The 2021 drought and wildfire season in the Western and Southwestern United States is already shaping up to be a historic one. And not in a good way.
Extreme drought conditions are more widespread than any time in the last 20 years, affecting nearly half of the continental United States. Lake Mead, the latest human-made reservoir in the United States, has plunged to its lowest levels since the 1930s. 25 million people across Arizona, California, Nevada, and parts of Mexico face mandatory water restrictions as a result of the decline.
The West and Southwest are no strangers to dry weather. But the climate crisis is exacerbating the problem. The effects include extreme heat, water shortages, wildfire evacuations, and diminished air quality, among other perilous disruptions. Low-income and minority communities are disproportionately vulnerable to these crises.
If you live in an impacted area, you may have already experienced the stress and mental anguish of the climate crisis firsthand. Wherever you live, if you’re feeling fear, guilt, or anxiety – you’re not alone.
In this article, we’ll explore the connection between droughts and climate change, and how you can ease your eco-anxiety and take action.
The Big Picture: Droughts and Climate Change
Droughts occur naturally in many parts of the world, and ecosystems have ways to endure them. In the Southwest, spring snowmelt and seasonal monsoons help replenish waterways and saturate parched soil during long periods with little rain.
In recent years, however, human activity has disrupted these natural buffers. Fossil fuel use, deforestation, the loss of natural carbon sinks, and livestock farming have caused atmospheric greenhouse gas levels to skyrocket, resulting in record-high temperatures and record-low rainfall.
Hotter weather accelerates evaporation, and milder monsoons bring little reprieve to stressed water supplies and dry soil. Shorter winters mean less snowpack and earlier snowmelt, and diminished mountain run-off is quickly absorbed by thirsty soil and vegetation before it reaches reservoirs and waterways.
The climate crisis extends and exacerbates our experience of droughts in three key ways:
- water shortages;
- extreme heat;
- and accelerated wildfire seasons.
Across the Southwest, several states are considering or have imposed water cutbacks as their water sources decline.This reverberates through both individual communities and society at large.
In the agricultural industry, for instance, farmers are scaling back production, selling off thirsty livestock, and abandoning water-intensive crops. This not only reduces local labor opportunities and farmers’ profit margins, it could lead to supply issues and price inflation nationwide.
According to past data, the rural farming communities who lose work during water shortages (with high proportions of lower-income and/or Latino residents) are also the most vulnerable to losing access to safe drinking water at home.
As states across the country set seasonal temperature highs, electrical grids are struggling to keep up. Hot weather means more people indoors blasting the A/C, stressing systems that work less efficiently in extreme heat. In some areas, including parts of California and most of Texas, operators have requested residents to reduce power usage during heat waves to prevent system failure.
Longer, stronger heat waves also increase the risk of heatstroke – particularly in outdoor occupations like construction work, and for older people and individuals without housing.
Accelerated Wildfire Seasons
Hot, dry conditions make dangerous wildfires more likely. At the present, 44 million homes in the US are built in areas near highly combustible vegetation. And the 2021 wildfire season is off to an early start: California alone has seen double the acreage scorched as this time last year.
Accelerated wildfire seasons displace residents, stress local firefighting resources, and can degrade air quality for hundreds of miles. And some communities pay a higher price than others.
Take Fresno County, for example, where particulate matter pollution and childhood asthma rates are far above average. Last year, the area’s primarily Latino residents endured smoke days nearly twice as frequently as residents in San Francisco, which is predominantly white and Asian.
What We Can Do About It
Recently, the Biden administration announced it will double FEMA funding for climate disaster, earmarking one billion dollars for preparation and response. Many of these funds will go to areas experiencing accelerated drought conditions, as well to coastal cities combating hurricanes and sea-level rise.
The climate crisis makes weather less predictable. That’s why preemptive efforts to mitigate and adapt to its effects are essential. Cities like Tucson have started recycling wastewater for agriculture and firefighting. Phoenix has plans to establish an Office of Heat Response and Mitigation. And several districts in California are building storage infrastructure to stockpile water on rainy years for use in dry ones.
The Inner Picture: Alleviating Eco-Anxiety
Accelerated droughts are one of the most evident effects of the climate crisis. If you’re feeling fear or hopelessness, guilt or shame about your personal impact, or feelings of PTSD or grief from past experiences – you’re not alone.
More than two-thirds of Americans report feeling somewhat or extremely anxious about climate change, and more than half are anxious about its impact on their mental health. But there are steps you can take to navigate your eco-anxiety, boost resilience, and protect your mental wellbeing.
1. Get Informed
Understanding eco-anxiety can help you feel less overwhelmed and more empowered. This article from the New York Times examines the phenomenon and the different ways in which it manifests. It’s more than existential dread; feelings of extreme guilt, burn-out, and panic attacks are other common symptoms.
Subscribe to the GenDred weekly newsletter to learn more about eco-anxiety and coping with disruptive emotions.
2. Be Prepared
Plan ahead for potential emergencies to help alleviate feelings of powerlessness. If you live in a wildfire-prone area, develop an evacuation plan and pack a go-bag of essential items. Consider investing in backup power for grid outages, or research ways to offer social support to high-risk populations in your community.
3. Manage Your Mental Health
Take control of your mental health to build resilience and improve your overall well being. Apps like Calm and Headspace teach mindfulness techniques and meditation. And BetterHelp connects users with affordable counselors, while the Good Grief Network provides a global support network centered specifically around eco-anxiety.
Lastly, get outside! Walking and biking isn’t just good for your carbon footprint: it has proven mental health benefits, too.
4. Talk About Eco-Anxiety
Climate anxiety can be isolating. But two out of three people around you are worried, too! Talking with loved ones can help you feel less alone and inspire everyone present to take action – get started with these five tips for climate conversations.
Remember, we’re all at different stages in our climate journey; listen to understand, keep an open heart, and practice compassion with yourself and others.
5. Organize In Your Community
We might not be able to reverse the immediate impacts of drought and climate change, but we can have a positive influence when we act together. Get involved with efforts to prepare for and protect against environmental threats where you live and build climate-resilient, equitable communities for all.
Our guide to community climate action will teach you how to activate your inner activist.
6. Manage Your Impact
Washing your car or cranking your A/C won’t make or break the climate crisis on its own. But when we make choices that matter together, we can help shift the markets and systems we’re a part of.
Joro helps you take control of your carbon footprint and build an intuition for the choices that matter most. Download the app today to automatically track the impact behind your spending and develop your personal climate action practice.
Build Your Net Zero Life
There’s no silver bullet to reverse the 2021 drought and climate change. We need a diverse arsenal of high-impact solutions. With the Joro Net Zero Membership, automatically offset everything you buy with high-quality carbon removal.
Learn more about Joro’s Carbon portfolio, and sign up to build your Net Zero life.