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Traps Of Our Own Making: Climate Change, Blame And Denial

Lance Olsen lays out the undeniable scientific evidence that elected officials cannot ignore

 Despite warnings from renowned scientists and unfavorable market conditions due to cheap natural gas, some politicians are pushing to revive the fortunes of coal-fired power plants. Photo courtesy flickr user Ozzy Delaney
Despite warnings from renowned scientists and unfavorable market conditions due to cheap natural gas, some politicians are pushing to revive the fortunes of coal-fired power plants. Photo courtesy flickr user Ozzy Delaney
Come morning, I throw my covers aside, swing my legs over the edge of the bed, turn on my bedside lamp, crank up my bedside radio for a first dose of the daily news, then pull on some clothes and head for the kitchen to get a pot of coffee going. That done, it’s time to turn on my computer and pick my way through the latest reports on all things climate.


Put another way, I start my climate-oriented day by doing my bit to heat the planet just a little more, simply because everything from my bedside lamp and radio to my kitchen stove and computer are powered by electricity.

Electricity where I live in Montana is powered by coal. So, here I sit,  typing these words into a coal-fired computer, sipping coffee heated on a coal-fired stove, listening to news and music on a coal-fired radio, effectively pushing atmospheric CO2 density higher than the normal background levels that have kept the planet from being too cold to support Life. It boils down to my own daily creation of too much of an otherwise good thing.

I do all this knowing full well that I’m adding to the increasing risk for things that many people care about deeply, including children going outdoors to play and adults going outdoors to work. A team led by the University of Hawaii’s Camilo Mora cites evidence that “it is unlikely that human physiology will evolve the necessary higher heat tolerance, highlighting that outdoor conditions will remain deadly.

Mora has since said, "What we're understanding is that the human body is actually very sensitive to heat, and that suggests pretty much everybody's at risk. ” He went on to warn that "this is coming at our doors right now.”

As a consequence of how I live, increasingly deadly heat is going to be pounding on our doors for a very long time to come—the leading greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, remains in the atmosphere for 1,000 years once we dump it there. 

The net result is that the heat I turn up in the humdrum routine of my ordinary day can’t even start coming back down for 1,000 years, and lingering effects may persist for thousands of years beyond that

Even short of deadly outdoor heat during summer days, our work and play is likely to suffer if rising overnight heat keeps us from getting a good night’s sleep

The fingers of blame point in many directions

It’s clearly not just me, and just as clearly not just our dependency on coal. Our shared situation is reminiscent of then-President George W Bush’s remark that “we are addicted to oil.” It was a profoundly honest admission.

Bush may as well have said we’re addicted to all the fossil fuels, but our dependency on oil brings transportation into the picture. Every time someone turns an ignition key to commence a routine commute to work, the atmosphere becomes just that much better a heat trap. It’s the same for planes, ships, trains, just about everything in the fossil fuel economy. Some would take this and say we can do nothing, that the dire result bearing down on us is inevitable.

A November 21 2010 issue of Nature Geoscience reported that “the growth in CO2 emissions closely follows the growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) corrected for improvements in energy efficiency.”

The relationship between CO2 emissions and economic growth was confirmed in 2012. “Changes in world GDP (WGDP) have a significant effect on CO2 concentrations, so that years of above-trend WGDP are years of greater rise of CO2 concentrations."  In other words, our unquestioning carbon-based approach to economic prosperity, resting on the belief that it is elevating the human condition is actually achieving the opposite effect.  
 In the recently-released Montana Climate Assessment, a team of scientific experts noted that climate change could spell disaster for dryland farmers and beef growers on the high plains. Photo courtesy USDA
In the recently-released Montana Climate Assessment, a team of scientific experts noted that climate change could spell disaster for dryland farmers and beef growers on the high plains. Photo courtesy USDA
Big Oil has acknowledged much of climate science’s validity, much the same as I’m acknowledging mine here. In an unusual court case in which the judge asked both sides of a climate change lawsuit to state their stance on climate science, Chevron attorney Theodore Boutrous told the judge that Chevron agrees with IPCC findings that humans are a major force driving heat to higher levels

However, he went on to say, “IPCC doesn’t say that the extraction or production of fossil fuels leads to emissions. It’s energy use, the economic activity, that drives the demand for fuel that leads to emissions.” 

Boutros is essentially arguing that the finger of blame points not at the oil industry itself, but instead to its own customers. That's us. But do we make no distinction between the responsibilities of addicts and the responsibilities of the pushers? 

Chevron can’t shift all the blame to its consumers, if only because the oil industry is as addicted to sales as its customers are to buying its fuels. Nor can I shift all the blame to the three big fossil fuel industries—coal, oil, and gas. This buck stops everywhere, and there can be no shift if other options are being stifled by the fossil fuel industry and elected officials. 

Read the recent editorial by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana titled "Reaching energy potential right for state, country" where it is suggested we should get back big into coal extraction and applauded the Trump Administration's move to start drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Yet the senator makes no mention of climate change. In the past, without providing any substantive facts, he has downplayed or ignored the compelling scientific evidence produced by the National Academies of Sciences. A current extended drought in the heart of Australia's beef country could be a symbolic prelude, reminding ag producers in the arid U.S. West what lies in store when drought is not treated as an aberration but the new normal.

Has the fossil fuel economy become a trap?

There’s an interesting alternative to the addiction model of our situation. In 1973, American Psychologist published an article by John Platt. Platt opened his analysis describing "a new area of study is the field that some of us are beginning to call social traps. 

The term refers to situations in society that contain traps formally like a fish trap, where people or whole societies get themselves started in some direction or some set of relationships that later prove to be unpleasant or lethal and that they see no easy way to back out of or to avoid."

