Year 3, Month 6, Day 26: C Is For Conifers, My Kind Of Trees

The Atlantic gives us a long and detailed discussion of the pine beetle and the havoc it’s wreaking:

DILLON, Colo.–Dan Gibbs keeps dead beetles in the back of his beat-up Chevy Silverado. He has a wooden block with beetles impaled on it, each insect about the size of a grain of rice. He’s got vials of embalmed beetles and their larvae. He carries around pieces of wood that show what those tiny beetles do to a mature lodgepole pine: They drill deep into the trunk and infect the tree with a fatal fungus that stains its wood blue.

Gibbs isn’t a scientist. He’s a commissioner for Summit County, a high-altitude slice of Colorado that’s gaining fame as a ground zero, of sorts, for an epidemic that has devastated pine forests across North America. Twenty years ago, the mountainsides around Dillon were a lush green; these days, they’re gray with needle-less trees.

The pine-beetle epidemic provides perhaps the most visual evidence of climate change in the United States. But that evidence, while arresting, remains circumstantial. Scientific studies linking the factors that drove the epidemic to rising global temperatures haven’t convinced everyone, let alone prompted people here to forsake fossil fuels.

It isn’t just the dead trees. Here, near the headwaters of the Colorado River, the snow is melting earlier–and there’s less of it. Summers are drier. Threats of wildfire and water shortages have grown, changing lives and livelihoods in Colorado and across the West.

Still, it’s not simple to draw a bright line from observable phenomena to climate change. For some policymakers, the lack of clarity is frustrating. Mounting evidence that the planet is warming and that human activity is to blame hasn’t generated any sort of political momentum for action, even as, in places like Dillon, forests are dying in plain sight.

The beatings will continue until morale improves. Sent June 15:

The “undocumented aliens” Americans need to worry about are not the Latinos whom Republican politicians so freely demonize, but the invasive species migrating across our borders as a consequence of climate change. The pine beetle is a case in point.

When wildfires ravaged Arizona a year ago, Senator John McCain blamed illegal immigrants. When Colorado’s dead and dying forests inevitably go up in smoke, the real culprit won’t be a lightning bolt or a smoldering cigarette butt, but the exploding population of an insect species that has turned forests into vast stands of dessicated kindling.

If conservative lawmakers were able to admit the existence and causes of global warming, then we might have a chance to combat pine beetle infestations and the other local symptoms of a planet-wide phenomenon. Alas, anti-science ideology has burrowed beneath the surface of the Republican party, replacing common sense with climate-change denial and inflammable xenophobia.

Warren Senders

14 Apr 2010, 11:09pm

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  • Month 4, Day 15: Beetlemania

    I got all the info used for this letter from a new series at Kos, “This Week In Climate Change.” Definitely read it all.

    Part of that piece was a link to Newsweek’s short article on the pine beetle in the American West, which is killing forests with brutal efficiency. So I used the Newsweek piece as the hook for a letter.

    Thanks for giving a closer look at what global warming will be bringing us in the years to come. The dying forests left in the pine beetle’s wake are just one of many phenomena which mark the planet’s rising temperatures. Some of the other things we can expect to see: more weather anomalies and storm activity (such as this winter’s freak blizzard in Washington, DC); higher pollen counts (severely affecting many asthmatics); shrinking populations of sensitive wildlife (Antarctica’s Adelie penguin population has diminished to a third of its 1980 level); more and more invasive species replacing local flora and fauna; irregular and unpredictable monsoons (potentially devastating food production worldwide)…the list goes on and on. It is time to stop treating climate change as a forum for political gamesmanship, and to start addressing it for what it is: a slow motion catastrophe that constitutes the most urgent existential threat humanity has ever faced.

    Warren Senders