Global warming and evidence of climate damage first registered on the national consciousness thirty-three years ago during the dry, blistering summer of 1988. The lack of national response, of national resolve, in years since is amazing given the signals and warnings from Mother Earth.
I was vacationing from Washington, D.C. reporting duties at Cape Lookout on the Oregon Coast in July of ’88 and took the family’s black standard poodle, Jennifer, for an early morning walk on the beach.
We returned, flipped on the Today show, and the map behind weatherman Willard Scott showed two slivers of America below ninety degrees, the north coast of Maine and the north coast of Oregon and Washington.
That summer, three decades ago, marked the first prediction by America’s political pundits that the environment would be a major issue in the fall election. After all, George H.W. Bush was declaring, “I want to be the environmental president.”
The quadrennial predictions never seem to gel. So here we are in another hothouse summer out West with flooding in the Northeast and fifty to one hundred year storms striking Western Europe. Europe is moving away from having a polluting economy. On this side of The Pond, however, its defenders are mounting massive resistance against Biden administration initiatives.
The map behind Willard Scott appeared to carry a message, that the warming of the planet will be mellower to live with in the Pacific Northwest than elsewhere.
That sentiment remains baked in around these parts despite the alarming one hundred and seven degree (and higher) temperatures of late June, and a fire season that has spread from remote forests of the Pasayten Wilderness to the edges of communities on both sides of the Cascade Crest.
With due note to the keep-our-cool urgings of UW atmospheric sciences professor Cliff Mass, here are non-statistic naked eye observations that we, too, are in what George Bush memorably described as “the deep doo-doo.”
The retreat of the glaciers
The Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers on Mount Baker were advancing when I was a kid. The advance was being measured by UW engineering professor Art Harrison. It was a bear to get measuring markers across outlet streams and up to Bastille Ridge on the north side of the Roosevelt Glacier.
A very territorial bear was ripping up the makers. The glacier was fascinating to observe, its advancing ice tongues were curling around either side of a cliff.
The glacier has since retreated about a quarter mile.
Of course, ice tongues advance and recede. But changes in my lifetime have been dramatic. The Anderson and Lillian Glaciers in the Olympics have disappeared in the last two decades. The South Cascade Glacier has largely melted since the U.S. Geological Survey began measuring it in 1950.
The region depends on its winter snowpack, and glacier melt in summer, for stream flow, irrigation, fisheries, hydroelectric power, navigation and recreation.
It has ferociously fought efforts by the Southwest to take our water, but now sees climate taking it.
The expansion of the pine beetle’s range
The moderating of temperatures in British Columbia’s cold Chilcotin Plateau have quickened the breeding cycles of the pine bark beetle.
The infestation is killing forests on a vast scale. Fly from Vancouver to Terrace: You will see below gray (dead) and orange (dying) trees.
Canadian land managers are making a stand at the Continental Divide, hoping to turn back the infestation before it ravages Canada’s boreal forests. Beetles are also killing white pine bark pine trees from the Sierra Nevada to the Rockies. Cones from the trees are a prime source of food for our endangered grizzly bears.
The ever-lengthening fire season
The fire season has grown longer and even reached our temperate rainforests.
A lot of us chuckled a few years back when Forks was struck by drought – water could not be used to hose down logging trucks – and a truculent forest fire burned in the Queets River Valley.
It’s no laughing matter, though.
I once rafted the Stikine River, which flows from British Columbia down to Southeast Alaska. We took to the water at the wet little town of Telegraph Creek. Two years ago, part of Telegraph Creek was destroyed in a forest fire.
Vast fires have burned across Alaska, northern Canada and particularly Siberia. Seattle has breathed smoke from Alaska fires.
Rising temperatures and rising seas
Ocean and river temperatures are rising, at times risking big sockeye salmon runs in the undammed Fraser River.
The acidification of our coastal waters (brilliantly detailed in a Seattle Times series by Craig Welch) is such that shellfish must be grown elsewhere.
Deprived of protection from sea ice, Alaskan coastal villages are being hit hard by early season storms off the Bering Sea. (Alaska’s U.S. Representative Don Young is a climate skeptic.) Our cities are beginning to plan for rising sea levels.
Even as waters advance, the environment and climate recede as a national issue as election day approaches. Projects to address climate damage have largely come from the state and local level, not the federal level.
Witness the Mayors’ Climate Task Force that Seattle’s Greg Nickels helped launch, and California’s mileage standards for cars and trucks. The Golden State found its fuel efficiency standards challenged by the Trump regime.
Our Washington is enlightened, “the other” Washington is not.
(Not yet, anyway.)
The environmental movement, joyously launched on Earth Day in 1970, has grown into a lobby that raises lots of money and makes the act of contributing feel good. Seattle is, for instance, a font of cash for the League of Conservation Voters. United States Senators fly here for fundraisers and fly out again.
The green-minded activists of our state show their clout at the Washington Conservation Voters’ “Breakfast of Champions,” filling the Westin ballroom each fall (except for last autumn, due to the coronavirus pandemic).
Very good, but duty does not stop with check writing.
We need more individual commitment and collective action.
During my time as as a reporter and columnist, I’ve watched people singing “O Canada” at road blockades against logging of old growth in British Columbia.
And Aboriginal First Nations chiefs, in full robes, busted for protesting the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion (fueling the huge tar sands oil fields in Alberta and bringing a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic on the Salish Sea.
This is not to suggest that everybody go out and get busted. Only that it’s not enough to let an organization or lobby speak on your behalf.
Contribute, yes, but commit to calling and canvassing.
As this is written, I am wearing an “LCV for Tester” T‑shirt brought back from Montana by Seattle friends Eric and Heather Redman.
The Redmans are busy, pretty prominent folk, yet they took time in 2018 to canvass as League of Conservation Voters volunteers in pivotal Yellowstone County, boosting the reelection of Montana Sen. Jon Tester.
Tester had infuriated Donald Trump, who came out not one, not two, not three, but four times to campaign against him. Mike Pence and Trump’s son Don Jr. were also dispatched to afflict the Big Sky State.
Tester survived in what’s become a very red state. With television commercials lined up cheek-to-jowl, people count. And don’t count on network news or cable television to ensure that climate damage and climate action get discussed.
The push for social and environmental change in America has long come from the bottom up. But we are living in a climate emergency. Grassroots activism is crucial to addressing that emergency. It must continue, and it must expand. But it also must be supported in our nation’s capital with serious climate action.