Beth Conover (And Company)

What will it take for the debate to end?  That’s what I wanted to know when I finished reading “How the West Was Warmed.”

Climate change is happening.  It’s here. The issue needs our full attention.  We have put ourselves on an energy-guzzling course that will take decades to alter. We will need mountain-loads of political and societal determination to repair the damage being done right this second.

If we (“we” being the inhabitants of Earth) all lived in a mountain village and word came that an avalanche was roaring down from a high peak, we’d help each other  out of harm’s way.  We know the alarm has been sounded—over and over for about 30 years—yet we stew and debate and wonder if we should do something.

In fact, I don’t think there’s really that much debate. I think a few doubters—some well intentioned, some not—have access to major communication systems, such as cable television, and are blasting away with the same kind of fan-the-flames vitriol that leads to headache-inducing shouting matches, not reasonable discussion.

I’ve never been a doubter on this issue, but “How the West Was Warmed” shook me loose from complacency.  Shook me up.  In a good way.

This is a deft book, neatly organized. It sneaks up on you by starting with personal viewpoints and personal essays and then backing up the lens for a bigger, more macro view.  To continue with the winter metaphors, this book snowballs.

“How the West Was Warmed” takes the issue of climate change and breaks it into manageable morsels—some 39 essays in all plus a forward (Denver mayor), introduction (the author) and afterword (Colorado governor).  The result is a book that takes a major topic and breaks it down into a series of interesting and challenging essays that create a troubling, worrisome whole.

Dumpster diving, climate tourism, raising urban chickens, climate change and religion, the future of water resources in the Rocky Mountains, “green” construction, natural gas, solar power, wind, the massive pine beetle kill and many more topics are dissected as “How the West” progresses. Easy solutions are non-existent. Throughout, the writing is brisk and to-the-point as a variety of experts examine the pros and cons of various alternatives to coal and oil and examine the impact on our environment.  There are big-picture views of energy consumption and many essays that bring this complex issue down to a personal, tangible level.

As I read, I kept wondering why the news media wasn’t doing a better job of connecting cause and effect.  Each of these essays should have spurred a major news piece.  And then I read Jason Salzman’s savvy essay, “Journalism and the Scientific Consensus On Global Warming,” which raises some troubling questions about the mettle of reporters today.  I always find it worrisome when the reporters have to check with their PR managers to answer blunt questions.

There are many thoughtful essays, but I found James R. Udall (“The Big Bonfire—What Colorado Can Learn from the Samso Experiment”) and Todd Neff (“Getting the Fear”) particularly inspiring.

Writes Neff: “We as westerners, as Americans, must achieve greatness in the coming years, leading a mass transition to energy systems based on lower- rather than higher-density inputs (civilization has always climbed the energy-density ladder, from wood to coil to oil and gas to nuclear), a feat unprecedented in human history. We will have to adjust in many ways, from practicing conservation to the point it feels like rationing to paying for higher prices for everything involving energy, which is everything.  A new energy infrastructure will cost trillions of dollars. Adding to our burden is generational injustice: we must atone not only for our own energy irresponsibility, but for the unwitting combustive transgressions of centuries of forebears burning lumps of coal, lightning kerosene lamps, driving big stupid cars with tailfins. We have every reason to fear the consequences of our profligacy, of our continued disregard for the planet’s carrying capacity.”

These essays might focus on “responding to climate change in the Rockies” but the lessons and ideas—and ways to think about this global problem—should be read by all.

Side note: While the title of this book is clever, it’s much more than a regional analysis.  The book might use the Rocky Mountain west as a jumping off point, but these essays deserve national and international attention.

Congratulations—and thanks—to Beth Conover (and company).

A few more samples of key passages:

Marc Waage: No Regrets Strategies for Climate Change

We know temperature increases alone could substantially reduce our water supplies. For example, warmer weather causes snowpack and stream water to evaporate faster and forests to consume more water. A simple assessment by Denver Water found that a 5˚F warming, which is the median projection for Denver’s mountain watersheds in the next fifty years, could reduce Denver’s water supply by 14 percent—enough water for more than 100,000 households. It would take a significant increase in precipitation to offset those losses from warming.

Marc Waage #2:

No-regrets strategies are rooted in increasing a water provider’s flexibility and diversity while preserving and developing options to deal with changing conditions. No-regrets solutions include maintaining or improving water systems’ operational flexibility to adapt to changing conditions, as well as developing a diverse portfolio of resource options.

Brad Udall: Water in the Rockies—A Twenty-First-Century Zero-Sum Game

We are already seeing the effects of climate change in Colorado and around the West. Temperatures have warmed by over 2˚F since 1970. Spring runoff is occurring earlier in almost all snowmelt basins in the West. A greater proportion of our annual precipitation is now coming as rain instead of snow, even at our highest elevations. Forest fires in the West since 1986 are significantly bigger, longer, and more destructive, and these changes highly correlate to warmer temperatures. Droughts are more severe and last longer. The recent mountain pine beetle epidemic—caused partly by climate change, partly by natural cycle, and partly by human fire management—is now at 2 million acres and is fundamentally changing our mountain landscapes and mountain hydrology.

John Daly: Zephyr to Zion—Train Of Thoughts in A Warming West

In a warming world, it’s an ominous harbinger of things to come. A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that if our current rates of carbon emission remain unchanged, the planet could see a temperature hike of nearly 10˚F, a staggering jump. What chance is there, then, for these iconic western pine forests and all that awe-inspiring wildlife?

Daly #2:

How can it be that public opinion lags so far behind reality? Here’s my perspective: the nosedive of the journalism world is directly undermining the quality and quantity of climate-related information US citizens consume. Consider the findings of the 2009 State of the News Media report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The report found that the journalism world, like the financial sector, is in a meltdown. The global economic downturn is hammering the very advertisers that fund most news outlets.

Tim Sullivan: The New Land Imperative—Land Conservation and Climate Change

There is no question that severe climate change poses the greatest threat to the survival of species and ecosystems in the grasslands, but it would be a grave mistake to severely damage the resilience of native grasslands in the process of addressing climate change.  Increased conversion of native grasslands to grow biofuels, and increased fragmentation of remaining intact lands by wind turbines that have been placed without adequate planning, will reduce the ability of grassland species and systems to adapt to changes in climate.

James R. Udall: The Big Bonfire—What Colorado Can Learn From the Samso Experiment

The irony is that the West’s renewable resources are better than Denmark’s. Far better. In many parts of the Great Plains, each square mile gets swept by $5 million worth of untapped wind power per year. The solar flux raining down on the desert southwest is worth $2 million per square mile per year. Within ten miles of Medicine Bow, Wyoming, you could plant enough wind turbines to run the entire state. At noon on a sunny day, there’s fifty horsepower of sunlight striking your south-facing roof. But drowning in fossil fuels, we turn our back to the sun. Coal stymies wind. Natural gas blocks biomass.

Of course, in a crisis, people and policies can change. In 2008, $17 billion worth of wind was installed in the United States. Many legislatures have adopted mandatory renewable-energy standards.  Rural electric utilities promote geothermal heating, solar, and small-scale hydropower. Rifle and Eagle, Colorado, have announced plans for multimillion solar farms.

And my favorite quote was from Soren Hermanson (who headed up The Samso Experiment), as quoted by James R. Udall:

“Don’t fret about the polar bar. Don’t think global and act local. Just act local. If enough of us do, then somebody we might do something good for the polar bear.”

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