The cumulative effect of our self-made trap already adds up to atmospheric greenhouse gases exceeding anything in the history of humans on Earth

Bringing the consequences of a fossil fuels trap a bit closer to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Rockies, Montana has already passed through three temperature-driven thresholds important for the state’s ecosystems, people, and society as a whole

This change is consequential; it has already been associated with a decline of plant species in the mountains here even though global average temperatures had not yet reached 1-degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and atmospheric CO2 concentration had not yet reached 400 ppm. Note: Read also the recent Montana Climate Assessment and Mountain Journal's investigative story For Yellowstone and America, Climate Change Brings Our Moment Of Truth.

Our forests and the logging industry are also ensnared—in a heat trap

Like a growing number of others, my attention turned to climate science as a result of the attention we’ve given to wild spaces and systems including forests and the animal life associated with forests. Now it’s clear that the forests are at risk, a risk that translates directly to risk for the logging industry. 

In 2007, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published an article by Andrei P. Kirilenko and Roger A. Sedjo. These authors focused solely on climate change impact on commercial forestry. In a review of 75 studies of industry’s own risk, they concluded that “even without fires or insect damage, the change in frequency of extreme events, such as strong winds, winter storms, droughts, etc. can bring massive loss to commercial forestry.”
Forests and the understories beneath them are drying out, with wildfires coming earlier, bigger and more intense. Some elected officials, despite compelling scientific evidence refuting their assertions, claim that going back to the days of intensive logging will result in better forest health. Photo courtesy US Forest Service
Forests and the understories beneath them are drying out, with wildfires coming earlier, bigger and more intense. Some elected officials, despite compelling scientific evidence refuting their assertions, claim that going back to the days of intensive logging will result in better forest health. Photo courtesy US Forest Service
A year later, in 2008, the Journal of Forestry published an article by Robert Malmshiemer and other authors including Doug Crandall of the Forest Service Washington Office and former manager of a timber mill in Livingston, Mont. These authors began their report saying “Forests are shaped by climate. Along with soils, aspect, inclination, and elevation, climate determines what will grow where and how well. Changes in temperature and precipitation regimes therefore have the potential to dramatically affect forests nationwide.”

The reference to nationwide change meant that forests from Yellowstone north through Glacier National Parks would not be immune. So it was no surprise that, in 2018, the authors of chapter five of a book on Climate Change and Rocky Mountain Ecosystems, report that “Increasing air temperature, through its influence on soil moisture, is expected to cause gradual changes in the abundance and distribution of tree, shrub, and grass species throughout the Northern Rockies, with drought tolerant species becoming more competitive.”

A few years earlier, the August 21 2015 issue of Science had already published a review of drought impact by Constance Millar and Nathan Stephenson. This team found that “exceptional droughts, directly and in combination with other disturbance factors, are pushing some temperate forests beyond thresholds of sustainability,” and that “serious thresholds are crossed when forests convert to vegetation types without trees.”

The reference to drought in combination with other disturbance poses a challenge to recent US Forest Service optimistic claims that it can manage for “resilient” forests that spring back to their former selves through intensive logging.  This claim has been looking increasingly fanciful for forests across the Rockies, where the forest image as a comeback kid has been challenged by drought that snuffs seedlings’ ability to restore forest cover after fire

That study’s lead author Dr. Camille Stevens-Rumann briefly summarizes the evidence of failing forest resilience in a one-minute video. 
My coal-fired radio, computer, and kitchen stove bear a share of the responsibility for the threats to forests, and by extension to the forest economy. And so of course do the coal, oil, and natural gas industries — and all their customers.

Logging as a self-endangering industry

In an ironic twist, the logging industry may share guilt for creating an emissions problem that comes right back around to endangering the industry itself. There’s evidence already available for testing this simultaneously ecological and economic risk.
By 2008, Forest Ecology and Management could publish findings that “… a 'no timber harvest' scenario eliminating harvests on public lands would result in an annual increase of 17-29 million metric tonnes of carbon (MMTC) per year between 2010 and 2050,” referring to how much carbon would be kept in the forest.

In 2012, Global Change Biology-Bioenergy could confirm that trend with findings that, “When the most realistic assumptions are used and a carbon-cycle model is applied, an increased harvest level in forests leads to a permanent increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration.” 

A 2017 study determined that “…CO2 emissions from land-use change have been substantially underestimated because processes such as tree harvesting and land clearing from shifting cultivation have not been considered.”  In 2018, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published an analysis of Oregon’s logging industry. The gist of the study is that the logging industry is the leading source of CO2 emissions in that state

The logging industry might prefer that the fossil fuel industry shoulder all the blame for forests’ exposure to climate risk. That won’t wash.

Sharing the cost/sharing the pain/spreading the truth

As the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung once observed, we commonly blame devils on the other side of the mountain for the troubles on our side of the mountain. The blame-shifting is substantially aimed toward avoiding responsibility for costs both ecological and economic, but we’ll all end up paying in one way or another if the heat continues its dangerous climb to new extremes.

A crucial choice we face is paying to avoid the new extremes with something like a carbon tax, or paying for all the damage the new extremes will bring. The rub is that too few are willing to pay to avoid even the pain of heat to dangerous for kids to go outside and play or grownups to go outside and work, let alone pay to avoid damages to forests, farms, waters, and wildlife.
About Lance Olsen

Lance Olsen has been involved with science and wildlife conservation in the Northern Rockies for more than four decades.  A former executive director of the Missoula, Montana-based Great Bear Foundation, he worked with noted bear researchers, including Drs. Charles Jonkel and John Craighead. He is based in Missoula, Montana.
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