Arid Co-Editor Andrea Polli interviews Theresa Cardenas, founder of Nobel Renewables Group LLC and New Mexico Climate Change & Energy Outreach Consultant for the Union of Concerned Scientists at the UNM Invisibility, Uncertainty, Art and Landscape Symposium, part of HABITAT: Exploring Climate Change through the Arts, a New Mexico statewide collaboration led by 516 ARTS.
TC: Today I’m making a presentation on New Mexico and climate change, how we are feeling climate change impacts and how it will change our landscape. I started learning about the environment as a home builder. At the time, 20 years ago, there was a building boom and sustainable building was not an industry priority. For my small company it was and became a personal choice to use sustainable building materials and techniques. Instead of continuing with business as usual, in 2013 I decided to leave the building industry because I didn’t feel the industry was moving fast enough to mitigate climate change. Transitioning my work into the policy arena of climate change, water and energy made perfect sense. I wanted to be a part of the solution and not part of the problem.
AP: What was different about sustainability at that time compared to today?
TC: Sustainability practices was experimental in the mainstream building world and conducted out in the field without much awareness of climate change. It was driven one house at a time by the consumer. The demand for sustainable buildings 20 years ago was something that the average person couldn’t even afford, so it had to be a gradual transition.
Today, consumerism continues to dictate how people make choices. Consumers have more power now than ever before to make environmentally sound choices. Advocating for responsible policies that can allow the consumer to make better decisions would make economic and environmentally sound sense. Its common sense policies that will help lower green house gases. One example is the link between energy use and water use.
In 2014 I became the New Mexico climate and energy outreach consultant with the Union for Concerned Scientists, a nationally recognized non profit that combines science and technical analysis with effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future. They have a very clear idea about where we are headed if we don’t take action to lesson our dependence on fossil fuels.
AP: What policies need to be changed in New Mexico?
TC: New Mexico is well-positioned to increase the role for clean energy use in the state as a key driver to lesson the impacts of climate change. For example, New Mexico currently ranks second in the nation for solar energy potential, according to the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department but we rank 7th in the US for renewable energy production. We can do much better than that. For one, what needs to change is the way our large energy producers prioritize clean energy choices. The consumer needs to drive the demand. And, that will happen as renewable energy like solar becomes affordable. We can also count on technologically advances to help drive the policy changes necessary to transform our energy grid. Transitioning to clean energy has astounding economic and health benefits for all of us. We also need to advocate for more building efficiency policies and incentives, we are not pushing that hard enough. New Mexico needs to emphasize both clean energy technology and energy efficiency in the state energy plan to the EPA to comply with the nation’s first-ever limits on carbon emission from power plants..the single largest source of heat-trapping emissions that exacerbate climate change. New Mexico policies need to meet the current climate change reality.
AP: How and why did you get involved with The HABITAT art and climate change project?
TC: wanted to help the project connect the climate change dots and if you can connect the dots then you can curate a impactful climate change project. There is a human perspective to the climate change dialogue that can at times be polarizing with the debate surrounding climate policy. You might say it’s complicated. I shared several UCS reports with 516 Arts Executive Director Suzanne Sbarge which gave her the sound science information on prolonged droughts, growing water scarcity, more frequent and severe wildfires, and other impacts. So Suzanne started collaborating with groups of people that had something to offer to the exhibition in an artful way. The climate change dialogue begins with the facts and then advances to a personal level. Climate change impacts needs to reach the person at a personal level. The arts can serve that purpose. Art becomes a conduit to engage the person to help make meaningful connections so they can make a conscious choice to take action. This might mean changing their lifestyle to meet the current climate reality.
AP: In what other ways is climate change affecting culture?
TC: We have to recognize that cultural heritage is a human right and that the changing climate will put some aspects of cultural heritage at addition risk. Cultural heritage is an asset that makes ongoing contributions to the present and the future. Take for example; what would we do without our New Mexico red and green chile? Our chile is a cultural icon that connects us to our homeland. UCS is reporting that sea level rise, worsening wildfires and floods are putting many of the places and treasures we hold dear at risk. Including landmark historic sites around the US.
