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.