Cracked earth lines the bed of a drying stretch of the Rio Grande near Albuquerque in August.

Out on the 13,000 acres of the Lower Wells Ranch, even a light breeze coats cows and quail alike in dust. Despite a pale sun hanging low in a clear sky, the temperature rises to 72 degrees — in the dead of winter.

Winter in the Southwest is heaven. But summer is hell. And the hellish inferno of fires in 2020 will likely be back with a vengeance in 2021. La Niña, the vengeful “little girl” of weather systems, has welled up as cool, deep Pacific water pushes the jet stream north, depriving the Southwest of rain and snow alike. Here, in the lonesome bootheel of New Mexico and Arizona, the land aches for water. Yet the mountains are barren of snow. Where pronghorn run, the only grass is the one scorched brown by the last remorseless summer.

Seasons, snow storms and La Niñas come and go, certainly, yet the fastest-growing region of America, the Southwest, faces the cruel reality of climate change first — well before the big Eastern cities. And our droughts now don’t last from one season to the next or one year to another; these are now, easily, decadelong events that will kill creatures and make human existence hard in ways unseen seen in a half-millennia.

So, what to do? It’s time for the eight states of the Southwest to reverse course and take the lead in at least blunting climate change in America, the world’s second-largest source of greenhouse gases behind China. Stemming the costs of climate change is in all of our long-term interests. Nothing less than the survival of the Southwest is at stake.

But this is more than just another dire warning. Instead, this tale ends with a surprising level of optimism, with capitalism harnessed by democracy. No, the markets don’t fix everything. Yet increasingly, the corporate world is changing its actions, not out of altruism but because of investor pressure. Nothing speaks louder in the boardroom than share price on Wall Street. And, in turn, nothing gets a politician’s attention more than money.

Today, don’t let some fool politician tell you that there’s nothing to worry about and less to do. Temperatures have steadily risen in the Southwest since record-keeping began in 1895. Less rainfall has hit the ground for decades, as surface temperatures have been evaporating water before it ever strikes the soil. Tree rings going back centuries, from Texas to Arizona, tell the truth: The megadrought is back.

The thorny tumbleweed of scarcity has already taken root. In 2016, for instance, reservoirs in New Mexico held as little as half as much water as their average between 1981 and 2010. In Embudo, the water gauge on the Rio Grande recorded the lowest level since it was planted there in 1881, and yet Texas and New Mexico squabble over the river like buzzards over a corpse.

All this means less water for forests, fauna, deserts, farmers and ranchers downstream. In turn, this accelerates the expanding desert: aridification, as far as the eye can see. Aridification isn’t a theory. It costs you money.

The United States incurs $300 billion in insured and uninsured losses yearly to catastrophic weather events, according to the global reinsurance company Aon; the decade just ended was the costliest in recorded history. But that’s all chump change compared to the bill that’s coming due: $24 billion drained annually from the Southwestern states by the end of the century, according to Yale University. And that’s just lost labor. The total could soar over $100 billion. Fewer jobs, falling home prices and expanding poverty will evoke the Dust Bowl.

Yet this is no longer just a matter of money, but of life and death, too. Even after COVID-19 is tamped down, our thin health care system will be strained again. Long-term drought brings other, deadly respiratory diseases: hantavirus and the plague, to name but two. Less water also means less treated sewage, especially in poor towns and Mexican border cities, and more disease vectors.

If it comes down to a fight between city people and rural people over water, farmers and ranchers will lose. Cities have the money, lawyers and political clout to muscle country folk out of their water. San Antonio, Texas, is building a pipeline that will help supply water for a while but at the cost of draining it from beneath Burleson County, Texas — 142 miles away.

So where is the leverage? The most obvious is concerted, democratic action. The once bedrock conservative politics of the region are changing. Vote out any politician who won’t lower local emissions or won’t support the Paris Agreement. Colorado, for example, has led the nation in capping methane leaks and natural gas flares; in Washington, the Biden administration will actually be following Colorado’s lead. Texas, in contrast, has done absolutely nothing.

But the real key to press: corporations of the Southwest, demanding they adopt environmental and social governance standards to cut emissions, which their investors increasingly demand, too. At the same time, they should cut off money to politicians who won’t act, from state capitols to Washington. There are plenty of big companies with lots of clout: from AT&T, Exxon-Mobil and Sysco in Texas to Freeport MacMoran, Knight Transportation and Sprouts in Arizona.

