August 18, 2017

Climate report paints dry picture of U.S. Southwest

Laura Paskus

After the 2011 Las Conchas Fire burned through the Jemez Mountains, tens of thousands of acres of ponderosa and conifer forests aren't expected to recover.

July was the second warmest on record, just behind July 2016. And it marked the 391st consecutive month with warmer-than-average temperatures, according to NOAA’s most recent global climate report.

Globally, the most “notable” warm temperatures occurred in Australia, southern South America, Mongolia, China—and the western United States.

Those new numbers underscore the urgency of a new report on climate change and its impacts in the U.S.

Earlier this month, the New York Times posted a report on climate change that 13 federal agencies had worked on under a mandate from Congress to assess climate science and climate change impacts every four years. Many people, including some of the report’s authors, worry the Trump administration will quash or alter the findings.

Since the last assessment was released in 2014, “stronger evidence has emerged for continuing, rapid human-caused warming of the global atmosphere and ocean,” according to the report.

Here in New Mexico and the rest of the southwestern U.S., scientists are learning more about what’s happening now—and what the future holds.

The Southwest is warming more quickly than other places, they wrote, and as winter temperatures continue increasing, less snow will fall, “potentially disrupting western U.S. water management practices.” Together, higher temperatures and precipitation changes will decrease soil moisture and increase drought. Hot summers will become more frequent, and, wrote the scientists, if carbon emissions remain high and water management systems aren’t changed, chronic, long-term drought is increasingly possible by the end of the century.

Globally, 16 of the last 17 years have been the warmest on record, and 2017 is on schedule to break records, too. In the contiguous U.S., average annual temperatures rose between 1901 and 2016 by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit or 1.0 degree Celsius.

If greenhouse gas emissions continue, temperatures may increase by 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the next few decades, they wrote, and between 2.8 and 11.9 degrees Fahrenheit by the late 21st century.

The scientists were also clear about why the planet is warming. It is “extremely likely”—that is, there is a 95 to 100 percent likelihood—that human activities are the main contributor to warming since the mid-20th century, they wrote. They added that there is “no convincing alternative explanation.”

The politics of climate

Most of this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

More than a half-century ago, scientists explained to President Lyndon B. Johnson that the burning of fossil fuels was increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. In 1965, Johnson’s science advisory committee wrote in a White House report: “Through his worldwide industrial civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. Within a few generations he is burning the fossil fuels that slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years.” The carbon dioxide humans were injecting into the atmosphere would cause changes, they wrote, that could be “deleterious from the point of view of human beings.”

In February 1965, Johnson gave a special message to Congress, focused on conservation.

“For centuries Americans have drawn strength and inspiration from the beauty of our country,” he began. “It would be a neglectful generation indeed, indifferent alike to the judgment of history and the command of principle, which failed to preserve and extend such a heritage for its descendants.”

The president also spoke of rising carbon dioxide emissions: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels,” Johnson said.

JFK Library, via Wikimedia Commons

Stewart Udall

“My dad was right in the middle of that,” Sen. Tom Udall told NM Political Report. Stewart Udall was first elected to Congress in 1954, representing Arizona. He also led the U.S. Department of the Interior from 1961 to 1969, under President John F. Kennedy and later, Johnson. Udall was an advocate for expanding public lands, including national parks and monuments, and was an integral player in laws like the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air and Water acts, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

By the time Stewart Udall was serving as Interior Secretary, the American public had awakened to environmental issues, said Udall, and the passage of early environmental laws was bipartisan.

That isn’t the case today.

“That was the thing I think my father was saddest about as he grew older,” Udall said. “He died in 2010, and I’d say, his last ten years—from 2000 to 2010—he just couldn’t believe how the environment had become partisan.”

