‘Crossroads of the climate crisis’: swing state Arizona grapples with deadly heat
Even now, Ivan Moore can’t think why his father didn’t didn’t tell anyone that the air conditioning in their house was busted. “I honestly don’t know what was going through his mind,” he said.
That week three years ago, temperatures in Phoenix, Arizona were forecasted to top 115F (46C). Moore, his wife and two children went to the mountains for a camping trip, and his dad Gene, stayed behind. A few days later, Gene died.
The air conditioning had been blowing hot air. “He’d opened a window but it was too hot,” Moore said. “My dad’s heart basically gave out on him.”
Phoenix – America’s hottest city – is getting hotter and hotter, and Moore’s father is one of the hundreds of Arizonans who have succumbed to the desert heat in recent years.
In August this year, Maricopa county, which encompasses Phoenix, recorded 1,000 Covid-19 deaths. That same month, the county was investigating more than 260 heat-related deaths.
This summer, temperatures here stayed above 90F (32C), even at night, for 28 days straight, with the scorching weather in July and August breaking records. It was so hot and dry that towering saguaro cactuses that dot the landscape began to topple over and die.
At the same time, wildfires across the western US this year cast a foreboding orange glow over the region and clouded Phoenix communities, already breathing some of the highest concentrations of toxic pollution in the nation, with even more smoke.
“I grew up in the desert, in the heat,” Moore said. “But I think about what it’s going to be like in another five years, in 10 years.”
The thought has been weighing on him – and many other Arizonans – as they cast their ballots ahead of next week’s elections. Even amid a global pandemic, and the economic catastrophe it has triggered, polls find that Americans increasingly cite the climate emergency as a major concern. That’s especially true in regions like Maricopa, where the crisis is already having deadly effects.
Once a stronghold of western conservatism, Maricopa county has been slowly undergoing a political transformation – and has become one of the fiercely contested election battlegrounds in the nation.
Asked to choose between a Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, who recognizes global heating as an emergency, and a Republican, Donald Trump, who has called it a “hoax”, a growing number of voters in the Valley of the Sun say they are seeking leadership that will address climate and help their desert home survive an increasingly precarious future.
‘The crossroads of the climate crisis’
“We are a desert community,” said Laura Jimena Dent, the executive director of the Arizona-based environmental justice non-profit Chispa. “We are literally at the crossroads of the climate crisis.”
Since 1865, the temperatures in Maricopa have risen by nearly 2C. And since the 1950s, the water level in the region’s well has dropped by 125ft. Even in a politically divided swing state, that’s hard for anyone to ignore. A recent survey found that nearly three-quarters of Arizonans “agree” or “strongly agree” that the federal government “needs to do more to combat climate change”.
Even after the coronavirus pandemic hit this year, when researchers at Yale university conducted an annual survey of voters across the country, climate change went up on a list of voter priorities.
For the first time in American history, climate change has reached the very top echelons of voting issues
Anthony Leiserowitz, Yale University
“You see that reflected in how much political leaders – especially Democrats – have been talking about climate change this election,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, an expert on public opinion of climate change at Yale University.
Whereas liberal Democrats ranked climate change as their second most important issue out of 30, moderate Democrats rank it 8th, and moderate Republicans rank it somewhere in the middle.
But in the US, and in Maricopa county, most voters agree climate change is happening, and they want lawmakers to do something about it.
“For the first time in American history, climate change has reached the very top echelons of voting issues,” Leiserowitz said.
Indeed, just a few weeks ago, Americans heard Trump and Biden respond to the first question about the climate crisis at a presidential debate in 20 years. While Trump flatly refused to acknowledge that climate change was fueling wildfires across the west, Biden touted a $2tn plan to invest in green infrastructure, emphasizing the “millions of good-paying jobs” that his climate proposals could create.
Responding to the wildfires ripping across California in a speech earlier this summer, Biden also cast the climate crisis as a threat to the safety and security of America’s suburbs, flipping an attack the president has leveled against him to appeal to voters in regions like Maricopa – a sprawling suburban oasis in the desert.
“If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more of America ablaze?” he asked.
Similarly, in a heated debate between the state’s US Senate candidates, the incumbent Republican Martha McSally, who serves on the Senate energy and natural resources committee and is a close ally of the president, acknowledged “the climate is changing”, but derided any “heavy-handed approach” to addressing it.
Meanwhile, the Democrat Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, mused about how fragile the planet looks from low-Earth orbit. “There is no planet B,” he said. “We have to do a better job taking care of this planet.”
The stark contrast between the parties’ stances can help explain why voters in Maricopa have been increasingly repelled by the Republicans, said Josh Ulibarri, a Democratic pollster based in Phoenix.
