Looking back in order to go forward on climate change

December 27, 2013, 9:58 am

JohnShepardClimateConversation_featured_image500pxA recently-published book tracing the history of climate in the West offers some interesting insights about how one could frame a conversation around climate change.  B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam, the authors of The West without Water, remind us that our region has a climate history that includes prolonged droughts, catastrophic floods, and devastating wildfires.  A record of these profoundly disruptive events can be found in tree rings, sediment cores from lake beds and glaciers, and archeological remains across the West, providing a consistent and tumultuous narrative for our region.

It is a narrative that most Westerners have an inkling of as of late. Many parts of the West are experiencing abnormally dry to severe drought conditions.  Exceptionally devastating wildfires now occur every summer, and recently we were all witness to the flooding along Colorado’s Front Range.  To the extent that these and future events sensitize the public about climate and its causes, they may offer a springboard for discussing climate change and, in particular, adapting to its impacts.

That conversation could begin by looking not at what lies ahead, but instead by looking back.  Taking our cues from George Santayana (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”), climate change advocates might draw on stories of the past, engaging local residents in building these narratives based on their own experiences and those of their families, relatives, and community members.  It does not require going too far back in time before events are remembered that can be placed in a broader historic and contemporary climate context.

Community members could be brought together to prepare for similar events in the future by creating a community climate adaptation plan: improving emergency response capabilities, conserving or  more efficiently using and reusing water, protecting and restoring forests and watersheds, or limiting development in high-risk areas. These actions may not comprehensively address the broad impacts of climate change (like changes in the amount and timing of snowmelt), but they would represent an important first step in increasing the number of climate-smart communities in the West.

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John Shepard

John Shepard

An environmentalist, John Shepard has lived with his family in Tucson, Arizona, since 1995 . His work takes him throughout the American West and Northwest Mexico, giving him a first-hand look at how climate change is impacting the region’s landscapes and communities.

4 Responses to Looking back in order to go forward on climate change

  1. Kevin Dahl

    January 2, 2014 at 10:12 am

    John, it is great that you are starting this blog on climate change — perhaps we should starting calling it “climate catastrophe.” As I was reviewing possible New Year’s Eve resolutions, the only one that I wasn’t able to rationalize away was the thought that 2014 should be the year that I get involve in advocating that we must take real and considered steps to mitigate the coming destruction to our way of life that will inevitably result from what we have allowed to spew forth into the air.

    I like your suggestion that communities must start taking steps to deal with the changes. These steps, though some might be hard, have all sorts of other benefits.

    We also have to stop the destructive practices. There’s no reason we can’t accomplish all we want to do as long as we are smart and determined. The climate change deniers have been impediments for too long. I propose we ignore their misinformed arguments and proceed with managing the risk that is so obviously before us. The insurance companies, whose business is to analyze risk, have already accepted the facts. It’s past time for leaders and decision-makers in all fields to do the same.

    I look forward to your future blog posts!

    • John Shepard

      January 3, 2014 at 8:11 am


      Thanks for your encouraging words. I do share your sense of urgency. Your point about insurance companies is spot on. From a risk management perspective, they have come to realize that they cannot afford to ignore the likelihood of climate change impacts. They aren’t the only ones. Our military, water utilities, and large industrial water users have as well. We need to have more of these folks speaking on climate issues in our communities.


  2. Doug Von Gausig

    January 2, 2014 at 10:55 am

    Thanks for such an important blog, John. My small town of Clarkdale, Arizona has been working to educate our citizens about the impact of climate change, especially as it relates to our water future. Having solid data from USGS and independent hydrologists and engaging in frank public discussions about climate change has helped us avoid (so far) the negative reaction. We’ve never avoided the discussion, and after many years the topic finds itself comfortably in the normal discourse of the Town’s business. Thanks again for your work on this blog – it’s extremely important!

    • John Shepard

      January 3, 2014 at 8:14 am


      I will be in touch to learn more about how Clarkdale is informing local discussions on climate change. Thanks for your leadership on this important issue!


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