Millions of species are adapting to rapidly changing climate. Why aren't humans?
Mountain pine beetles are tiny critters, the size of a grain of rice. They bore under the bark of Western pine trees, infecting them with a fatal fungus that turns their trunks blue, dries their needles to a rusty red, and then they fall.
Cold winters kill off the beetle larvae and keep populations in check, but over the last 20 years, cold winters have become fewer and farther between. The beetles have taken full advantage of changes in the climate. They are thriving at higher altitudes and have expanded their range. They now reproduce twice a year instead of once.
In the last few years, the beetles have ravaged Rocky Mountain forests from upper Canada to New Mexico. The blight has deadened 3.3 million acres of forest in Colorado alone.
A long-running drought has left those dead pines extra crispy, and Colorado has been seeing record heat. Denver hit 105 degrees last week, and Colorado Springs had a string of 100-degree days.
Add a spark and what to you get? Colorado is in flames. The Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, having burned thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes, is the most destructive fire in state history. It broke the record set the week before by the High Park fire outside Fort Collins.
It’s still early in the wildfire season, but everything seems to be coming early this year. Hurricane season is young, but we’re already up to E for named storms. It was a warm winter here in New England as well, and the flowers seem to be blooming about three weeks ahead of schedule.
The maple sugaring season lasted about a week, thanks to the mild winter. Scientists say the sugar maples are retreating north as the planet warms, and one of New England’s signature products may disappear from the region by the end of this century.
Another iconic tree, on the other side of the world, is also in trouble. The famed cedars of Lebanon, which were used to build the temple of Solomon 3,000 years ago, are disappearing in the face of deforestation and rising temperatures.
This is what global warming looks like. Millions of species, from the smallest insects to the most majestic trees, are adapting to a rapidly changing climate. Their adaptations have consequences for other species, most of them less visible, but no less important, than the smoldering subdivisions of Colorado Springs.
The only species that doesn’t seem to be adapting is our own.
Each week brings new evidence that climate change is at least as serious as the alarms scientists have been sounding for the past 30 years. The arctic sea ice is melting even faster this summer than last, making life tougher for polar bears, but opening up new shipping routes. As the glaciers melt, new oil and natural gas reserves become accessible. As the tundra melts, it releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere that guarantee temperatures will keep rising.
The Greenland ice sheet is breaking up four times faster than it was a decade ago. Sea levels are already rising, 1 inch per decade here in Massachusetts, a new report concludes, and the disintegration of the Greenland ice cap greatly accelerates that rise.
A report just released by the U.S. Geological Service identifies the Atlantic coast from Boston to North Carolina as a “hot spot,” where sea levels can be expected to rise 30 percent more than the global average. The houses in Colorado’s canyons aren’t the only ones in the path of climate change: More than 67,000 Massachusetts homes are on land within 5 feet of the high tide line.
But as the threats posed by climate change have become more clear, the public concern has become more muted. Twenty years ago, a global conference in Rio inspired ordinary citizens and political leaders to mobilize to protect the planet. A 20th-anniversary get-together in Rio two weeks ago inspired no one. The climate change movement has been spinning its wheels and the forces of complacency are in control.
Americans cooled on global warming more than the rest of the world during that time, but the reality of climate change is chipping away at the public’s denial. A new survey found that 81 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of independents and 42 percent of Republicans now believe there is “solid evidence of global warming,” with overall agreement rising sharply in just the past year.
But the denial still runs deep in the Congressional Republican caucus. Democratic Reps. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Henry Waxman of California have branded the current Congress the most anti-environment in history. By their calculations, one of every five House votes has either rolled back environmental protections or enriched the oil industry. There were 109 votes to help the fossil fuels industry, they said in a recent report, and 38 votes to stop clean energy initiatives.
Republicans in North Carolina are going further. A bill working its way through the state Legislature would require that state government ignore reports of rising sea levels and the predictions of climate scientists.
I’m reminded of King Canute, the Norse monarch who had his throne placed on the shore and commanded the seas not to rise. A 12th-century historian says Canute learned a lesson when the tide ignored his orders and washed over his feet. “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings,” Canute declared.
The Americans who would be king — Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, that is — aren’t commanding the seas to stop rising or the western wildfires to stop burning. They aren’t doing anything, least of all talking on the campaign trail about the multiple threats posed by climate change and the possible responses to them.
Voters need to put climate change on their agenda. The tide is rising. When will the world’s leaders rise to meet it?
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.