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Know the West

In Arizona, the people move ahead of the politicians


Arizona, once dubbed “the meth lab of democracy” by political comedian Jon Stewart, continues its sad ways.

To wit, when unveiling his first “no-new-taxes” budget, ex-ice-cream salesman and new Republican Gov. Doug Ducey tried to sneak through a provision that would have taken money away from veterans’ programs for the living in order to pay for cutting the grass at veterans’ cemeteries. This is not a joke.

The Republican Party’s grip on Arizona seems as strong as ever, though opposition in the party to Ducey’s peculiar approach to lawn care meant that the provision was dropped.

So it’s no surprise that in the face of rising temperatures and falling reservoir levels across the West, Arizona’s elected Republicans have little useful to say about climate change.  Sen. John McCain used to talk about it seriously, but now he mocks President Obama’s assertion that climate change is a major global security threat. The Pentagon, however, agrees with Obama, calling climate change a “threat multiplier.”

The science also clearly indicates that McCain’s home state is part of a rapidly heating region, threatening more drought, more dust, less water and a drop in the flows of the vitally important Colorado River. Still, it was surprising when Jeff Flake, Arizona’s junior senator, broke with his colleagues recently to vote in the Senate for a measure acknowledging that humans were causing climate change.  That’s a bright spot for a change.

Not that Gov. Ducey is paying attention to that or to science in general. Instead, he’s toeing the standard climate-change skepticism line, while the latest legislative session – dominated by Republicans – saw several anti-environmental resolutions passed, including a brave stand against cutting power-plant emissions.  Tilting at windmills, anyone?

But in a state that will never be mistaken for Vermont, ordinary residents are now several steps ahead of the climate Neanderthals. A nonpartisan scientific poll (which strengthened the validity of its findings by using the kind of large sample size usually reserved for national surveys) uncovered strong bipartisan acceptance in Arizona of human-forced climate change. What’s even more telling, most respondents wanted government action, even though the poll specifically warned them that it would cost them money. 

Conducted by the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment and Stanford University, the survey found:

* Nearly three-quarters of Arizonans want government action to regulate business’ greenhouse gases.

* 55 percent agreed that the government should mandate that power plants cut such emissions.

* 78 percent want federal tax breaks for renewable energies.  (Arizonans are well aware that we’re awash in sunshine.)

* The same percentage believes that human activity is at least partially the cause of climate change.

* Important groups, such as Hispanics, the young and women, are more concerned about climate change than the general population.

What this suggests is that even in the reddest states –politically red as well as, you know, sunburned – voters will support government regulations to curb carbon emissions, even if it costs money.

The first question to ask is when most of the Republican Party will notice this.  The second question is when voters will punish elected Republicans for not doing so. The final question is whether all this comes too late. 

Pope Francis has spoken against climate change, and climate talks loom later this year in Paris.  If history is a guide, none of this will produce meaningful action on global reductions of greenhouse gases.  The time is coming when citizens, leaders, politicians, lobbyists, policymakers and scientists will have to do more than confront emissions reductions; they’ll have to consider employing emergency technologies to rapidly cool the planet’s overall temperature. 

One such technology, called geo-engineering, could involve spraying tons of sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere in order to reflect heat back into space.  Scary stuff. Yet doing so over the Arctic might save summer ice there in short order. But geo-engineering the planet means we’re in dire straits indeed.

The Arizona survey underscores that it’s long past time for Republican moderates to seize back their party from the sound-bite robots who repeat, “I am not a scientist” whenever the cameras come on. And when Arizona faces California-style decisions about cutting water use in the near future, it might be good for politicians to put those decisions in the context that the rest of the state already understands: Climate change is real, human beings are culpable, and we need to lessen its impacts.  Failing to do that could mean warmer days in November and big changes at the ballot box.

Christopher Cokinos is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News. He is affiliated with, but does not speak for, the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona. He lives in Tucson.