Climate change in our own backyards

Jim Robbins in his Helena, Mont., backyard. The reddish trees have been killed by mountain pine beetles.

A mountain pine beetle.

Diane Tipton

Helena, Mont., Mayor Jim Smith

Robert Ziconi

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Healthcare took a temporary back seat to climate change in the Senate today. The Environment and Public Works committee opened hearings this morning on a bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It's not going to be a simple piece of legislation. The debate over climate change is political. But it's also economic. It's very human. And it is global.

The United Nations is hosting a big conference in Copenhagen at the end of the year to try to hammer out a worldwide agreement to cut the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. So, today we launch a new series, "The Climate Race," about how a warmer planet is going to alter our lives and the choices we're going to have to make.

Marketplace sustainability reporters Sam Eaton and Sarah Gardner have been out the past couple weeks exploring the reality of global warming right here in the United States. They've come back into the studio to tell us, and each other, about what they found. Sarah?

SARAH GARDNER: Thanks, Kai. So Sam let's start with the "what is." The changes that rising temperatures are already causing.

SAM EATON: Yeah, and I think a lot of people would be surprised. I talked to dozens of people over the past few weeks and there's this one interview I did that's really stuck with me. I was in Helena, Montana, where residents are getting a taste of climate change in their own backyards. Their forests are dying.

This is a woman named Diane Tipton.

DIANE TIPTON: I grew up with this landscape. This always was my home and my heart, and I always knew that no matter how crazy things got out in the big world there was this place, this special place in Montana that I could come back to. And it never occurred to me that it could be so transformed in such a short period of time.

SAM: We're going to hear from more people in Helena in just a minute.

SARAH: OK, but first let's take a second to sum up what scientists are telling us about climate change:

There's wide agreement that the planet is warming. And scientists can say with near certainty that the culprit is us -- or rather, our burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil.

They're also telling us that temperatures are higher and we're warming faster than at any time since we've been keeping temperature records -- that's almost 160 years. In fact, in my own lifetime, average temperatures in this country have gone up more than 2 degrees.

We're also seeing more extreme weather events, like floods and droughts. And less snow is falling.

SAM: But of all the impacts of global warming being felt right now, here in the U.S., the most extreme example by far has been the death of pine forests in the West. And it's all because of a beetle, the mountain pine beetle to be exact. You may have heard of it. It's no bigger than the tip of a kitchen match. But it's killing millions of acres of trees all across the West.

And that's why I went to Helena, Montana. It's surrounded by pine forests. And it's basically ground zero for the state's beetle infestation. Here's Helena's mayor, Jim Smith.

JIM SMITH: There's just a whole host of psychological worry that has descended upon our town . . . all because of some teeny little beetle.

SARAH: But wait a minute. Explain for us how this little beetle has anything to do with climate change? Because, I mean, my understanding is that the pine beetle is a native species, right? It's always been there. And a lot of westerners believe the only reason it's gotten out of hand is because we haven't been thinning out the forests enough, right?

SAM: That hasn't helped. And you throw in fire suppression and the beetles basically have an all-you-can-eat buffet of lodge pole and Ponderosa pine. But the scientists I talked to -- like Jesse Logan, who's been studying the beetles for decades -- say the main thing driving this outbreak is human-caused global warming.

JESSE LOGAN: It's by the actions of people. It's directly our actions that are taking these forests out.

SAM: Let me connect the dots here. Logan says pine beetles have always been held in check by deep winter freezes. But that 2-degree increase in average temperatures you mentioned earlier, Sarah, has meant fewer cold snaps -- especially in the high elevations of the Rockies. Basically, the pine beetle couldn't have asked for better breeding conditions.

Now, let me go back to my interview with Logan.

SAM: So it's like this beetle's sitting here waiting for the thermostat to go up and suddenly . . .

LOGAN: That's a great analogy. It was sitting there waiting, and we reached the tipping point in these high-elevation systems, a true threshold event.

SARAH: . So what's this done to the city? I mean, I've been to Helena. It's a beautiful town. What does it look like now?

SAM: Well, let me play you some tape from the mayor. He's describing what the area looks like from a bird's eye view.

SMITH: Well, you'd see dappled orange hillsides right on the crest of the continental divide. And if we kept flying south to Butte, Montana, we'd see entire hillsides that have turned red, orange, gold, within the last two or three years.

SARAH: You know, it's funny. If you didn't know better, you'd think he was just describing pretty fall colors or something.

SAM: You know, it does. But really what he's talking about is the color the pine needles turn after the trees die. The locals call them "red dead." And Smith says it's spreading so fast that if you flew over that same area a year from now it would be twice as bad.

SARAH: So, Sam, how are the people of Helena reacting to this?

SAM: Well, as a matter of fact, many people are afraid. I spent a lot of time visiting people who live right in the middle of these dried-out dead forests. And I have to say, when you're looking up at the sky through trees with these bright orange pine needles there's almost a surreal beauty to it.

But then it dawns on you -- you're basically standing in the middle of a million dried out Christmas trees. And all it would take is one match to turn the entire place into an inferno.