Conservatives here have been slowly leaving a Republican party that has grown increasingly extreme and rightwing. “Climate is part of that,” Ulibarri said.
Fifteen years ago, Arizona was one of the first states to develop a climate action plan, and climate change – at least in this region – was a bipartisan issue. John McCain, the state’s late senior senator, was one of the few Republican lawmakers in Washington DC to support climate change legislation. But as national and local politics became more polarized, Republican politicians moved right.
As a result, “college-educated voters and women voters have moved away from Republicans because they don’t believe in science”, Ulibarri said.Many independents recoiled, as well.
Moore falls in that category. “Normally I go through, and I don’t care if candidates are Republicans or Democrats – I do my research on whose viewpoints I agree with,” he said. “But right now, the GOP – not Republicans but the party itself – has gone too far, too far right. They’ve been ridiculous with the choices they’re making – the party needs a reset.”
Among other things, “we need our leaders figuring out: how do we live in a world that’s going to get even hotter?” he added. This year, he picked Democrats up and down the ballot.
Ultimately, Republicans’ resistance to acknowledging and addressing climate change will hurt them politically, said Jeff Flake, a former Arizona senator. “I do think over time it really makes it difficult to attract, particularly, the younger generation, millennials, Gen Xers, and whoever else, when we don’t have rational policies on climate change,” said Flake, a Republican who has been critical of Trump’s politics.
With so much else going on, he said that while he doesn’t see climate change playing a big role in this election, he imagines it will be hard to ignore in future ones.
‘We’re building the political power’
Like many areas of the country, in Maricopa, poor neighborhoods and neighborhoods where Latino and Black families live are worst affected by both the heat and the bad air. Across the US, young voters and Latino voters are especially likely to prioritize climate action, polling shows.
“Latinos are more convinced climate change is real and that it’s human caused, more worried about it, and more supportive of action than any other voting bloc,” said Leiserowitz of Yale.
In Maricopa, where about one third of the county’s 4.5 million residents identify as Latino, environmental justice activists are at the forefront of efforts to galvanize voters to elect environmentally minded candidates.
“Our focus is on getting young people, Latino people, people of color across our state who have traditionally been less engaged in the political process,” Dent said. “We are making calls, we are sending mail and digital ads, text messages and handwritten postcards.”
Translating concern about climate change into votes has proved challenging in the past, but as the region grows hotter, and more polluted, “we’re building the political power”, she said.
The county earned an “F” rating this year from the American Lung Association. The cars and trucks that congest the city’s sprawling highways have made Phoenix the seventh-most ozone-polluted metropolitan area in the country. Here, the heat speeds up production of the toxic ozone particles, which can damage the lungs and lead to serious, even deadly respiratory issues.
“For a decade, we in our communities have been raising our voices about these issues,” said Blanca Abarca, 54, a community activist.
Abarca lives in a largely Latino neighborhood in south Phoenix located downwind of an industrial dump the EPA has found is leeching “low levels” of toxic compounds and heavy metals including arsenic, barium, mercury, and nickel. She, her husband and their teenage daughter have MacGyvered their whole house to cope with the heat.
They rely on a swamp cooler, ventilators on their roof and ceiling, and the trees they planted all around their house. They’ve got an AC unit – but they hardly use it. The high electricity bills could send them into debt.
“I tell people who can vote to do it for the community – to elect leaders who are going to better this great country, and for the future of our children,” she said while on a break from gardening at Spaces of Opportunity, a community farm in south Phoenix where she and many others in the neighborhood come for a respite from heat.
To be clear, she added, that is not how she would characterize the current president.
Her efforts – and those of other progressive Latino activists – have been paying off. Young Latino voters have been casting ballots in record numbers in recent years, helping elect Democratic lawmakers in local and statewide elections.
In 2019, the Democrat Kate Gallego was elected mayor of Phoenix – in part thanks to a wave of young, progressive Latino voters. Gallego has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science.
“I grew up with asthma. And as you spend time wheezing by the track, it gives you an opportunity to reflect on air quality,” she said. Since taking office, Gallego has focused on developing better public transportation infrastructure to reduce the number of vehicles on the road. She’s also overseeing the development of a network of “cool corridors” – to ensure that no resident is more than five minutes from water and shade.
In another sign of progress, Arizona utility regulators this week approved a plan to transition to 100% carbon-free energy sources – such as solar and nuclear energy – by 2050. Two Republicans on the utilities board voted with a Democrat to get the measure passed.
In the desert, “we just have to take climate change very seriously”, Gallego said.
“And, you know, I have a father who fancies himself a political consultant,” she added. “And he told me if I can just do something about the summer heat, I will definitely be re-elected.”