AP: Can the arts help?
TC: Absolutely, because they help educate by us by helping connect the climate impact dots and move us to action. The arts can give us different perspectives through the lens of the artist. It can bring an impact like flooding or drought to a personal level.
AP: Tell me about the report that will be released soon.
TC: The Union of Concerned Scientists will be releasing a report in November that addresses New Mexico’s response to climate change impacts. New Mexico’s climate is changing and more resources are needed to prepare and respond. It will be a comprehensive report about how climate change is fundamentally altering temperatures, water availability, and extreme weather. Our landscape is changing and the resources and infrastructure systems that New Mexicans depend upon are becoming strained, and the changes may challenge and threaten New Mexico lifestyles.
AP: What else is in the works?
TC: We are hosting two workshops for scientists, researchers, and scholars to learn about how to communicate their science to the public. Very few scientists have had good training in how to communicate their findings with the public. We also want them to have a clear understanding of the public’s perspective on climate change. The second workshop is bringing together water stakeholders and scientists to dialogue about water supply and availability trends and solutions for managing increasing climate variability.
Then we are hosting a talk called Cultural Perspectives on the Global Quest for Water in November as a part of the HABITAT exhibition. The guests speakers will be filmmaker Ruben Arvizu who will address how climate change is affecting Hispanics, connecting his work in Latin America with the Southwestern United States. Arvizu says, “We take the gifts of Nature, of which we are an integral part, without thinking about how we will repay her. It is as if we have a bank account to which we only withdraw funds but never make deposits. There will come a time when that account runs out of resources. We extract the riches of the Earth and do almost nothing to give back some of what she gives us. We just take and squander.”
AP: What are some of the impacts and threats that relate to Latin America?
TC: Like the US there are many significant impacts. But one that comes to mind that a connects globally is the availability of a fresh water supply. There is newly published NASA satellite data on all of the very important aquifer depletions in certain parts of the world and they are showing that about one third of Earth’s largest groundwater basins are being rapidly depleted by human consumption, despite having little accurate data about how much water remains in them. That means we don’t know how much is left. That’s true for New Mexico’s water resources. This means that significant segments of Earth’s population are consuming groundwater quickly without knowing when it might run out, the researchers conclude. The findings are published in Water Resources Research. Latin America has three large basins that have exceeded sustainability tipping points and are being depleted. What is so worrisome is highly stressed aquifers located in a region that have socioeconomic or political tensions like Latin America can’t supplement declining water supplies fast enough.
AP: How will New Mexico experience climate change?
TC: We are already feeling it. Some of our landscapes in our forests have suffered the bark beetle and devastated by large catastrophic forest fires. I’m seeing a confusion between what’s normal and what’s an abnormal weather patterns. The report will help clarify the visual impacts and the weather pattern. The report says that New Mexico’s climate has become hotter and drier in recent years, consistent with regional and global warming trends. Average annual temperatures in the Southwest have increased by 1.8°F since the mid-1970s. In New Mexico, this warming has resulted in earlier springs, hotter summers, and milder winters. Precipitation patterns have also changed, with more intense droughts and storms and a greater percentage of overall precipitation falling as rain rather than snow. These changes have led to lighter snowpack and earlier snowmelt, which contribute to lower stream flows and reduced water availability during the summer.
AP: What will the report say we will experience in terms of storms and forest fires?
TC: Forests in New Mexico will increasingly be affected by large and intense fires that occur more frequently, in spite of efforts to manage forests in ways that reduce the risk of fire. The warming climate will also bring increasing pest problems, diseases, and droughts. And this will change our landscape for a very long time. If these climate trends continue, as scientists expect, policymakers in New Mexico will need to increase efforts to protect residents from the economic consequences of less water, the health impacts of more excessive heat, and possible losses of lives and property from wildfire, while safeguarding the state’s natural resources and historical sites.
The artist’s vision can help a person who is experiencing their art understand climate change in the context of his or her environment in a more human way. This makes it easier to understand and act appropriately.