Now there's one guy in charge of keeping that from happening. His name is Patrick McKelvey.

We drove up into the hills above Helena so we get a better look at just how serious the fire danger is. Let me just play that tape for a few minutes.

PATRICK MCKELVEY: That's actually a city chunk of ground right below us. And you can see. Look at that. It's 100 percent -- 100 percent mortality.

[Sound of getting out of car]

SAM: We stopped at a place where we could look out over the dead trees, all the way down to the state capitol building.

MCKELVEY: So we're up, oh, probably right at 5,000, 5,500 feet, somewhere in there, elevation probably. Just south of town.

SAM: So what's, I mean, when you look at this picture, does it worry you?

MCKELVEY: Well, yeah, certainly. When you are here and look at this venue, and you're seeing all of those trees.... I mean, look at that -- there's a forest within the city limits. So as this fire progresses through the topography and through that weather that we know hits us every year -- hot, dry, windy -- the risk terminates right there in the population center of Helena.

SARAH: Wow. That's a really chilling sound bite.

SAM: Yeah, and actually the day after I left Helena they had a really close call. A fire started a little further up the mountain from where we were standing. And luckily fire crews were able to control it before it got out of hand.

SARAH: So Sam, what's the bottom line, then? Can they do anything about this?

SAM: Well, this is where the economic story of climate change comes in. The city can reduce its risk, but that costs money, of course. Helena's planning to spend about a million dollars cutting down many of those dead trees I was looking at with McKelvey. The idea being to create a firebreak around the city.

Now, Helena, of course, has the luxury of raising taxes to pay for that work. But individual property owners aren't so lucky.

I caught up with Montana native Robert Ziconi. He's hired a logging crew to cut down all the dead trees around his house. And it's not cheap.

[Sound of chainsaws, tree crashing to ground.]

ROBERT ZICONI: I've got approximately 30 acres right here, so that's about a $30,000 bill. And I'm retired. I don't have much income. And I'm not getting any income from the trees.

SARAH: So this is really affecting people's pocketbooks, then.

SAM: It is, and that's the cruel irony here. Once the beetles kill a tree, it costs more to cut it down and take it to the mill than the lumber's worth. Some people want to use the dead trees as fuel to generate electricity. But that requires these high-tech biomass power plants. And those cost a lot of money.

So nobody really knows what to do with these trees once they cut them. Many are just rotting in piles in the middle of clearcuts.

SARAH: OK, here you have this incredibly scenic mountain town, the capital city of Montana, right, and it's basically surrounded by dead forests that are essentially victims of warmer temperatures, right? So given that, are there still residents there who don't believe in global warming?

SAM: Well, this is a really important point, Sarah. I spent some time with a local writer. His name's Jim Robbins. And walking around his property, which is now essentially a clearcut, you really get a sense of how much this beetle is changing people's lives.

[Sound of walking.]

JIM ROBBINS: This was all forest here. And now it's a lot of smashed pieces of wood here and pine needles and occasional patches of weed that we'll have to spray next year.

SAM: So Robbins says when people are faced with these kinds of images daily, in their own backyards, it becomes a lot harder not to believe in climate change.

ROBBINS: There's a saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. I think there's something along that line happening here. I mean, there are still some people who refuse to believe it. But I think there's been an erosion of that disbelief and it's changed pretty dramatically.

SAM: And a lot of people don't want to call it global warming simply because it's such a politically charged term. They basically equate it with Democrats like Al Gore. People they'd never vote for.

Helena's Mayor Jim Smith definitely falls into that category. But Sarah, he told me something I'd never heard before. He said when your community is threatened, the political debate over climate change no longer matters.

SMITH: Whether this climate change is man caused or just the natural order of things, I don't know and I don't have a lot of time to ponder that important question. We just got to deal with the situation on the ground here regardless of what the cause is. So we're doing that.

SAM: Now, one of the things I realized during this trip was that this beetle epidemic really caught people off guard. And the scary part is all of this devastation was caused by a really small change in average temperatures. Scientists like to call these events early warnings of what's to come. Basically the more we tweak the global thermostat, the more nasty surprises we're likely to have down the road.

SARAH: Yeah, and those early warnings aren't just in the Rocky Mountains. In Alaska, for example, you've got melting permafrost causing major damage to roads and towns. Hotter summers have made air pollution worse, and of course that means more health problems like asthma. And off the Northwest coast now we've got this "dead zone" the size of New Jersey -- apparently because of warming ocean temperatures.

SAM: Right, and that's been especially tough on the region's crab fishermen. But it's important to remember that the effects of climate change we're seeing today are nothing compared to what scientists say could be in store for us.

SARAH: And that's where we're going to pick it up tomorrow -- the "what could be's" of climate change. What might happen if we keep up our love affair with fossil fuels.

So Sam, same place, same time tomorrow?

SAM: See you then.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

A mountain pine beetle.

Diane Tipton

Helena, Mont., Mayor Jim Smith

Robert Ziconi

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