The turning point, Udall said, may have been what’s called the Powell Manifesto. In 1971, just before he was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon, Lewis Powell wrote a memo to the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Powell wrote of the “assault on the enterprise system” by “Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries.” Businesses, he wrote, had only responded by “appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem.” He proceeded to lay out what individual companies and the Chamber of Commerce needed to do, including through public relations departments, by demanding equal time in the media, on college campuses and by “evaluating” textbooks.

He also wrote of the “neglected” political arena and courts. “As unwelcome as it may be to the Chamber, it should consider assuming a broader and more vigorous role in the political arena,” he wrote. He added that the chamber should follow the example of civil rights and labor groups. “Their success, often at business’ expense, has not been inconsequential,” he wrote, adding that the courts provided a “vast area of opportunity” for the Chamber of Commerce.

Overall, business needed to become more aggressive, he wrote: “It is time for American business — which has demonstrated the greatest capacity in all history to produce and to influence consumer decisions, to apply their great talents vigorously to the preservation of the system itself.”

Udall sums up Powell’s memo more succinctly. “He said, ‘You guys are getting killed. You should all organize, and you should get into Washington and you should use all of your power and your might to fight the things that are coming out of Washington,” Udall said. “They were talking about a lot of the regulatory issues, but they were also talking about the conservation and environmental laws that had been put into place.”

Presidents and Congress shied away from, or resisted, action on climate change. And environmental and conservation issues became increasingly political.

In the 1970s, Congress set limits on campaign spending, some of which were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, and also increased authorization of Public Action Committees, or PACS. Then in 2010, the Supreme Court upheld a case arguing that the government can’t restrict free speech by limiting campaign contributions from corporations, nonprofits and labor unions.

Now, Udall said, spending is out of control. And corporations are still helping squelch regulations and environmental laws, and movement on climate change. “You hear everybody now talking about how the system is ‘rigged.’ Well, it is. They’ve tipped it in favor of the corporations and the wealthy,” Udall said. “And they’re impacting government.”

Of the recent report scientists leaked to the New York Times, Udall said everyone should read the findings.

“One of the things I found most disturbing about the report on climate change was that the scientists feared that the Trump administration would suppress it,” he said.

By ignoring the warning signs of climate change, Udall said that Trump and congressional Republicans are putting the environment, economy, and children’s future at risk.

“Families across New Mexico see the impacts of global warming every day in the form of rising temperatures and extreme weather. Last year was the hottest year on Earth — and the third consecutive year to break global temperature records,” he said, adding, “President Trump called the Paris Agreement a ‘bad deal’ — but the real bad deal is saddling our kids with more drought, wildfires and rising oceans and temperatures.”

Report highlights related to the southwestern United States

  • Due to changes in future precipitation patterns, the Southwest may experience chronic drought, especially during springtime.
  • Rising winter temperatures will cause less precipitation to fall as snow. That has the potential to disrupt western U.S. water management practices.
  • In the Southwest, the combination of temperature increases and precipitation decreases will decrease soil moisture, including at root depth.
  • In the western U.S., winter and spring snowpack are expected to decline. Early snowmelt in the spring, and its impacts on water management, will be exacerbated with continued warming.
  • Under higher emissions scenarios, and without changes to current water management systems, “chronic, long-duration hydrological drought is increasingly possible by the end of this century.”
  • Hot summers will become more frequent, and droughts in the Southwest “are likely to be more intense” due to faster evaporation and surface drying.
  • Average temperature increased by more than 1.5°F (0.8°C) in Alaska, the Northwest, the Southwest, and Northern Great Plains.
  • While some parts of the northern United States, are projected to receive more precipitation in the winter and spring, parts of the Southwest are projected to receive less precipitation in the winter and spring.
  • Read the entire report at


July 2017 blended land and sea surface temperature anomalies in degrees Celsius

Correction: The New York Times ran a correction noting that the report was not first made public by that newspaper, and that it had been earlier uploaded by the nonprofit Internet Archive. We have corrected that within the story and changed the original headline of this story to remove the word “leaked.”