The steep hike up from Anderson Pass, in the Olympics yielded to an overlook of a vigorous glacier and close-up of a 7,300-foot summit seen distantly from Seattle. I did the hike twenty-five years ago.
One part of the scene has radically changed: The Anderson Glacier is no longer there. It has melted away in a quarter century.
Climate damage is impacting the Northwest in visible and breathable ways.
We’ve had the nation’s worst air from fire smoke over a couple of summers.
The fire season is much longer. Our mountains are losing their ice mantle.
Beetles are killing our forests.
The climate crisis was felt massively in the Gulf of Mexico last week, where eighty-six degree waters caused Hurricane Laura to climb overnight from a predicted Category 2 to a Category 4 storm. As of this writing, fifty-five fires are burning in California with parts of the Bay Area is getting the world’s dirtiest air.
The first predictions that climate would become a major presidential campaign issue came thirty-two years ago, in the hot summer of 1988.
George H.W. Bush was promising to become “the environmental president.” A polluted Boston Harbor was used against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.
The climate crisis has significantly worsened in the decades since.
So have predictions, early in presidential years, that the warming of the earth would light a fire under the electorate.
It hasn’t happened.
Always, always climate and environment get eclipsed as Election Day draws near.
Al Gore jumped on bestseller lists in 1992 with his seminal climate justice book, Earth in the Balance, and was picked as Democratic vice presidential nominee later that year. Sadly, the urgency of the book was never reflected in administration policies, although Clinton did designate wonderful national monuments.
Dick Cheney took charge of energy policy under George W. Bush, and turned to the fossil fuel industry for counsel. Barack Obama had the Great Recession to attend to, and Democrats in Congress tied to the fossil fuel economy.
This year held promise, in no small part to climate advocacy in the brief presidential bid of Washington Governor Jay Inslee.
Though Inslee exited the presidential race after the second round of debates, rivals moved to copy the environmental agenda he offered.
In the past few months, however, the United States has been hit by the worldwide novel coroanvirus pandemic and an ensuing economic slowdown that has cost thirty million jobs, and a reckoning over systemic racism.
The wretched response of the Trump regime has moved these crises front and center. Environmental atrocities, like the loosening of methane regulations, have moved to back pages of the New York Times. The administration has opened the door to oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Attorneys general have gained little public attention for their legal defense of the National Environmental Policy Act, the nation’s basic environmental law.
Joe Biden has an impressively decent climate plan, fortified by clean energy proposals from the Inslee camp, and a bold bold public lands platform proposed early this year by Senator Elizabeth Warren. The issue becomes what priority given as the country digs out from the Trump disaster.
Just as the pandemic sets policy, so too does climate damage. We can watch it in the massive Greenland icemelt, and in U.S. Geological Survey monitoring of year-by-year melting of the South Cascade Glacier, or hikers’ witness to the rapid shrinking of the Lyman Glacier deep in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area.
Is there still hope for the 2020 election, or are we relegated to what a funny Democrat, Dick Tuck, said when he lost a state Senate race in California: “The voters have spoken, the bastards.”
The possible positives:
The West flips the Senate. Three Western states, and three pro-environment candidates, hold the key: Mary Kelly in Arizona, Gov. Steve Bullock in Montana, and ex-Gov. John Hickenlooper in Colorado. All face allies of the fossil fuel industry, although GOP incumbents Steve Daines (Montana) and Cory Gardner (Colorado) have lately tried to sound green. If Democrats get a majority, Senator Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington, will be positioned to lead in crafting a new energy policy targeted to weaning the country form fossil fuels.
Young people show up. The most progressive, growing chunk of the American electorate often doesn’t show up. Young voters were a key to electing Barack Obama. A scribe remembers the day he hit Bend, Oregon, for a rally.
Kids were camped outside the door of the high school where Obama would speak. A high school senior introduced him. The Obama campaign assembled a progressive coalition, of which voters were a key. Joe Biden, at seventy-seven, is less exciting, but there’s a lot to like about his platform.
One or two severe hurricanes threaten the country, or come ashore with the power of Laura. While cringing at consequences, perhaps this is what’s necessary to further awaken the New York/Washington, D.C. based big media to what’s happening out in the country. We’ve seen a few signs that the glacial indifference of the news media is melting. Chuck Todd won’t permit climate deniers to appear on Meet the Press. Jolly “Today Show” weather forecaster Al Roker was dispatched to Greenland, and came back with a frightening tale to tell.
Local thinking pushes global action. Years ago, when President Kennedy promised to govern with “great vigah,” Americans looked for top down initiatives from their government. Key examples, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. With paralysis in the “other” Washington, localities must lead.
A good example would be the climate package introduced last week by King County Executive Dow Constantine. Or for the state to wear down the oil companies and finally levy a penalty on big polluters.
Environmental justice is a vital component, for human health and political support. Hurricane Laura cut a path across the Gulf Coast industrial belt, where low income and minority residents already breathe bad air and kids have high asthma rates. One compelling scene from the story was a major chemical plant fire.
A load of early conservation books (e.g. “The North Cascades: Forgotten Parkland”) can be found on a shelf next to this scribe’s writing desk. They carry messages of early frustration, and eventual triumph as vast chunks of public lands were protected as wilderness areas, national parks, and national monuments.
Supporters of wildlands were famously mocked by a Seattle Times editorialist as “mountain climbers and birdwatchers.”
A powerful U.S. Forest Service supervisor greeted a Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs delegation with the words, “Just what do you people want?”
The activists kept pressing: Look what they achieved.
The issue now is not whether the Agnew Creek Valley will get logged, but literally whether the Earth will remain habitable. Words often used by Obama in 2008 – “The urgency of now” – apply to the climate crisis.
Activists, keep pressing over the next sixty days.
It’s not too late for an alignment that will allow climate action.