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November 21, 2012

American West's changing climate spells economic changes, too, according to Stanford symposium

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.

By Max McClure

David Kennedy, professor emeritus and director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, left, and Professor Noah Diffenbaugh at the State of the West Symposium at Stanford. (Photo: Steve Castillo / Stanford University)

Intense heat. Disappearing snowpack. We know that the environment of the American West is going to be hard-hit by climate change. Rising temperatures aren't good if you're, say, a delicate salmon egg or a mountain yellow-legged frog. But these changes also carry consequences for the region's economy.

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 aren't something for the distant future – they're 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, didn't 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 20th 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 climate envelope" – they can't be too cold or too hot. Unfortunately, modeling shows that climate change threatens to wipe out far more wine country than it will create.

Snow levels down

Diffenbaugh's research shows that higher temperatures mean lower spring snow levels, as well. By 2070, historically low-snow years will account for over 80 percent of winters in the West.

This is worrisome not only because snowpack provides a crucial source of freshwater for Western, and particularly Californian, agriculture, but because it means major changes for the Pacific Northwest's extensive hydropower infrastructure.

According to Stephen Wright, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets approximately 30 percent of the Northwest's electricity, the West's relatively low carbon dioxide emissions relative to the rest of the country are largely due to the disproportionate role played by hydroelectricity. But changes in temperature threaten that system.

"This whole hydropower system was built around the idea that you have snow and you're capturing snowpack," Wright said.

With increasing snowmelt at unusual times of the year, the system may not be equipped to store as much water as will later be needed.

California in the driver's seat

One prominent response to the threat posed by climate change is California's AB 32, or the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. Seeking to reduce California greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, the law provides for measures such as a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program (which held its first auction last week), an expansion of California-based renewable energy sources, a low-carbon fuel standard, and stricter transportation emissions standards.

With comprehensive climate change policy currently stalled at national and international levels, "California is essentially going alone in this fight," said Dave Rogers, climate change manager for Chevron.

But, as both Wright and Rogers pointed out, California's size and economic importance mean AB 32 has economic and political influence far beyond the state's borders. California is the second largest energy consumer in the nation, after Texas, and the largest player in the transportation fuels market.

Bonneville Power, for instance, scuttled several new long-distance transmission lines in response to California's new commitment to local renewables. Chevron has been forced to search for low-carbon fuel sources. Rogers cited studies that stated California would put $50 billion into the Brazilian sugarcane ethanol industry between now and 2020. In order to meet AB 32's requirements, the production of advanced biofuels, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles, and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles will all need to increase dramatically as well.

Ultimately, California's reductions will have no effect on global warming unless they influence policies outside the state: Rogers stated that California's emissions reductions could be offset by as little as three months' worth of Chinese coal plant construction.

When it comes to the changing landscape of the West, there's little question that the environment is changing, and little question about the direction it's heading in. But many of the specifics of how Western states can fight back remain hazy.

As Wright said: "At what point do we know enough to begin to change the way we operate the system?"



Michelle Mosman, SIEPR: (650) 725-1872,

Max McClure, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-6737,


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