Climate Change Could Devastate Life in the West

Climate Change Could Devastate Life in the West

Climate Change Could Devastate Life in the West

In a region with an expanding population, environmental calamity poses even greater challenges to housing and quality of life.


As summer approaches, the American West has been hit by two visceral reminders of the escalating environmental dangers it faces.

Phoenix, Ariz., one of the country’s most rapidly growing metropolises, has a long-standing policy in place stating that new developers have to prove they have steady water sources for the next century in order to build their subdivisions. Those 100-year numbers have often been fuzzy, however, reliant on largely speculative assertions about groundwater supplies, and geared toward automatically approving greater sprawl in increasingly challenging desert locations. That’s how Phoenix—where temperatures routinely soar toward 120 degrees in the summer and the average amount of rainfall is roughly 11 inches—became America’s sixth-largest city.

Now, however, reality is proving impossible to ignore. A new report by the Arizona Department of Water Resources estimated that the Phoenix metropolitan area would face a 4 percent water shortfall within a century. That might not sound a lot, but in an area with millions of residents—and growth predictions that millions more could move in over the coming decades—that potentially leaves hundreds of thousands of residents without adequate water supplies.

Faced with rapidly dwindling Colorado River water allocations, long-term drought conditions only partially alleviated by this year’s wet winter, and rising temperatures, Arizona officials this week took the extraordinary decision to limit new urban growth in Phoenix. There was, they concluded, simply no way to guarantee long-term water supplies that would allow the greater metro area to expand while keeping on the right side of the 100-year rule. As a result, homes in the far reaches of Maricopa County that would have to rely on well water, as well as new developments in Phoenix that would be tapping into the overstretched groundwater supply will not be built. While the 80,000 already approved development projects in the state would be allowed to go ahead, in the future, said Governor Katie Hobbs, developers would have to prove that they had other stable sources of water they could tap into.

It’s hard to come up with another example of a major American city being told that it simply cannot sustain additional population growth, or of a state actively putting in place restrictions to head off that growth. And it is, clearly, a harbinger of things to come in the water-starved, climate change–ravaged Western states.

Water supplies aren’t, of course, the only challenge posed by a warming world. Drought, and its first cousin, fires, are, if anything an even bigger catastrophe in the making. As the East Coast and much of the upper Midwest are blanketed by smoke from millions of acres of fires that are raging across Canada, California is, once again, girding itself for its own fire season.

So destructive and costly have California’s fires been since 2015 that they have now completely upended the state’s home insurance market. In many forested mountain communities, homeowners have either been unable to obtain fire insurance in recent years, or, if they could get it, their bills have become astronomical. Huge numbers of Californians are now unable to afford insurance, and so they go without, meaning that if their houses burn, they will be financially wiped out.

In Lake Tahoe, as well as in many other communities around the state, condo owners were recently hit with bill increases of several thousand dollars per year for fire insurance; in some condo complexes, over the past few months, the emergency increases levied by homeowners’ associations to cover these bills have run to more than $4,000 per unit. In Castaic Canyon, north of LA, one complex was forced to raise its fire insurance bills to owners by a staggering 1,000 percent over the course of a single year. These aren’t simply inconveniences; they are price increases on a scale capable of bankrupting families and leaving them unable to pay their monthly mortgages and other fees. They mean that even when people can find an insurer willing to provide them coverage, their insurance payments may well be more than their monthly mortgage payments. There’s no greater indicator of the brokenness of California’s insurance system in the era of climate change—or of the ineffectiveness of Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara’s office to ensure broad access to affordable insurance for state residents.

Last week, State Farm, one of the largest insurers in the state, announced that it would no longer issue any new homeowner policies to owners in California. It did, begrudgingly, agree to keep on existing customers, but only if they made no changes to their policies—they couldn’t increase the amount of insurance they had or buy a new home and switch over the policy, and so on. This follows on the heels of All Star making a similar decision late last year—a move that at the time received almost no attention, but which has been written about widely following State Farm’s action. If more companies follow the same path, as seems almost certain given the increasingly deadly spread of fires and floods, California’s real estate market could ultimately freeze up—existing homeowners will find it extraordinarily difficult to get reinsured if they sell their homes and move into a new space, and new homeowners won’t be able to enter the insurance market to begin with.

State Farm’s brokers also began telling existing clients to prepare for large increases in their annual premiums, thus adding even more pressures to the already overheated, and already desperately hard-to-afford California housing market. Last week, it came out that the insurer had asked the state to approve rate hikes that would average at more than 28 percent.

Despite all the attention now being placed on climate change, despite the billions of dollars now being invested in electric vehicles, sustainable energy, and other component parts of a transition to a greener economy, the trajectory remains grim. Last year, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere jumped significantly. And the World Meteorological Association now reports a 66 percent likelihood that by 2027 the earth will have crossed a critical threshold: with average surface temperatures increasing by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial times.

All this will only exacerbate the American West’s epic climate woes, worsening the crises that Arizona, California, and other states are already facing. As temperatures increase, as stable, predictable, water supplies dwindle, and as both fire risks and the likelihood of massively destructive storms such as those that struck California this past winter grow, housing markets will become increasingly unstable. That bodes ill for state economies, but, at the micro level, it bodes even worse for individuals—for those people trying to find, and to keep, affordable housing even as more and more economic and environmental forces seem to conspire against them.

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