Vacation Musings on Climate Change

(Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post on February 25, 2013 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-herbst/vacation-musings-on-climate-change_b_2728430.html.)

I have recently returned from skiing in Colorado, which is experiencing its second low-snow season in a row. According to one local resident who has been custom-fitting boots and skiing in Aspen for more than 40 years, this has not happened since the 1970s. Having skied out there off and on for many years, almost always in February and March, I could not recall ever seeing as many bald spots and rocks underfoot on the groomed trails where I spend virtually all of my time, now that I am a “senior skier.” Like many others from around the country, and more recently around the world, I have come to the Rockies for the profusion of incredibly reliable light powder which makes for consistently great skiing, free of ice and hard-pack, amid gorgeous mountain vistas. Seeing grass and rocks on the trails for the first time was jarring.

Also jarring was the concern among the locals and second homeowners, which was palpable. There was a beetle infestation threatening the local trees. Real estate values in the Aspen area have been down ever since the financial crisis, with very little selling. But the gloom seemed to transcend the financial crisis and be focused on the climate.

Knowing that it is dangerous to extrapolate from the experience of just a few years, I did some quick web-based climate research. A 2009 U.S. Geological Survey (“USGS”) study shows that winter temperatures in the Western United States since 1980 have been consistently higher than long-term average values, while the snow water equivalent (a measure of snowpack) has been lower than average since 1984. “The post-1980 lower-than-average SWE conditions in the western United States are unprecedented within the context of twentieth-century climate and estimated SWE.” A more recent 2011 USGS study notes that “[r]ecent studies suggest that water supply and tourist industries such as skiing are at risk from climate change.” Its modeling projections suggest that there will be a steady decrease in snow-covered area in two Colorado basins containing ski areas (one being the popular Steamboat Springs), with large decreases possible after 2050.

A recent study from the University of Montana’s College of Forestry and Conservation of the impact of climate change on the Northern Rocky Mountain forests explains the interrelated effects of higher temperatures, lower snow and insect infestation. Rising temperatures bring less snow, more rain, less moisture stored in the diminished snowpack, earlier spring snowmelt and runoff, and lower stream flows (75 percent of which comes from melting snowpack) in summer. All this results in longer droughts in summer, increased water stress on the forests, more insect infestations, and more intense wildfires. “At sites that presently depend on snowpack to maintain a forest canopy during summer months, models indicate that by the 2080s there would be little to no snowpack left.” Sobering indeed. No snowpack, forests with no canopies (and no skiing). Thus, it appears that the last two years of low snow (and the beetles) are not anomalies, but the manifestation of a long, well-documented trend that is destined to continue, with enormous negative impact on the economy, ecology and very life (human, animal and plant) of the Rockies.

This has now become clear to those living there. The fear and pessimism I heard expressed this year was frankly stunning. One couple whose second home is now worth little more than the mortgage told me that they don’t expect property values in the area to ever come back. Because of the financial crisis? No, because of the climate change and environmental degradation that can only get worse. And it is not as if they can do anything about it. They — we — are just frogs in the pot, waiting, while the surrounding air get warmer and warmer and the snow and water disappear.

Our helplessness is, of course, a political more than an environmental problem. We know what needs to be done environmentally, but we lack the political means to make decisions that would ameliorate our climate problems. It is not just our national political dysfunction (although that is severe); we lack global governmental institutions capable of making decisions on the global problems that beset and threaten us. No political system that requires unanimous consent for action can possibly address them. But that, frankly, is all we have in the world today. And the human race is suffering badly for it.

Meanwhile, back in New York, the Association of the Bar of the City of New York has established a new Task Force on Climate Adaptation. While most previous climate efforts have focused on mitigation (like reducing greenhouse gas emissions), this task force is going to explore adaptation — adapting to the effects of the global warming that is now inevitable. It will look at the significant engineering, planning and financial challenges in protecting coastlines, homes, wetlands, animals and both urban and rural infrastructure; resettling refugees and internally displaced persons. These are monumental: relocation, financing and compensation, land-use restrictions, and many more. Just with respect to migration, it is expected that there will be tens of millions needing to be resettled, with 70 million resettled in the U.S. alone (since we are one of the few developed countries with space to put such refugees).

Will we have more success adapting to climate change than mitigating it? Not likely with our current national and global politics. In 1785, 13 states recognized the folly of organizing themselves in a confederation that required all to agree on how to allocate the Revolutionary War debt and to impose customs duties. In two years, they devised a constitution for a national union. In two more they had ratified it, and could make decisions by majority rule recognized as legitimate. Now, 225 years later, with global existential problems that can destroy us, we sit in the pot, helpless, conscious but paralyzed.

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