Months before the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season ended, it already ranked among the 10 most-active in history. The devastation in Puerto Rico continues to make headlines as the island struggles to recover. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria have caused more than $200 billion in damage.
In Arizona, while we have compassion for those suffering losses in the Atlantic and Caribbean, hurricanes are not a concern in a state where sunshine rules the day. But this destructive hurricane season is a symptom of climate change, which manifests itself differently in every region. For some areas, that means hurricanes, while others face drought. People in Arizona, though, really don’t know the link to climate change, according to a statewide survey conducted by WestGroup Research in partnership with Arizona Forward.
Survey respondents know their local issue well, with a third of them naming water availability as their Number One concern. It was a Top Three environmental issue for nearly 30 percent of 1,100 residents who took the survey. But less than 20 percent named it as their top environmental issue.
Somehow, we are missing the connection between water availability and climate change. Climate change is a major factor driving the water issue.
Making the Local-Global Link
You don’t need a doctorate in hydrology to recognize water scarcity in Arizona. Take a drive out to a nearby lake, and it’s obvious that water levels are lower than years past. The surface of Lake Mead has dropped more than 130 feet since 2000, and officials are examining contingency plans.
What we seem to collectively miss, though, is that nearly every local environmental issue – including pollution, and wildfires – forms a feedback loop with global warming. Climate change makes each of these local issues even worse. Higher temperatures create more ozone. They also result in drought conditions that demand more groundwater pumping, which could dry out rivers and streams. This not only adversely impacts our quality of life but has major implications for economic development.
Taking action that benefits our local environment today can create positive, long-term global change.
Solutions Require Changing Our Habits
The survey also asked respondents to make suggestions to state leaders to address their environmental concerns. Overwhelmingly, the most-common answer was “I don’t know” with 33 percent. This underscores the need for community leaders to create awareness and understanding of this important issue and provide guidance. Arizonans clearly know we have a problem, and they question whether we have the leadership in place to address it.
That leaves an important question unanswered, and yet another one unasked: What can each of us do as individuals? There’s a long list of possibilities, from renewable energy to electric vehicles. Governments can encourage these changes through incentives and through local zoning ordinances. Each of these addresses the bigger question of climate change, which feeds water availability.
These are all steps in the right direction. But only 12 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from commercial and residential sources, according to the EPA. Substantial change requires partnership from the transportation, electricity, industry and agriculture sectors. Carbon-neutral credits, incentives for planting less water-intensive crops and active management areas to limit groundwater pumping require government intervention, as well as cooperation from business.
Long-term solutions also require decision makers to commit to solving environmental issues, even when its costs in the short term.
Take Charge of Our Actions
When it comes to smog, Los Angeles is a success story. Since 1994, the number of Los Angeles-area children with abnormally poor long functions has been cut in half. That’s the result of tackling vehicle and industrial pollution. The region’s ozone and particle pollution often exceed federal standards, but imagine how much worse it would be if individuals hadn’t committed to improving air quality years ago.
Forward-thinking government and industry leaders have already made strides toward sustainability. Today, the growth of clean, renewable energy sources outpaces the growth of conventional energy. Governments in arid climates lead the world in water conservation. Innovative minds address the problems we face, leaving the desire and implementation largely up to us.
Arizona has been a leader in water conservation and management and if continue to improve the stewardship of our resources on the local and state level, we will see improvements on a global scale. As 2017 draws to a close, let’s ask ourselves important questions: How can our individual actions make our environment healthier and more sustainable? And what impact can more people like each of us, standing together, have on the overarching problem of global warming?
Eric Marcus chairs the Arizona Forward Natural Resources Committee. He is also the chief administrative officer of The NARBHA Institute and the executive director of the Sustainable Economic Development Initiative (SEDI).