We all know what happens to the frog in a gradually warming pot of water. Too slow to react it eventually boils to death. Since the Industrial Revolution humans have been steadily turning up the heat in this big pot we call planet earth with ever increasing carbon pollution from the burning of fossil fuel. Even hard core climate change skeptics are finding it harder to deny the harsh reality of global “weirding," as dramatized by the recent extreme winter storm in Texas where millions suffered from lack of electricity, heat and potable water. This was not an isolated event, but instead the latest in a frightening series of catastrophes. The best available science tells us this trend will only intensify, with ever more frequent weather disasters as we continue to put more CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
We can be frogs in this warming caldron or we can be humans with the somewhat larger brain needed to develop the will and know-how to get us out of this mess we’ve made.
According to the Montana Climate Assessment annual temperatures in the state have risen 2-3 degrees F since 1950. Climate models predict that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the present rate temperatures may rise by 9.8 degrees F (from those recorded between 1971-2000) by the end of the century. The most extreme heat will occur in eastern Montana. During the past 30 years we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the frequency and severity of wildfires in both forest and grassland. This will only worsen as climate change brings about wetter springs that produce more fuel becoming tinder dry during drier summers. The combined effects of heat and smoke will impact the health of our most vulnerable people, such as the poor and those with chronic health conditions.
The projected temperature increases in Montana are larger that those projected both globally and nationally. We can anticipate more extreme weather events such as spring flooding and severe summer drought. Already, climate change is diminishing wildlife, fish, and many subsistence, ceremonial, and medicinal plants threatening the food security and culture of tribal communities.
Science tells us that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by at least 45 percent by 2030 (as compared to 2010 levels) if we are to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century which is essential to keep global temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees C (F 2.7). Thus the next 9 years are crucial to prevent irreversible ecosystem loss and an escalating crescendo of climate crisis.
So, how are we doing? So far, not very well. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a stark red alert that combining the goals of the majority of countries would only reduce emissions by less than one percent by 2030. In the words of UN Secretary-General Guterres “2021 is a make or break year to confront the global climate emergency.” Indeed, we are all global citizens with a shared responsibility. Our most urgent task is reducing emissions over the next 9 years, especially from burning fossil fuels, while transitioning to clean energy.
President Biden hit the ground running by rejoining the Paris climate accord on Day 1. He is elevating science-based climate action with a world class climate team primed to restore American leadership. Investments in decarbonization will jump start the economy and help create the 10 million clean energy jobs pledged by Biden. Already clean energy jobs are triple the number in the fossil fuel industry and growing twice as fast as nationwide employment.
One promising approach is a bipartisan market-based carbon fee and dividend. Also called carbon cash back the economic benefits would include 85 percent of Americans coming out ahead or at least breaking even. To better account for the long-term damage of carbon pollution President Biden has restored the Obama-era price of CO2 to an interim level of $51/ton. Many experts believe that the CO2 price must rise to a more realistic $160/ton by 2030.
In Montana the best and most straight forward action we can take is to maintain and safeguard what we already have: our rich heritage of wildlands. Only about 4 percent of Montana is formally protected as Wilderness. But about three times this area in federal land management within Montana remains wild and unroaded. These undisturbed forests, wetlands and grasslands act as vast carbon sinks, refuges for the diversity of life. Planting trees is good but given the immediacy of the climate crisis protecting mature forests, including old growth is far more effective for carbon sequestration. As the young climate activist Greta Thunberg wisely said, “There is a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air, costs very little, and builds itself. It’s called a tree.”
Last year was one of terrifying hurricanes, wildfires, heat waves, floods, droughts and ice melt. Individual responsibility combined with bold policy and innovative technology tells us that we can have a brighter and more livable future.
Montana Conservation Elders (MCE)
MCE is a nonpartisan nonprofit group dedicated to conservation education and advocacy with an emphasis on the history of public land conservation in Montana.