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The least sustainable city: Phoenix as a harbinger for our hot future

If cities were stocks, you’d want to short Phoenix.

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Of course, it’s an easy city to pick on. The nation’s 13th largest metropolitan area (nudging out Detroit) crams 4.3 million people into a low bowl in a hot desert, where horrific heat waves and windstorms visit it regularly. It snuggles next to the nation’s largest nuclear plant and, having exhausted local sources, it depends on an improbable infrastructure to suck water from the distant (and dwindling) Colorado River.

In Phoenix, you don’t ask: What could go wrong? You ask: What couldn’t?

And that’s the point, really. Phoenix’s multiple vulnerabilities, which are plenty daunting taken one by one, have the capacity to magnify one another, like compounding illnesses. In this regard, it’s a quintessentially modern city, a pyramid of complexities requiring large energy inputs to keep the whole apparatus humming. The urban disasters of our time -- New Orleans hit by Katrina, New York City swamped by Sandy -- may arise from single storms, but the damage they do is the result of a chain reaction of failures -- grids going down, levees failing, backup systems not backing up. As you might expect, academics have come up with a name for such breakdowns: infrastructure failure interdependencies. You wouldn’t want to use it in a poem, but it does catch an emerging theme of our time.

Phoenix’s pyramid of complexities looks shakier than most because it stands squarely in the crosshairs of climate change. The area, like much of the rest of the American Southwest, is already hot and dry; it’s getting ever hotter and drier, and is increasingly battered by powerful storms. Sandy and Katrina previewed how coastal cities can expect to fare as seas rise and storms strengthen. Phoenix pulls back the curtain on the future of inland empires. If you want a taste of the brutal new climate to come, the place to look is where that climate is already harsh, and growing more so -- the aptly named Valley of the Sun.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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The West in flames: Get used to it

This year's Whitewater Baldy Complex fire in New Mexico is the largest in the state's history. (Photo by Gila National Forest.)

Dire fire conditions, like the inferno of heat, turbulence, and fuel that recently turned 346 homes in Colorado Springs, Colo., to ash, are now common in the West. A lethal combination of drought, insect plagues, windstorms, and legions of dead, dying, or stressed-out trees constitute what some pundits are calling wildfire’s “perfect storm.”

They are only half right.

This summer's conditions may indeed be perfect for fire in the Southwest and West, but if you think of them as a “storm,” perfect or otherwise -- that is, sudden, violent, and temporary -- then you don’t understand what’s happening in this country or on this planet. Look at those 346 burnt homes again, or at the High Park fire that ate 87,284 acres and 259 homes west of Fort Collins, Colo., or at the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire in New Mexico that began in mid-May, consumed almost 300,000 acres, and is still smoldering, and what you have is evidence of the new normal in the American West.

Read more: Climate Change

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The age of thirst in the American West

This essay was originally published on TomDispatch and is republished here with Tom’s kind permission. Consider it a taste of the future: the fire, smoke, drought, dust, and heat that have made life unpleasant, if not dangerous, from Louisiana to Los Angeles. New records tell the tale: biggest wildfire ever recorded in Arizona (538,049 acres); biggest fire ever in New Mexico (156,600 acres); all-time worst fire year in Texas history (3,697,000 acres). The fires were a function of drought. As of summer's end, 2011 was the driest year in 117 years of record-keeping for New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, and …