The University of Arizona

How to Create a Sustainable Southwest

July 22, 2013
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The Southwest region has great capacity to respond to environmental stress, and many entities—local and state governments, tribes, non-profit organizations, individuals—are already attempting to reduce the causes of climate change and planning how to prepare for and respond to climate risks. In the 18th chapter of the Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest, entitled “Climate Choices for a Sustainable Southwest,” the authors provide a range of solutions and choices for responding to climate change while supporting sustainable development in the region. They also examine choices and solutions that are already being implemented, and discuss ways to integrate both mitigation and adaptation options so they are mutually supportive and avoid difficult trade-offs.

Key to developing sustainable solutions—those that meet the demands of the present without compromising future generations—is looking to the past, according to the authors. The Southwest has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to the climatic and geographic extremes native to the region. For example, all the way back to historic times, people living in the desert Southwest found ways to harvest rainwater and runoff, develop water conveyance systems, and establish water infrastructure in order to develop cities and agriculture. Other examples of past choices that created a more sustainable Southwest include setting aside areas for conservation, investing in business ventures that promote sustainability and reduce environmental impacts, and in some areas breaking “with the western model of sprawl, energy-intensive buildings, and dependence on the automobile, to plan more sustainable communities.”

The most obvious way to respond to climate change is to slow or stop any future changes by reducing emissions. The latest data for the Southwest region, according to the Assessment, shows that as of 2009, the region was responsible for 13.4% of U.S. emissions, dominated by California. The Southwest would have to significantly cut its emissions in order to contribute its fair share to reducing national emissions by 50 - 80 percent by 2050 compared to 1990 levels—the target recommended by the National Research Council (NRC) to keep climate change below dangerous levels. Although it would be very challenging, significant emission reductions are possible at low cost or even producing savings through options such as solar energy, more efficient automobiles, and power plant retrofits. California and Colorado have already committed to reduce their emissions to meet the NRC target; California is a particularly good example of how a state can adopt energy-efficiency strategies while improving its economy.Table 1: Examples of adaptation options for different sectors in the Southwest. Table 18.2 from the Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest.

As we’ve discussed in previous Assessment blogs, the Southwest is already seeing impacts from climate change. This implies that mitigation through emissions reductions cannot be the only response to climate change, and adaptation—preparing for and minimizing impacts—must also be part of a plan for a sustainable Southwest. Table 1 outlines adaptation options for many different sectors in the Southwest. The authors stress the importance of examining the interaction of mitigation and adaptation to help maximize potential co-benefits and reduce trade-offs (see Table 2).

There are still many barriers to planning for and implementing solutions, ranging from lack of funding and information to institutional- and governance-related barriers to attitudinal and motivational barriers among the individuals and groups involved. Communities, organizations, and businesses can begin to address these barriers by framing sustainable solutions in terms of conservation or efficiency instead of linking to climate change, or by characterizing adaptation activities as building capacity.Table 2: Examples of ways in which adaptation and mitigation options can work together or against each other. This table is from the Chapter 18 fact sheet found on the SWCARR website. These examples are excerpted from Table 18.3 in the Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States.

In keeping with the format of the other Assessment blogs, I asked one of the coordinating lead authors of the chapter, Diana Liverman, co-director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona, her opinion on related topics.

What do you consider to be the most dreaded or threatening impact(s) to the SW region, and how might they affect the average citizen?

Liverman: I worry about water availability and heat waves, which will affect the average citizen through increased water and air conditioning costs.

What is the biggest barrier, and greatest opportunity, for dealing with these impacts?

Liverman: The failure to reduce emissions in the U.S. and worldwide is a barrier because if we do not act, we will have to deal with even warmer temperatures.  The greatest opportunities are in using water and energy more efficiently. 

What do you wish your local or regional decision-makers would focus on, in order to deal with climate change challenges?

Liverman: First on accepting that climate change is happening, then on looking at ways in which climate mitigation and adaptation can be mainstreamed into planning and decision making, and generally on more sustainable use of resources.

What do you view as the most surprising or significant NEW result from your chapter since the 2009 National Climate Assessment?

Liverman: The significant point sources for greenhouse gases in the Southwest and that the region contributes up to 2% of global emissions, but also the good news about how seriously the state of California is taking both climate mitigation and adaptation.

What are you most interested in learning more about next?

Liverman: How climate change in the region will affect the poor and how food security might change as a result of global climate changes and impacts on food supplies and trade.

In the final blog of the SW Assessment series, we’ll see Susanne Moser’s answers to the above questions. As the Director and Principal Researcher of Susanne Moser Research & Consulting, she is a leading expert on adaptation, science-policy interactions, decision support, and climate change communication, and is the other coordinating lead author of Chapter 18: “Climate Choices for a Sustainable Southwest.”

*For more information on the Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States, including a full-color pdf of the book, how to order a hard copy, and two-page fact sheets of each chapter, see