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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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Researchers in Washington aren't talking about alarmist claims--they're talking about what will happen if, as expected, our temperature bumps up just a few degrees.

By 2020, changes in climate are projected to cost Washington state close to $10 billion annually, according to a report released in April by the state Department of Ecology, due to "increased health costs, storm damage, coastal destruction, rising energy costs, increased wildfires, drought and other impacts."

The study, commissioned in 2009 by the Washington State Legislature, isn't an idle research document. It's a plan for how to cope as the state morphs.

"People know how to deal with natural variability--we've always had droughts and floods," said Hedia Adelsman, an executive policy adviser at Ecology. "Climate change will make these events more chaotic, but also ... they'll become much more frequent and intensive.

"Washington, if we don't take it seriously, we will be unprepared."

Crops are one concern.

Because of the Evergreen State's northern latitudes, declining crop yields aren't a huge worry, according to Chad Kruger, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University. Instead, Kruger worries about declining quality.

"A lot of our agriculture is really driven by high quality fruits and veggies, which are more susceptible for quality issues in a change-climate scenario," he said.

And there's the addition of more pests eating into crops. The larvae of the codling moth, for example, seeks out fruit, gobbles through the skin and bores through the fruit, eating its way to the seeds.

"The further we get out from today, the more likely we are to get a third generation of codling moth" in a single growing season, Kruger said. That means more pesticides on the food, more expense for farmers and more chances for crop damage.

The warm weather could also bring more pine bark beetle infestations in the forests of Washington. Such beetle infestations have caused the loss of up to 1 million trees a year, according to U.S. Forest Service studies.

Warmer winters mean the snow will melt earlier off the mountains. Since 70 percent of the water in Western mountain regions comes from snow pack, water supply, wildlife and fisheries will suffer, according to the Ecology report. Under conservative estimates, snow pack in Washington mountains will decline by a quarter of its current average for the 2020s, by a third in the 2040s, and by over half toward the end of the century.

Hydropower production in the summer is likely to decrease about 10 percent by the 2020s, according to the report. And less water will further hurt the forests of Eastern Washington, increasing the number of forest droughts and spurring on wildfires. The report predicts the land burned annually in fires will double to around 800,000 acres in the 2020s.

Hope and Change

Could the Pacific Northwest tackle global warming by itself? Highly unlikely. But several states are trying, using what Henning calls the "California" effect.

"California passes higher emissions standards, and businesses don't want to make products especially for California," Henning said. "So they end up adopting California standards nationally because California is such a big market."

With this in mind, a group of Western states and Canadian provinces has been laboring to assemble states for a cap-and-trade system. The Western Climate Initiative began in 2007 as five Westerns states teamed up to develop targets for reducing greenhouse gases. Washington and Oregon both withdrew from the plan in November 2011. Currently, only California and four Canadian provinces are part of the project.

Jerome Delvin, a state senator from Richland, Wash., sponsored the bill to remove Washington from the WCI. Delvin cites studies by the conservative Heritage Foundation that say gas prices could rise by $1.40 per gallon under cap-and-trade. And he calls it arrogant that people assume to predict the future of climate change.

"To the effect they say it's happening, I don't think so," Delvin said.

Henning holds out hope that a global solution--an international cap-and trade or a carbon tax, for instance--can be found. He describes those big reforms as a kind of insurance.

"I'm not likely to get into a car accident, but should I get insurance because I might?" he said. "Some people have a higher risk tolerance than others."

But, "the burden of proof should be on the people who say there isn't a problem," he said, "rather than on the people who say there is, out of an abundance of caution."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 11 edition of The Pacific Northwest Inlander.