Bruce Babbitt has nothing else to run for and nothing to lose from speaking his mind. The former Arizona governor and Interior secretary is calling on the state’s youth to organize and push for small and incremental local change to pressure the powerful to act on climate change. Babbitt’s call to action comes after his warning to those attending the Climate 2020 conference in Flagstaff on November 16. “The Arizona that we know and love is everywhere now at risk,” Babbitt said. “Arizona is becoming ground zero in the effects of global warming.”
What did you mean by your “ground zero” comment?
Well, the municipal rating agencies that rate municipal bonds have finally gotten into looking at their credit ratings of different states as a function of the effects of climate change. It’s really interesting because they have a top tier of states where municipal credit ratings are becoming most potentially affected by climate change and it includes some of the coastal states, some of the East Coast coastal states and, of course, California and Arizona, principally because of the projections about increasing temperatures and drought. The reports tend to break it down two ways. One is temperatures, with protections that summer maximums in Phoenix may begin to top out at 130, a big ramp up in extreme temperatures. The other one is drought. We already see that in terms of the declining flow the Colorado River and the extended drought in the Colorado River Basin. Again, the projections indicate that trend is going to continue. That comes from groups that are not climate change activists at all – that comes from Wall Street. So, those are three things that I think kind of all relate to each other.
Do you think Arizona is doing enough to mitigate those effects or stave off those effects?
No, we’re not doing enough at any level. It’s not just the Legislature, it’s not just our congressional delegation, it is an issue which has to be addressed everywhere, in the universities and local governments, by NGOs (non-government organizations) – across the board. There’s been a tendency to see it as kind of a partisan political debate driven to some large degree at the national level. That’s not really what I was talking about. What I was saying to these young people is, which I would say in more detail, “You can be active.” If I were doing it again, I would urge them to look up Uplift Climate and join. It’s a really interesting movement focused on the Colorado Plateau, organized by some of the NGOs to involve young people. It’s sort of a beginning of a large network of climate activists, young people. I would tell them to look to their universities. The universities should be leaders in having carbon-free plans. I would send them to the University of Arizona, which I have been told has a renewable energy plan that they’ve worked out with Tucson Electric – those kinds of things. Everybody at that conference could focus on what’s going on in their university and think how they can directly pressure university leadership to adopt carbon-free plans, including renewable energy. Local communities can do more as well. I’m not an expert in this obviously – I keep hearing that Tempe and Flagstaff have particularly good sustainability plans. Well, everybody lives in some community and political action is perfectly appropriate. Obviously, the Legislature has done virtually nothing, and it is important to try to persuade your legislators to get more involved in this.
What would you like to see the Legislature do?
Well, the starting point is to look carefully what other states are doing. There are a lot of things going on in many, many states.
Did climate change ever come up when you worked with Governor Ducey on the Drought Contingency Plan?
Look, that was a fairly brief moment. Climate change came up in the press conference that we had. I was asked about climate change and made my position clear that it’s a real issue and it’s going to affect our water supply. There are going to be a lot of direct negative consequences, but a big one is the continuing drought and the reduction in the water for the Central Arizona Project as a result of the decline in the renewable side supplies from the Colorado River.
Should the political will for addressing this issue start from the top, with Ducey?
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. But what I was saying at this conference was it actually starts at the bottom, not at the top. It starts with individual commitment and direct action in your own surroundings – that includes political action directed in your sphere of influence, whether you’re a university student, whether you’re living in a city, a town, you’re also a citizen of Arizona, of course. But I’m not sending them to the top because the people at that conference can move this process by moving in the circles and the communities where they have roots and networks.
I guess my real question is —
Look, the reason I’m fencing with you on this, just to be direct, is I don’t want to get into a sort of who’s to blame partisan, political kind of scrum, because my ability to deal with these issues in Arizona is very much dependent upon my saying I’m not getting to a partisan political fight. As important as that may be, that’s not the turf I’m on.
If you were governor, what would be your first priority in tackling these many interconnected issues?
Climate change is front and center, and I do think it is past time for the governor and the Legislature to address climate change with specific proposals. How’s that?
OK, well, if we talk for eight hours you might lure me in another six inches. The climate plans that we need must deal with carbon reduction, and the areas that we need to look at obviously are renewable energy portfolios, mandates on utilities and automobile mileage standards.
Do you feel optimistic that these younger people feel compelled to take action?
There is clearly an emerging awareness in the upcoming generation of the reality of climate change and the urgency of it. The question is, how fast can that be translated into activism at all levels including political action, including registration to vote, voting, supporting petition drives like the dark money initiative? I think there are a lot of signs that there really is an emerging sense and energy among the next generation. I hope so.