Activists cite rising heat deaths, pollution, fires in asking Phoenix to declare climate emergency

PHOENIX — Meet Claire Nelson, one of several activists who gathered Monday in front of City Hall to call on city officials to declare a climate emergency.

She is also 17.

A fulltime climate activist, Nelson switched to taking all online classes to focus on her work. That’s why instead of sitting in front of a computer screen, she’s standing at a lectern, representing Arizona Youth Climate Strike and acting as master of ceremony for the event.

“We’ve seen that the city of Phoenix hasn’t been taking adequate action on climate change,” she said. “And this is a crisis and it’s affecting our young people and our vulnerable communities.”

Nelson introduced many voices that have an interest in adapting to a warmer, drier climate. More than 10 Arizona organizations endorse the proposal, including the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, Tiger Mountain Foundation and Extinction Rebellion.

The groups came together to draw attention to specific reasons a climate emergency should be declared – citing a rise in heat related deaths, the increasing severity of wildfires and air pollution, and the increased focus on commercial and residential development as among the reasons.

“The proposal entails first of all, declaring a climate emergency,” said Jean Boucher, an environmental researcher at Arizona State University and member of Extinction Rebellion who was at the protest. “So you can imagine if your house is on fire, the first thing you want to do is let everybody know, ‘Hey, fire, the house is on fire.’ And then after that, what are the appropriate actions?”

The push to declare a climate emergency in Phoenix comes on the heels of a similar effort in Flagstaff this year. The City Council is considering passing a resolution later this month after residents petitioned the city. It would establish the goal of making the city carbon neutral by 2030 and would revise the goals of the Flagstaff Climate Action and Adaptation Plan to sync with the U.N. report on global carbon emissions, which scientists say is driving climate change.

For Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club, the appropriate actions will be determined in conjunction with Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the nation and among the fastest growing. She hopes to meet with city officials this month.

Sydney Perkins, 18, was one of more than a dozen people who gathered outside Phoenix City Hall to ask officials to declare a climate emergency. (Photo by Madison Staten/ Cronkite News)

“A lot of it has to do with doing more sooner, and making sure that what’s in the plans is actually reflected in the budget that they (Phoenix) put together,” Bahr said. “Because that’s often where we see action on many issues, including climate, fall down is that they put together a plan or they sign a resolution, but then they don’t reflect the actions that are needed in the budget.”

Phoenix officials have invited the Sierra Club to meet with them to discuss the issue. They point to their heat mitigation programs, and the city’s recent induction into the global C40 Cities Network as concrete action they have taken toward meeting sustainability goals set for 2050.

“Climate change, and a warming planet, threatens public health, infrastructure, and our economy,” Mayor Kate Gallego, told Cronkite News in a statement. “Issues of extreme heat and poor air quality – if unaddressed – will have severe repercussions and hinder our city’s continued success. The city of Phoenix is fully committed to addressing this challenge head on.”

In the meantime, Nelson will continue her efforts going with the Youth Climate Strike, and she implores others to get involved.

“There are a whole bunch of amazing climate organizations,” Nelson said. “The first step would be to follow us on social media. … We can usually direct you to any environmental organization that would fit you best or that you want to work with. There are plenty of ways to get involved.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Hot planet: January 2020 was warmest January in 141 years of records, NOAA says

PHOENIX – Last month was Earth’s warmest January on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports, and that was true in Arizona, where January 2020’s average temperature was 3.2 degrees above the historic average.

Across the United States, it was the fifth warmest January in 141 years of climate records, NOAA reported Feb. 13. Temperatures were above average in the Southwest, it said, and almost the entire East Coast experienced “much above average” temperatures.

The four warmest Januaries documented in the climate record have occurred since 2016, NOAA said, and the 10 warmest all have occurred since 2002.

Although Arizona’s 2020 January temperature rose 3.2 degrees above the historic average temperature, the increases in Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff were less than 1 degree.

“We try to look at the longer term,” said Nancy Selover, the state’s climatologist. “And it’s (the temperature) been rising.”

Selover said last month’s temperature rise can be attributed to lower than average precipitation this winter.

“It’s not been a really, really dry winter that we’ve seen in the past, but it’s been a little drier than normal,” Selover said. “We haven’t seen the winter storms come down and dip into the state as much as we would normally see.”

Summer monsoon storms can turn around a dry winter, Selover said, but if the spring ends up being dry, too, Arizona could be looking at a busy wildfire season.

Tracking these trends can be tricky because of spikes in the short term, she said.

“You can always cut up a graph into a bunch of tiny, little pieces and, of course, the temperatures will fluctuate up and down. We try not to do that. We try to look at the long term,” which gives a better understanding of the changes taking place, Selover said.

Average January temperatures in Arizona have been rising since the early 1950s.

NOAA – a Commerce Department agency whose mission is “to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others” – said January 2020 marked the 44th consecutive January and the 421st consecutive month with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th-century average. No records for low temperatures were set anywhere, it said.

Asia had the most dramatic increase in temperatures in January, NOAA said, and in Russia, temperature departures were at least 9 degrees. South America recorded its second highest monthly January temperature.

The Northern Hemisphere’s ocean and land temperature rose 2.7 degrees above the historic average, NOAA said. In addition, Arctic sea ice declined 5.3% below the 1981-2010 average and snow cover across the Northern Hemisphere fell below the 1981-2010 average.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Study: Droughts are growing hotter under climate change

Arizona is in its 21st year of drought, and climate change is bringing longer, more intense heat waves. Now, scientists at University of California, Irvine, have found that many areas experiencing dry conditions are heating up faster than the rest of the country.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances.

Anyone with a swamp cooler or mister knows that evaporating water cools the air. Changing water from liquid to vapor takes energy, and heat is lost from the air as energy is absorbed. Conversely, dry areas really feel the heat. Take, for example, research regarding the southwestern U.S.:

“We’ve observed a shift of approximately 0.6 degrees Celsius (1.0 Fahrenheit) between the first and the second half of the 20th century. But if you only include months classified as dry, you see that there’s almost double the shift in temperature,” said lead author Felicia Chiang, a graduate student researcher in civil and environmental engineering at UC Irvine.

“If you only include months classified as dry, you see that there’s almost double the shift in temperature.”

Combining observations from the early and late 20th century with model results from the late 20th and late 21st century, the team expanded its research to incorporate the entire U.S.

Both observational data and climate models showed the same pattern in the southern U.S.: greater temperature shifts under dry conditions than under average climate change conditions, whether in arid Arizona or rainy Louisiana (both are included in what the study considers “southern states”).

“We believe that they’re likely shaped by concurrent changes in the moisture in the atmosphere,” Chiang said.

The combination of stressors will likely comprise the environmental and social impacts of drought and heatwaves, driving more frequent wildfires, worsening air quality and stressing crops and livestock.

The findings also underline the potential impacts of land-use changes, and their effects on local moisture availability.

The authors recommend that societies and their institutions study these effects and work to improve the resiliency of affected systems.