Money talks. Investors like BlackRock, sovereign wealth funds in Ireland and Norway, State Street, Bank of America and others are shutting off investment in new oil and gas projects; even Shell won’t invest. And they’re scrutinizing existing investments. The rate of return is often not there, there are too many leases on public lands and after all, the environmental catastrophe threatens all other investments, like 30-year home mortgages.

“Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects,” Larry Fink, the chairman of BlackRock, the largest asset manager in the world, wrote CEOs last year. “Climate change is investment risk.”

Of course, we’ve all seen greenwashing before.

“There’s a lot of talking the talk, but a lot of walking the walk has not been done,” Texas Tech University’s Katharine Hayhoe, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, told me. Then again, the market has largely washed its hands of coal. “It’s simply more cost-effective.”

Yet as an investor, executive, pensioner, employee or just a citizen, you can insist, prod and push the power of money to save your home, literally. Except for COVID-19, nothing is as existential a struggle as this one.

“This landscape is animate: it moves, transposes, builds, proceeds, shifts, always going on, never coming back, and one can only retain it in vignettes,” author Ann Zwinger wrote in her book Downcanyon.

This great, living, breathing animate landscape is yours. So fight for it like your life depends on it. Because it does.

Richard Parker is an author and prize-winning journalist who writes about the American Southwest. To learn more, visit him at richardparkersw.com.

(11) comments

Karen Weber

I agree that we need to push on the state, and even more on the federal level, for those policies that address fossil fuels and the carbon economy, equitable water management and sustainable agricultural practices. However, we have also seen the lack of political will to actually make those changes even as projections are that the southwest will become increasingly unlivable, that we are in a “climate hot spot.”

What I want to know is what is being planned for the many people in New Mexico who live on the margin, including the small farmers and ranchers, those in the rural places and the pueblos, all of them extremely vulnerable to what the changing climate is doing and will do, regardless of whatever mitigation with energy policies can be done. Some of us will have the resources to move to another place perhaps somewhat less impacted by climate, many of us in New Mexico won't.

Jim Klukkert

Karen Weber- You ask excellent questions, but to whom can these questions be addressed. Those who wield economic and political power are not yet ready to acknowledge the impending changes that will soon be wreaked by Climate Change. Perhaps there is still too much Fossil Fuel profit for the power elite of New Mexico. Certainly that elite pays little more than lip service to the threats we know to be real.

I am readying myself to leave, and I know others who are doing the same. Folks who do not have the means, do not understand the dangers, or who understandably will not leave their families or communities behind, all have my best wishes.

I see Climate Change as the number one issue, really the only EXISTENTIAL ISSUE facing sustainable human life on this planet. Until I leave New Mexico, I will continue to bring attention to this fight, as he Southwest be lead the way in feeling the consequences of our inaction.

I urge you to continue our common struggle. I hope you are in touch with the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, or any other of the fine local organizations doing the good work.

Thank you for your comment, Karen. [thumbup]

Mike Johnson

This is essentially a call for "climate justice" in America![lol]

Jim Klukkert

You betcha Mike. I hope you will find better sources for your amusement, my friend.

We keep our friendship alive by being sensitive to our pressure points, and discerning in our discussions.

You and I, Mike, have more in common than that which divides us. One of the most obvious traits we share is our passion for politics, truth, justice and so on... We must be careful for that!

Best to you, MJ.

Mike Johnson

And to you too Mr. Klukkert! We do have much in common as citizens and who disdain the use of politics to divide us. My education and experiences in life have given me a certain world view, which is sometimes at odds when a particular specific issue is discussed by person I do not know, I will have to live with that bias.

mark Coble

Why no mention of the sun? Does it affect our weather? Increased cosmic rays? Weakening magnetosphere? Article is not science without mentioning our star and how it controls weather and climate. Why ignore the sun? Oh, right. Science that contradicts "man made climate change" is not allowed and is treated as "anti-science". How about an article on how the sun controls the weather and climate? Nope, never!

Mike Johnson

Indeed, but seriously, would you expect a person with the author's lack of education and experience in science to know anything about it?

Mike Johnson

Yes, a SW writer pontificating about science he knows know about, and quoting a political scientist like Hayhoe, the blind leading the blind.

Mike Johnson

Dang autocorrect: "science he knows NOTHING about...."

katrin smithback

This is a beautifully written piece that amasses a clear picture of why we must do everything we can to reduce climate change. Oil and gas development must be wound down, along with reducing transportation emissions, agricultural sources of emissions, etc. And we need to take steps now to address desertification and dust bowl conditions.


Thank you for your kind comments. I appreciate them and you taking the time to make them. And we obviously agree. We deal with climate catastrophe in the Southwest, or it will deal with us -- first.

Welcome to the discussion.

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