In Tucson and across America, the last decade was the hottest on record. And this is only the beginning. We've entered a new era, an era of extremes, and we need to prepare.
Changing weather patterns are setting records across the country. These records are being measured in degrees, inches, miles-per-hour and millions of acres, and also in billions of dollars. Last year, the total losses from natural catastrophes -mostly from weather-related disasters-in the United States amounted to approximately $72 billion, one of the most expensive in history.
Here in Arizona, we are on the front lines. Last summer was the second hottest on record in Tucson, with temperatures topping 100 degrees on 70 days. And this is part of a disturbing trend. In the 30-year period from 1981-2010, the average annual number of days (62) when the temperature topped 100 degrees was 55 percent higher than during the previous 30 years.
Meanwhile, the Wallow Fire was the largest in Arizona history, burning over 500,000 acres and costing about $110 million to suppress it- which was only a fraction of the fire's total cost.
Our water supplies are also at risk. Lake Mead, which supplies water to Phoenix and Tucson, is only 56 percent full and scientists project that yearly runoff into Lake Mead is likely to decline by up to 20 percent by mid-century.
These are big challenges, but they are ones we can overcome. But we must take these new threats seriously. The first step is to look the problem square in the eye, rather than bury our heads in the sand; the second is to prepare for the impacts.
Here's some good news: The city of Tucson is doing both.
Together with the University of Arizona, the city has conducted a vulnerability assessment that takes a hard look at how changing climate patterns, precipitation, fires and other extreme weather events are affecting Tucson's communities now and in the future.
For example, rising temperatures mean more heatstrokes, increased wildfires mean greater human respiratory ailments, and more severe storms mean more damage to Tucson's homes and infrastructure.
On Saturday, the city will discuss these findings and take the first step to prepare by convening a town-hall meeting called The Power to Prepare Tucson.
We can tackle this kind of problem only if local governments, community leaders and individuals work together.
The Power to Prepare Tucson will offer an opportunity to hear from those who have the most at stake: local businesses, churches, neighborhoods and individuals. Citizen participation and innovation are not new concepts in Tucson. I can say from my own experience that Tucson has a vibrant political culture rooted in individual and neighborhood action. This forum is a model of local government engagement and a good opportunity to get involved.
The event is even receiving attention from beyond Southern Arizona, as it was chosen to kick off the Earth Hour City Challenge, an initiative of the World Wildlife Fund that will challenge cities around America to prepare for these kinds of impacts and engage their citizens to find solutions.
The cities, towns and even countries that will prosper in this era of extremes are those that tackle the problems head on, showing us all the way to build the communities of tomorrow - communities that attract new businesses and residents by proving how to maintain a high quality of life in this new and changing future.
As an Arizonan and former governor, I'm proud to see the city of Tucson take up the challenge to prepare for these serious changes and work with the public on solutions. By taking these steps, Tucson can be a model for others around the country to follow.
IF YOU GO
The Power to Prepare Tucson event will be held Saturday from 3-7:15 p.m. at the Tucson Convention Center. It's free, but seating is limited so RSVP online at http://cms3.tucsonaz.gov/ocsd/news/3312012-power-prepare-tucson-summit
Bruce Babbitt served as United States secretary of the interior and as governor of Arizona from 1978 to 1987.