Infrastructure protectionAmerican West's changing climate means economic changes, too

Published 28 November 2012

The State of the West Symposium, hosted by the Bill Lane Center for the American West and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, featured a discussion of the Western United States’ future of extreme heat, declining snowpack, and what it all means for the region’s industry, electricity generation, and policy

Intense heat. Disappearing snowpack. The environment of the American West is going to be hard-hit by climate change. Rising temperatures are not good if you are, say, a delicate salmon egg or a mountain yellow-legged frog. These changes, however, also carry consequences for the region’s economy.

A Stanford University release reports that these effects were at the forefront of the climate change panel at last week’s second annual State of the West Symposium. Speakers pointed to the effects of rising temperatures on agriculture, the snowpack’s effects on hydropower generation, and the ways in which California greenhouse gas regulations reverberate throughout surrounding states, as well as the policies of multinational corporations.

The symposium — a forum on the economic health of the Western United States jointly hosted by Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research — also featured talks on the region’s demographics, politics and fiscal policies by Stanford professors, outside experts, and politicians.

Temperatures up
Climate change’s effects on the West are not something for the distant future – they are already here, and have been for some time. Panel moderator and Lane Center faculty director David Kennedy recalled looking for White Chuck Glacier — one of the many glaciers on Washington’s Glacier Peak — and getting lost in the middle of a mysterious dirt plain that, according to his group’s maps, did not exist.

We eventually determined we were exactly where we were supposed to be,” Kennedy said, “because White Chuck Glacier had retreated over a mile from its historic location.”

According to Noah Diffenbaugh, assistant professor of environmental Earth system science and Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment fellow, the West as a whole will have to get used to bouts of extreme heat. Heat waves, like the one that hit Southern California earlier this year, will become dramatically more common.

Looking across the Western United States, Diffenbaugh calculated how often an area’s hottest season in the second half of the twentieth century would recur in the 2030s. The results were, as he put it, “unprecedented.”

What was the once-in-a-half-century hottest season becomes the every-other-year or even every-year event,” Diffenbaugh said, with the West significantly harder hit than any other U.S. region.

Rising temperatures also threaten Western agriculture, with a particularly large effect on premium wine-grape-growing regions. Grapes are an interesting case, requiring what Diffenbaugh called a “very narrow