Phoenix, Arizona, is America’s fifth largest city. As you fly in to Sky Harbor airport, the city stretches from horizon to horizon beneath you. It’s hot in Phoenix. Always has been. The people who live there laugh about it, calling it a “dry heat” because there is so little humidity in the air. Be that as it may, living in Phoenix without air conditioning is almost unthinkable.
Its citizens transition from air conditioned homes to air conditioned cars to air conditioned offices, courts, shopping centers, and churches. For people who say they revel in dry heat, they make it a point to stay out of it as much as possible. Many of the locals rely on evaporative coolers instead of traditional air conditions. But the evaporative equipment depends on ultra low humidity — below 10% on most days. Clouds in the sky are reasons to be concerned because they signal higher than normal humidity in the air.
Phoenix requires two things not found naturally in the area — electricity and water. Without both, the Phoenix of today would never have happened. Despite its abundant sunshine, Arizona has depended for decades on electricity generated by burning coal. Utilities companies in Arizona have been slow to transition to renewables, although lower prices are driving them to look in that direction.
Heat is one factor that will make Phoenix less hospitable to human habitation in the foreseeable future. “It’s currently the fastest warming big city in the US,” meteorologist and former Arizona native Eric Holthaus tells Vice. A study by Climate Central finds that Phoenix will likely be three to five degrees hotter in the summer months by 2050. The average number of 100 degree days will increase from 40 a year today to more than 132 a year. To put that in some perspective, New York City currently experiences two 100 degree days a year. Climate Central expects that number to increase to 15 a year by 2050.
In 2015, 85 Phoenix Maricopa County residents died from causes associated with the heat. In 2016, 130 did so. Arizona State University climatologist David Hondula tells Vice that those deaths cannot be directly tied to climate change, but he warns that increasing temperatures will require Phoenix, which is located within the county, to step up its game when it comes to “social service programs, homeless shelters, the opioid epidemic,” and other “intermediating factors. If we’re not paying attention to those at the same time we’re keeping an eye on the thermometers, we might really miss some drivers and some threat magnifiers.”
Heat is not the only factor making the Phoenix area less hospitable to humans. Hondula says that lack of water could be more of a problem than rising temperatures. “As much as 20 percent of the river could dry up by 2050,” he says. The majority of the drinking water for the area comes from the Colorado River — the same source that much of southern California depends on.
A bit of history is important here. As Phoenix began its rapid expansion in the 1960s, it made a deal to tap into the Colorado. The sweetener it offered to get California to share some of its access rights to the water was that in the event there was not enough water to go around, Phoenix would be the first user of Colorado River water to reduce its usage and ration water to its citizens.
In 2012, the Department of the Interior released a climate change study that warns of a precipitous drop in the amount of water available from the Colorado River in coming years. As reported by the Washington Post, the report suggests that less precipitation in the Rocky Mountains will result in a decrease in the amount of water flowing in the Colorado equivalent to 3.2 million acre-feet — about five times as much water as Los Angeles uses each year. Southern California has first claim to whatever water is available. Phoenix may have to do without.
Ray Quay is a researcher at Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability, where he is involved in the Decision Center for a Desert City project. He tells Vice, “Water is taken for granted right now,” but soon enough, “a crisis will occur, and people will say, ‘Oh my goodness, we have to do something. What do we do?’ One of the problems we face is that nobody’s really focused on that.”
When the crisis hits, Arizona’s farmers will need to draw water from wells. “Going to groundwater and mining groundwater is not sustainable, because groundwater is not like some giant Lake Michigan under Arizona,” Quay says. “There will be impacts within that 2050 timeframe, but it’s going to be spotty, and it’s going to be in areas where the aquifers aren’t as large. That’s rural Arizona — particularly agriculture. You’ll see some parts of rural Arizona where some people have to pick up and move.”
“When the second shortage occurs, urban areas will feel that,” Quay adds. “Agriculture and lawns will almost certainly be profoundly affected by then.” Water flow already varies from year to year. “All the rivers in the Southwest are highly volatile, and go up and down 20 percent from year to year. It’s one of the reasons why the Southwest is probably one of the most prepared regions for short term climate change in the country.”
It’s the long term water shortages that Quay is concerned most about. In the 1960s when growth in the Phoenix area was exploding, the federal government had plenty of money to spend on infrastructure. “The issues that we’re going to be facing with climate change and drought, well, we’re in an era when we don’t have a lot of money anymore,” Quay says. In other words, Washington may not be there to help when the water crunch hits the Southwest.
Many experts think that most human conflict is attributable to competition for scarce natural resources — food and water. A drought in the Middle East is seen as one factor contributing to the intractable war in Syria. Hungry and thirsty people tend to go on the move in search of food and water. Climate change may be partially responsible for the refugee crisis overwhelming Europe and causing a spike in nationalism there.
Americans who might like to think such problems can’t happen in their country may be surprised when millions of their countrymen begin moving in large numbers away from low lying coastal areas subject to flooding and cities lacking an adequate supply of water. The disruption within American society could also lead to significant conflicts as the competition for scarce housing and jobs pits people against one another.
Phoenix is a cautionary tale for why rational people should begin planning now for the effects of climate change. But will they? If past history is any guide, the prospects for such appropriate decision making are dim and getting fainter by the day. The world could learn a lot from rereading The Three Little Pigs.