North America is facing the same challenges brought about by climate change as the rest of the world, and in the American West in particular, people are facing the consequences of rising temperatures literally at home, often head on.
While the West is less populated than many other regions in North America, the people here are closely tied to the landscape. The West is more than geography, for many this is there only home — culturally, spiritually and physically.
The abundant natural resources of the region are often laid bare before our eyes and tempting us to use the forests, open land, minerals, and water. The consumptive desires of human nature, paired with our dependency on fossil fuels, drive us to tap any and all resources at our disposal, with little to no regard for the future, the fragile ecology of this western landscape, or the indigenous inhabitants who called these mountains and deserts home before the Spanish and the European colonists arrived.
Thirsty communities, often far downstream, exacerbate drought conditions which now persist year after year. Towns are now intertwined with forests ecology, with entire neighborhoods at the mercy of unrelenting wildfire. Vast expanses of once open landscapes are dotted with gas wells and crisscrossed by the roads that serve them. Our public lands are diminished and overwhelmed by surges of population growth, recreation, drought and industry. There’s just not that much untouched landscape left.
The wildness in the West is essential to the wellbeing of the people who live there and it is threatened. Rising temperatures are giving way to ecological shifts, such as the bark beetle which thrive in the now more temperate climate, decimating pine forests. Winter snowpack, critical to downstream watersheds, are threatened by air pollution and sand storms, which cause them to melt faster.
These urgent challenges could motivate the people of the West to lead in the United States on a path of renewable energy, but the transition is currently mired in politics. Coal plants burn on as methane and carbon dioxide levels continue to rise. Explosive population growth, like those seen in the Front Range of Northern Colorado seems unsustainable, and sprawling desert cities such as Albuquerque, New Mexico and Phoenix, Arizona foresee inevitable water shortages in the decades to come. The fabric of the West is woven together in the balance between nature and our presence in it.
Will the impending reality of our impact on these unique, and ultimately sacred landscapes incite action? If not, perhaps our need for survival will. Our best hope is that we take the necessary steps, change our approach, and set different priorities soon enough to preserve what we have left.