topic. Meanwhile, pragmatic water managers are working to build a water intake drain at the very bottom of Lake Meade. While the book focuses on the American southwest, its central issue is that of climate change, which is why I am reviewing it in a course on global studies. The American southwest is a case study for the future, with applicability from Portugal to Iraq.

The U.S. southwest faces sustained warming and drying, even as more people move into the sunbelt in coming decades. The environment that these people enter will change drastically within their lifetimes. In Chapter 2 “Oracle: Global Change Type Drought,” deBuys examines the impact that climate change will have upon entire ecosystems. On page 46, deBuys has a map of Western forests that are being decimated by the spruce beetle, the mountain pine beetle, and the Piñon Ips beetle. The damage extends as far north as the Yukon. My own family lives in British Columbia, where entire swathes of the north have turned red with the needles of dying trees. De Buys describes what may lay in store for the north: …

Sea level rise in Asia

Casinos in Macau, China.
中国澳门的赌场 Photo by Shawn Smallman

I think that we have reached the point with global warming where we can no longer pretend that we’re going to meet our goals. That doesn’t mean that citizens globally can stop the effort to limit climate change. There is a vast difference between the worst scenarios and the best. There are also reasons for hope, from the plunging cost of solar power, to the rapid development of offshore wind power. At the same time, in the end it’s not enough. Given the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the changing albedo of the Arctic due to declining ice cover, and the warming of our oceans, global warming will be continuing for centuries. At this point, human societies will be adapting to climate change far into the future, especially coastal communities. …

Climate Change and the Middle East

Image of Yemen from the CIA World Factbook, Yemen.
Image of Yemen from the CIA World Factbook, Yemen.

I’ve blogged before regarding the argument that a disastrous drought helped to feed the conflict in Syria. It’s worth revisiting the topic, however, based on a report edited by Caitlin Werrel and Francesco Femia at the Center for Climate and Security.The report, “Climate Change and the Arab Spring,” was published in February 2013, and makes the argument that climate change was a key factor in the Arab Spring, although that is not to say that it caused the uprisings. The essays in the collection clarify the truly global factors that underpinned this event, from declining wheat production in China, which undermined food security in the Middle East, to the “transcendent challenges” created by climate change globally.

The link between drought and warfare is not new. This linkage, for example, may help explain the collapse of classical Mayan civilization in the 9th century in the Yucatan peninsula and Central America. The Mayan city-states faced both an epic drought, and -based on the archaeological record- widespread warfare perhaps beginning around 800 AD (Michael Coe, The Maya, 162-163, Jared Diamond, Collapse, 172-174). The historical connection between drought and conflict is a deep one. …

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