The Time to Fight for New Mexico is Now.
A Review of At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate by Laura Paskus
by Elaine Stachera Simon
Correspondent and producer for the New Mexico PBS series “Our Land: New Mexico’s Environmental Past, Present and Future,” Laura Paskus has been reporting on the environment since 2002. Her book At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate came out in mid-September from the University of New Mexico Press.
At the Precipice is, stylistically, easy to read, but it’s not an easy book to read—which makes it an important addition to current environmental literature. You can’t make the excuse that the material is too dense, or you don’t understand the science. Paskus lays it all out, clearly, in plain (and often eloquent) language.
At its heart, At the Precipice is a story about people as much as it is about climate change. You won’t find a dry academic discussion of climate facts, science (both wrongheaded and right-but-ignored), politics, the harshness of extraction industries, or the agricultural juggernaut that consumes 75% of New Mexico’s water. Yet these issues are addressed, thoroughly, through the lenses of unfolding stories that contain both evidence and nuance.
The stories are compelling because we know these places. Paskus’s love of New Mexico and New Mexicans percolates in her prose as she presents the voices that have, in one way or another, spoken for the land and its inhabitants, human and non-human. Not surprisingly, significantly different agendas have driven those voices. Early on in At the Precipice, Paskus shows us a paradox of people when it comes to the issue of climate change. “If I weren’t hopeful . . . I wouldn’t have bothered to share this book with you” (p. xvii). Yet, she also makes a point to thank those who did their level best to keep information away from her, because this alerted her to how valuable that information really was.
New Mexico is warming at twice the global average, and is the 6th-fastest-warming state in the nation. Our new reality is not becoming, but already is, hotter and drier. Since the 1970s, the average New Mexico temperature has increased by 2°F, and rising temperatures mean less water, regardless of the amount of precipitation.
Paskus’s cry is that, as a state, we need to decide—now—what our future looks like. She pulls no punches in addressing the political hostility to climate change initiatives at the state and national levels that has allowed oil and gas to remain the economic driver of the state budget and push New Mexico to the point at which it is the 5th largest in terms of oil production.
Educated as an anthropologist, Paskus became a journalist subsequent to working with New Mexico Native American tribes helping them navigate federal projects. Throughout the book, her respect for Native people and their histories is clear. Her description of what has been done to their lands is stark. The constant search for oil has left some Four Corners residents expressing that Native lands have become a “sacrifice zone” (p. 56). Indeed, the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation contains 900,000 acres of oil and gas allotments. People have been paid by energy companies to drill on their allotments next to their home or on grazing land (lands deeded to them by the federal government), sometimes up to $100,000. Yet, many who sold may not have been able to read the contracts, may not have realized that it was a one-time payment even if a well runs for decades, or may not have realized that drilling a well means roads, waste pits, and 24-hour days of semi-truck traffic. Similarly, cattycorner on the southeastern side of the state, a Cessna ride over the Permian Basin left Paskus “sweaty and nauseous,” not from turbulence, but from the sight of thousands of oil wells, each with their own road and most with waste pits, splattered across the landscape. She notes, “it was plain to see how hard this land was worked” (p. xiv).
Another victim of climate change in New Mexico Paskus addresses may be the ponderosa pine. Problems started in the 1970s with the policy to prevent all forest fires, creating overgrowth that has since turned into kindling for massive fires. However, higher temperatures and less water mean now-common conflagrations are bigger than ever before.
The 2011 Las Conchas fire ignited when a power line blew into an aspen tree. At the time (late June) it was 90 degrees with six percent humidity. Las Conchas became the largest fire in New Mexico history, burning 156,000 acres—until the following year when the Whitewater-Baldy fire consumed nearly twice that amount. Unless you are a firefighter on the front lines, the numbers are hard to fathom. The Las Conchas fire burned an acre each second—what does that mean? Paskus shows us. “Close your eyes and count to ten. During that time, flames devoured ten acres. Think of the ponderosa pines and Steller’s jay nests, the fox burrows and salamanders obliterated in the time it takes to draw and exhale two breaths” (p. 66).
Drought conditions and snowpack that doesn’t materialize means trees do not develop deep root systems. Weakened by the warmth and lack of water, trees fall victim to moths and beetles. Tens of thousands of acres of ponderosa pines simply won’t come back. Even if re-seeding took place on a massive scale, there’s no guarantee pines can survive the warming world.
As I noted, at its heart, At the Precipice is about people, and Paskus explores climate change as approached by some of the faith communities in New Mexico and what they see as the moral responsibility to act to mitigate not only the damage to the environment, but to protect vulnerable populations. Rising temperatures will perpetuate social injustice. As warming continues, New Mexicans will experience more extreme heat, and the most vulnerable among us—seniors, low-income households, the homeless—will be disproportionately affected.
Paskus’s presentation is dispassionate, although it’s clear that she herself is not. She notes that her job as a journalist is to “talk with experts, question those in authority, and act as a proxy for the public.” Her perspective is also that of a mother. She has a teenage daughter to whom the book is dedicated, which is perhaps one reason why Paskus doesn’t talk about, but actually talks to, young people whose futures depend on what we do today. She quotes Olivia Gonzalez, who says, “I’m fifteen and I’m doing the most that I can for my age.” What young people need now, Olivia says, is for adults “to do what they can” (p. 163). The time is now for the conversation to go beyond the political and economic—the moral considerations must be addressed and choices must be made.
According to a Las Cruces Sun-News article, the forecast for fall and winter in New Mexico is warm and dry, with a “50% chance for lower than average precipitation this year” thanks to La Niña (Romero, L., Oct. 5, 2020, La Niña May Leave New Mexico High and Dry This Winter). Warmer temperatures mean less snowpack, and less snowpack means less water in the river and the reservoirs. According to State Climatologist Dave Dubois (in the same article), “we’re going to be relying more on pumping groundwater again for irrigation next summer.” La Niña events are not unusual, and occur naturally. Yet, as of October 5—Elephant Butte reservoir is only at 4.2% capacity.
Paskus urges us to take a chance, and do something different. Heed science. Diversify our economy. Because the time to fight for New Mexico is now.
At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate by Laura Paskus is available through the University of New Mexico Press and other online booksellers.
The Southwest Word Fiesta interviewed Laura Paskus here.