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Local Opinion: If Biden is serious about climate change, then the desert deserves his attention

Local Opinion: If Biden is serious about climate change, then the desert deserves his attention

Hannah Johnson

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

The end of 2021 was big for the climate.

World leaders, scientists, CEOs and activists gathered in Glasgow for the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November, the United Nations’ annual climate change conference. The United States and more than 100 other nations committed to end deforestation by 2030.

It’s a lofty goal crucial to combating climate change. If accomplished, it will help the world’s forests do their jobs: providing habitats, regulating global temperatures and drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. The plan will require policies that stop deforestation, provide resources to Indigenous communities to protect their forests and allocate money for the restoration and protection of forests.

Protecting ecosystems is necessary to help combat the climate crisis. But, for those of us living in the desert Southwest, it raises the question: What about our ecosystem?

As an ecology student at the University of Arizona, I care deeply about the protection of Southwestern ecosystems. In class, I learn about the necessity of protecting biodiversity and safeguarding our natural resources. I often head home feeling helpless and overwhelmed.

In agreeing to end deforestation, President Joe Biden made a commitment to protect our natural lands. He also recognized the role of Indigenous people worldwide as stewards of their land.

But what about the beautiful desert of the borderlands and the Indigenous people who call it home? People have lived in the Sonoran Desert that spans the border of Arizona and Mexico for thousands of years. In Southern Arizona, the Tohono O’odham, Pascua Yaqui and others still live on what is left of their ancestral lands.

In 2017, President Donald Trump began construction of the border wall to block passage between the U.S. and Mexico from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific Ocean. The wall is often approached as a foreign policy issue, but it is also an ecological issue, fragmenting thousands of miles of habitat. Its construction threatened endemic species with extinction and blocked the migration of animals.

Perhaps most people on Capitol Hill are unfamiliar with the diverse and productive desert of the Southwest. Maybe they imagine empty sand dunes and a desolate environment reminiscent of the planet Arrakis in “Dune.”

But there is life in the desert — an ecosystem worth saving. An ecosystem under threat.

There is no telling what will happen in the 2024 presidential election, but environmentalists in the Southwest look at the calendar with trepidation.

Biden has made the protection of American ecosystems a priority. In January 2021, he issued the 30x30 initiative for locally driven conservation of U.S. lands and waters and in October he restored the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. He halted the construction of the border wall in the beginning of his term — a relief, with 450 miles of wall already built.

Perhaps 2024 will come and go, and environmentalists will have worried for naught. The alternative? 2024 will bring the continued construction of the wall, permanently slicing thousands of miles of habitat — and Indigenous land — in two.

In the face of this, environmental organizations like Defenders of Wildlife have shifted their focus. Besides mitigating ecological damage, they’ve set their sights on a new goal: repealing the Real ID Act of 2005. This act gave the Department of Homeland Security the power to waive laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, to begin construction of the border wall. Repealing the Real ID Act will prevent construction of the wall from resuming without due process.

If Biden is truly committed to protecting ecosystems from destruction, then the border wall can no longer be ignored. The prevention of further damage is key. Tell your representatives that you support repealing the Real ID Act to ensure that the destructive process of wall construction, and other similar projects, cannot be allowed again.

Hannah Johnson is a student at the University of Arizona studying ecology and evolutionary biology driven by a passion for conservation and science communication.

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