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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?


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A Practice That Mirrors Nature

The headquarters of Shepherd's Grain Co. consists of a pair of rooms on the second story of a building on a dusty stretch of Highway 231 north of Reardan, Wash. The road looks dusty, but that's only because combine operators are threshing grain and wheat stubble along the lazy hills that the highway divides. A pour of red feed flows from the spigot of a grain bin into a semi-truck as Fred Fleming walks from his house to his office. It's a busy day for a busy guy. In addition to co-owning Shepherd's Grain and owning Reardan Seed Co., Fleming, 63, farms the family land.

Parts of his fields are the same ones his great-grandfather farmed when he homesteaded in 1888--the same fields his grandfather roamed with a baby Fleming in his truck.

"I always claimed that I was weaned in a 1950 pickup," he said with a chuckle.

Decades spent farming--he started spotting for grain trucks when he was 12--helped Fleming evolve his practices to help popularize what he calls direct seeding, also known as no-till farming.

As "a practice that mirrors nature," direct seeding combines the seeding and fertilizing of croplands and it allows the stubble from last year's crops to serve as fertilizer. Instead of making eight or 12 passes across the ground, Fleming's equipment may just pass over it two or three times. Less carbon is released from disturbing the soil, and the amount of fuel Fleming has to pour into tractors is 38 percent less than before. When Fleming began 10 years ago, barely anyone in the region practiced direct-seed farming.

Now, he estimates about 85 percent of the farmers in the watershed are using the practice.

Customers have responded to Shepherd's Grain's image as an Earth-friendly and locally sourced crop. This year, the company expects to ship 500,000 bushels of grain. Some of that will show up in Spokane at Bennidito's Pizza, Sweet Frostings and Main Market Co-op.

Despite being an advocate for globally conscious farming, Fleming scoffs at the doomsday scenarios, like Earth becoming another Venus. He points to advances he's witnessed in 50 years of farming--in technology and more sustainable practices. How can scientists predict what will happen in 50 or 100 years? How can anyone predict the hot, dead mess of Venus happening here?

"I'm not going to believe that," he said. "To me, that seems extreme. ... There's many other end-of-the-world scenarios you could come up with besides climate change."

History of Misinformation

By the mid-1990s, politicians began to act on the consensus that global warming was real and human-made. In 1997, countries struck an agreement known as the Kyoto Protocol to begin lowering greenhouse gas emissions. (Today, 84 countries, including China, India, Russia and much of Europe are signatories--but not the United States.) It was a consensus that posed a grave threat to the industries--in particular, oil and coal--whose production, when burned, release once-buried carbon into the air. In looking for a reaction plan, they cribbed from an industry long experienced with damning publicity: Big Tobacco.

Using money from corporate and personal benefactors, they borrowed the playbook from tobacco companies that had spent decades spreading doubt and confusion about the danger of cigarettes, according to Connor Gibson, a research assistant with Greenpeace.

The first component, according to Gibson, was denial--global warming isn't real. Then, diversion.

"It's real, but we can't do anything about it. It's real, but we can't fix it. It's real, but it's too expensive to fix," Gibson said, ticking off arguments.

It's a set of arguments still in vogue with politicians opposed to climate change policies. Republican Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers--who sits on the House Energy and Commerce committee--reflected this approach in a statement she made this summer to the Spokesman-Review. In precisely four sentences, McMorris Rodgers denied that people are responsible for climate change, said private industry must lead the way in cutting emissions, then called cap-and-trade a "Big Government" scheme that will destroy jobs. She ended by saying that reducing greenhouse gases is hopeless because of rising emissions by emerging countries such as China.

Climate change deniers have also founded think tanks, published books and pressured mainstream media reporting on climate change to pursue "balance" in their stories by including skepticism about global warming. Gibson cites an example that TV viewers in the Deep South may have seen in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Andrea Saul--currently a spokeswoman for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney--was then working for DCI Group, a public relations firm for Exxon Mobil, according to Gibson.

"DCI set up another firm [called] Tech Central Station to say there's absolutely no link to Hurricane Katrina with climate change," Gibson said. "And local news media picked it up."

"It's been extremely effective," Gibson said of the doubt-sowing campaigns. "We've seen climate change legislation crash and burn on the global stage. The Dems don't want to talk about it. [Barack] Obama doesn't want to talk about it. ... [Mitt] Romney is more a climate change denier now."

While they pursued healthcare reform, Democrats attempted to enact a national carbon cap-and-trade system. Cap-and-trade would set a price for units of carbon pollution generated by companies. It would also set maximum caps per year of how much carbon a company can generate, allowing those who produce more carbon to buy credits from companies who come in below the threshold.

The theory goes that while some businesses have to pay for disposal of their garbage--a restaurant, for example, pays the city to pick up its trash each week--large energy producers pollute the atmosphere for free.

"One cost of mining is getting [coal] out of the ground and bringing it to market, but [they] don't have to pay for the exhaust [they] put into the atmosphere," said Henning.

The Cap and Trade bill had the support of Obama and passed the House in June 2009. Even though it had the support of large corporations--big companies like General Electric, Johnson and Johnson, Honeywell, Alcoa, DuPont and Dow Chemicals joined a coalition that supports cap-and-trade--the bill died in the Senate in 2010.