This month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) garnered much deserved attention releasing a special report that put in very stark terms, the global impacts we can expect to see from a 1.5° C rise in the planet’s average temperature. The picture depicted in the report is not a pretty one; mass human migration, famine, and water shortages, are just a few of the consequences that are predicted to occur in the next few decades. The report was a call to action for individuals and governments in every corner of the world to commit to solving this global problem.
The IPCC scientists are nothing short of heroic in my mind. Their steadfast commitment to bringing hard-truths into our increasingly tribal public discourse is as astonishing as it is admirable. Although the report received criticism from some corners as being “too alarmist” the realities of this challenge require us to continue bringing up the darkest predictions, the direst consequences, and calls for big solutions—the likes of which humanity has never had to produce. If this isn’t the time to ring the alarm bell, I don’t know when it will be.
However, there continues to be a major component missing from our public discourse on the topic; a conversation on the local impacts and local solutions that will increasingly be a part of our daily lives under a changed climate. Understandably the report was quickly nationalized and globalized by the 24-hour cable news outlets while at the same time it was being all but ignored by our local evening news affiliates. In the process, the conversation fades from dinner tables and water cooler conversations and instead falls into that of international treaties and negotiations. What results is a perception that this is a far-off problem with even further-off solutions.
But this problem is not far away, in fact it is on our backyards. Climate change is a statewide problem here in New Mexico. It’s a Sandoval, Roosevelt and Luna County problem. It’s a Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces problem. Climate change is a problem for our local government, water utility and school district, wherever we are in the state.
Case in point: 19 miles of the Middle Rio Grande below Albuquerque went dry this summer due to extremely low snowpack in the Rockies, the likes of which are projected to be more common in a changing climate. The river that has sustained the people of this land for millennia is dying before our eyes. Along with this, the amount of water in our reservoirs is approaching all-time lows.
For those of us in New Mexico that live outside the city and depend on well water, there is no more immediate and direct consequence of climate change than a dry well, a situation that already occurs in many locales and is likely to increase as aquifers decline. And for those in the cities, decreasing surface and ground water will surely require additional conservation measures and infrastructure; the costs of which will be covered by utility ratepayers.
Of course the natural landscapes in New Mexico have been experiencing the effects of climate change for over a decade if not more. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory recently chronicled the disappearance of birds on the Pajarito Plateau, an outcome of Piñon Pine (the state tree of New Mexico) die-offs that are resulting from climate change-driven increases in frequency of wildfire and beetle infestations.
The consequence of these changes directly impact birds like the Pinyon Jay which have declined in population by over 84% throughout their range with the population expected to decrease by half again in 19 years. Pinyon Jays and other birds that occupy pinyon-juniper woodland habitats are facing the very real threat of extinction in our lifetimes and climate change is to blame.
In a recent Santa Fe New Mexican Editorial the paper asserts that “in every election from here on in, the first question voters must ask is: What will you do to stop the globe from heating up?” This is a great start but I would take this sentiment beyond the ballot box to include all areas of civic engagement.
We need to treat climate change the way we treat potholes in need of repair and ask our local elected officials to address them every chance we get, before, during and after election season. We need to consider rivers, wetlands and forests as natural infrastructure and propose and support bonds that would raise revenue to address their needs. And we need to do what we can as members of PTAs, service organizations or neighborhood associations to implement projects that restore plants, protect green space and utilize renewable energy.
Audubon New Mexico has recognized this need and has incorporated climate adaptation and mitigation strategies into every aspect of our conservation work here in the state.
When we work to secure nature’s share of water in the Rio Grande, as we did during the historic drying of the river that was occurring this summer, we maintain the integrity of that river and the vibrancy of the Bosque ecosystem that it supports under severe climate change impacts.
When we travel to local schools to plant native plants for birds, as we did at seven school campuses in Santa Fe in October, we are providing drought tolerant shade trees and ground cover to fight urban heat islands and teaching valuable lessons about biotic and abiotic factors impacting plant communities.
And when we work with ranchers to practice regenerative grazing, as we do with our Audubon Conservation Ranching Program, we are mimicking the natural herbivory of the Bison and sequestering carbon in the soil through the accumulation of carbon-rich soil organic matter.
Of course it’s good to “think globally and act locally,” but for once I’d like to try thinking and acting locally for the benefit of the globe. Because by doing so, we face this challenge head on, strengthened by the bonds of community, grounded in a sense of place, and informed by a multi-generational knowledge of this unique landscape. New Mexico’s climate is changing, so let’s fix it.