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Scorched Earth: How Climate Change Could Upend the Inland Northwest

Could this be a turning point in the climate change debate?


Imagine this:

It's 2050. Global warming has melted the icecaps, and rising oceans are swallowing up islands and countries. Papua New Guinea is gone. So is Florida. Refugees from Bangladesh stream into India and Pakistan, two countries perpetually on the verge of conflict. The millions of refugees spur panic. And then war.

Or this:

It's 2100. Greenhouse gases have reached the tipping point where the atmosphere traps more heat than it releases. Runaway warming begins turning the world into a hot, dead marble like Venus. No one on Earth can stop it ...

But why go with the doomsday, sci-fi scenarios? Let's stick to the evidence and what scientists think they can establish for certain.

So, what if:

It's 2050 and it's been a grueling summer. Summers and winters in Eastern Washington are on average 3 degrees warmer than at the century's start. The snow pack melts early and leaves rivers nearly dry by summer's end. Lower river flows hamper the dams that generate electricity. And the heat sustains more bugs: pine bark beetles eating into forests, codling moths burrowing into apples. By this point, climate change is costing Washingtonians $6.5 billion per year, according to a study by the American Security Project, a think tank headed by guys like conservative former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel and liberal Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

The 3-degrees figure comes from Nick Bond, Washington state's climatologist. And while he says long-term projections have to be taken with a "bucket of salt," Bond said that by 2100, Eastern Washington could be 7 degrees or 8 degrees hotter than it is now.

"We've kind of already made our bed," Bond said.

After decades of talk about global warming, politicians have done little to stop the greenhouse gases that began pouring into the atmosphere at the dawn of the Industrial Age. And since 2008, when the Great Recession began choking the United States' economy, mention of climate change has been largely verboten. In its place have come immediate needs: millions of Americans unemployed, having lost their homes and retirements.

But with much of the country still wilting under the third-hottest summer on record--plus a prominent climate skeptic changing his mind, drought declarations hitting 26 states and the CIA now analyzing catastrophe scenarios­--we could look back on the summer of 2012 as the moment we finally embraced the implications of human progress.

But will our current political climate stymie efforts to address global warming? If so, can the Inland Northwest create change through its own policies?

More to the point: As the region withers, how will people adapt?

A History of Change

"I'm not very optimistic," said Gonzaga University Associate Professor Brian Henning. "I wish I was."

Henning, who teaches global warming ethics, said Americans would need to cut between 60 percent and 80 percent of greenhouse gases to stave off catastrophe (species going extinct, global populations being displaced). The professor practices what he preaches--he bought a house within walking distance of Gonzaga so he wouldn't have to drive to campus--but like many others, he sits in an air-conditioned office.

The average American generates 20 metric tons of carbon per year, according to a 2008 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even an average homeless American, the study found, uses more carbon (8.5 tons) in a year than does the average global citizen (4 tons).

"You need to have a conversation about whether our habits are sustainable," Henning said. "[Many people] like to think we can keep on pretty much as we are, if [they] just put solar panels up."

The science is paradoxical. Greenhouse gas--the cocktail of carbon, nitrous oxide, methane and other gases found in the atmosphere--is what holds in the sun's heat and allows life. From orbiting spacecraft, it appears as nothing more than a blue shell the width of a thumbnail. The gases occur naturally--plants give off oxygen and take in carbon and when those plants die, they often release the carbon again.

"The greenhouse effect is completely natural--if we didn't have [some greenhouse gas] in the atmosphere, the planet would be frozen roughly to the equator," Henning said.

Too much greenhouse gas is equally fatal. Consider Venus, sometimes called Earth's sister planet. The two planets share a similar size and gravity. But as a result of runaway greenhouse gas--meaning its blanket of gases continue to trap more heat than they let escape--the surface temperature of Venus can reach more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

The climate--the temperatures, seasons and weather patterns that surround us--has always fluctuated. So why do scientists believe humans are causing climate change this time around?

Several factors have been discarded as plausible theories, according to Henning. The changes can't be coming from the sun, because given its current activity, we'd be getting cooler. And it can't be from the planetary cycles that cause ice ages and warming periods, because we're still 50,000 years away from another ice age, he said.

In the absence of other evidence, scientists believe humans are the reason the world is warming faster than ever recorded before. Technological advances in the Industrial Revolution of the mid-1800s brought factories, the internal combustion engine and the need for fuel. Fossil fuels--coal and gas, the buried carbon leftovers of trees and plants from ancient forests and swamps--satisfied this demand. In the early 1900s the number of cars burning motor fuels measured in the thousands. In 2010, the number of cars worldwide surpassed 1 billion.

"We're just simply making that blanket--CO2, methane and nitrous oxide--thicker, trapping more heat," Henning said.

It's not just cars burning fossil fuel. By churning up carbon stored in the ground, agriculture--the industry tasked with feeding 7 billion mouths across the world--also contributes to greenhouse gases.

There's been talk over the years of whether fossil fuels are really polluting the atmosphere, but climate change deniers lost a major ally this summer, when scientist and climate skeptic Richard Muller announced his findings after an extensive global warming study.

"I still find that much, if not most, of what is attributed to climate change is speculative, exaggerated or just plain wrong," he wrote in a July 28 New York Times opinion piece. "I've analyzed some of the most alarmist claims, and my skepticism about them hasn't changed."

But, he continued, "I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I'm now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause."

The irony: Muller's research was funded by libertarian Charles Koch, one of two oil magnate brothers whom liberals blame for funding climate denial. Between 1997 and 2008, Koch Industries contributed more than $50 million to groups that deny climate change, according to a report by Greenpeace.

Muller may have changed his mind, but according to a March Gallup poll, nearly half of Americans don't believe global warming is happening right now.