Alibi V.29 No.34 • Aug 20-26, 2020 

Arts Feature

Living on the Edge (But Not In a Good Way)

Laura Paskus’ At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate

Laura Paskus
Laura Paskus with bike at the Los Poblanos open space
Clarke Condé

You’re a smart, clued-in Alibi reader, so clearly you have a fairly good idea about the impact climate change will have on the state of New Mexico. Odds are the reason you know that is due in large part to the efforts of one woman: Laura Paskus. For two decades she has been sounding the alarm about the devastating effects that our massive input of carbon into the atmosphere will have on the Land of Enchantment. Weekly Alibi sat down with Paskus to talk about the changing climate, the changing public perception of climate change and her new book that deals with both. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Weekly Alibi: You started working on climate change issues as a journalist about 20 years ago. What has changed since then in terms of the public's understanding?

Laura Paskus: I think more New Mexicans understand that the climate is changing. They understand that it's human-caused and they understand that it will have negative impacts on their lives. Not all New Mexicans, but most New Mexicans. Even Republicans.

They're New Mexicans as well.

Yes, they are. So, I think that's the biggest thing that has changed is people understand it's happening, and they understand why, and they understand that it's a negative thing for New Mexicans. I think even though the science has gotten more sophisticated, especially the modeling, that hasn't changed as much of the physics of why the climate is changing and the fact that we know that it's happening and that will continue to happen. That's been pretty solid for a long time now.

How have you seen people's perception change? Do you find that people are more accepting of basic facts now than when you first started?

They’re definitely more accepting. There are still some outliers. I think President Trump has contributed to that by talking about climate change as a hoax, casting doubt on science. There are definitely those outliers, and they are vocal. I think New Mexicans have a lot of trust in scientists, but also in their own knowledge of the landscape, our water resources and our seasons. I’m sure people in other states are like this too, but I feel like, as New Mexicans, we pay really close attention to our landscapes and our place in it.

What do you think the public still doesn't understand about our changing climate?

I think that we still don't understand that we need to do something about it right now. We need to be cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and we need to be preparing for the fact that we didn't cut emissions soon enough to avoid some pretty big changes. I know that we're faced with so many challenges right now, but we need to stop punting on climate change; on the mitigation aspect of cutting emissions and on the adaptation side. [Also,] recognizing that we are facing a water-constrained future in New Mexico.

You titled your book At the Precipice. Is that hopeful thinking or have we already gone over the edge?

That's a really good question. I think that we have not gone off the edge, but I think that we need to decide as a society right now if we're just going to plunge, if we're not going to make changes, if we're not going to be better at planning, if we're just going to plunge off the side or if we're going to take the long view. I want to have hope. We have the technology. We know why the climate is changing. We know how to slow some of the worst impacts. We know all of these things, we just won't make choices to address the problems. I'm hopeful, on the one hand, because we know what the problem is that we know how to address it—but we just can't seem to get there.

Do you think that people still hold on to the thought that there will be a technological solution as opposed to a behavioral one?

I think that's part of it. I think that we're just really bad as a species at dealing with stuff within the responsibility of our generation. We're just kind of like, “Oh, the next generation will figure it out”—even though we're giving them a problematic future and we're not giving them the tools that they need to succeed and addressing the problems. We just keep leaving it for somebody in the future to deal with, which is a total shit show, to be frank.

Do you think that with this global pandemic we'll have a moment of punctuated equilibrium and do something different as we start to address a myriad of problems? Do you think the pandemic could have that positive waking-up effect?

Weirdly, I think I'm probably more optimistic now than I was a year ago, because there are these movements all across the country and across the world where people are recognizing that the way that we've been doing things for so long doesn't work for so many people. The rise of so many more voices I find really exciting and hopeful. For example, our dependence on oil and gas as a state, we've known for a super long time that we need to stop. We need to make sure that our budget is not so dependent on oil and gas, but we just can't ever decide to diversify. We can make some changes now and ease the pain for workers or communities, or we can just wait until everything collapses.

Where do you see New Mexico's pressure points as the climate changes?

The big one is our surface water. We see the Rio Grande drying in the summer even during years of good snowpack. It still dries in the summer. The Pecos dries. We don't have a ton of surface water, and even if you have good precipitation here, warming means you have less surface water coming through your systems. And because we've spent decades pumping groundwater, we don't have a good savings account for transitioning into this time of having less and less surface water. I know there's tons of people working in water management, and it's not like New Mexico's is going to run out of water tomorrow, but I see that as our big problem. And we have all these military installations all around, whether it's Los Alamos or Cannon Air Force Base and PFOS [the groundwater contaminate perfluorooctanesulfonic acid found in anthropogenic compounds like fire-suppressing runway foam]. We've let the military in these federal installations pollute so much of our water.

This is your first solo book, and I know you've been working on it for a while. What's the hardest part about finishing a book?

I think I rewrote this one three times. As a reporter generally I'm writing about stuff that happens within a few weeks or a few months. Things change so quickly that I couldn't figure out the right way to have a book that was current and up to date, but also within the timeframe of an academic press.

Will history judge us as fools?

Oh yeah. If there is anybody left in the future to judge us, they will hate us.

At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate
By Laura Paskus
University of New Mexico Press