High in the Rocky Mountain, climate change is getting the scientific proof that should settle the question once and for all: Is the earth getting warmer?
“We’re at about 9,600 feet on the Western Slope, about half-way between Aspen and Crested Butte right at the edge of the Maroon Bells Wilderness,” said John Harte, the UC Berkeley ecosystem sciences researcher who has been conducting the experiment since 1989.
“I set up what we call an ecosystem warming experiment using electric heaters suspended above a sub-alpine meadow. It’s been running now for 27 years,” said Harte, who will be coming to Quarryhill Botanical Gardens later this month in their Peter H. Raven Lecture Series.
His topic at the Aug. 26 lecture will be “Can Civilization Endure?” and it’s a question that should be on everyone’s mind, if it isn’t already. Al Gore’s new movie “An Inconvenient Sequel” picks up where his 2006 “An Inconvenient Truth” left off, and it’s an even more demoralizing look at the next few decades, in that it necessarily incorporates the political blow-back that the environmental movement has endured over the past decade, culminating in Pres. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Paris Accord.
But back to Harte’s study, above treeline in the Rockies.
“The heaters are on day and night, summer and winter. They are warming the meadow to a level that is roughly what we anticipate the climate will look like around mid-century, around 2050.”
What the experiment has shown is that the warmer plots of meadow are losing their wildflowers and turning into sagebrush, after years of being only four degrees warmer than their neighboring control plots. The soil is getting drier, and even losing carbon that is absorbed into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the “greenhouse gas.”
“We thought it would be a smaller, more subtle effect, but it turned out to be very dramatic,” said Harte, in a telephone conversation from his Colorado research station with the Index-Tribune. But an even more dire, and unexpected, result has come out of the study.
“The control plots now show exactly the same qualitative trends as in the heated plots, but at a slower rate. In other words, we’re seeing real global warming in the control plots.” In other words even the unheated parts of his study area are showing signs of a warming climate – drier soil, carbon release, and the slow decline in wildflower habitat.
“We now have kind of unambiguous evidence for real global warming affecting our ecosystems,” he said, based on a 27-year long experiment. “We can attribute the changes in the control plots to real global warming, because we have the experimental evidence for what global warming looks like from the heated plots.”
Meantime, the County of Sonoma passed their Climate Action Plan 2020, outlining the steps that local jurisdictions can take to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG), under the auspices of the Regional Climate Protection Authority comprised of the county’s ten incorporated jurisdictions, including the City of Sonoma.
“Although most actions will be the responsibility of local governments and countywide agencies, Sonoma County’s residents, businesses, and community groups must remain engaged in order to achieve the goal of reducing community-wide GHG emissions,” reads the plan’s preface.
But the steps and strategies the Climate Action Plan (CAP) outlines were thrown for a loop last month when a lawsuit brought by the environmental watchdog group California River Watch of Sebastopol was upheld by a county judge, which called into question the validity of the environmental studies that went into preparing the plan.
That ruling essentially puts on hold the commitment and obligations of the nine cities and Sonoma County who signed on to CAP’s goals while the lawsuit proceeds.
The RCPA has not yet met formally to discuss the judge’s ruling – that meeting won’t happen until Sept. 11 – but the county counsel, Bruce Goldstein has said in the ruling is under review for a possible appeal.
The ruling was based on River Watch’s contention that the environmental studies were flawed because, essentially, they didn’t go far enough – they say it doesn’t adequately account for emissions generated outside the county, particularly by the wine and tourism industries.
“The CAP was designed to promote the illusion that the County and cities can continue to approve permits for new vineyards, wineries, hotels and other tourist destinations while reduc(ing) GHG emissions, by adopting green building codes … some of which are defined in terms that raise questions about their implementation and real effects,” said River Watch attorney Richard Bernhaut of Sonoma.
Bernhaut also pointed out the GHG impact of the “destruction of thousands of trees for vineyard development” as not being counted in the CAP’s figures.
The City Council voted to delay their endorsement of Climate Action Plan 2020 a year ago after hearing Bernhaut’s objections, but went ahead and signed on to CAP in November. The recent court decision has not yet been evaluated by the city, according to City Manager Cathy Capriola.
Even while groups like River Watch hold local governments to higher standards, at the federal level the executive branch is stonewalling their own research, which concludes that Americans are feeling the effects of climate change right now, according to a recent New York Times report.
The paper reports on a draft report of the National Climate Assessment by 13 federal agencies that documents climate changes on land and in the atmosphere. “Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate change,” the newspaper reported on Aug. 7.
The National Academy of Sciences signed off on the draft, but “the authors are awaiting permission from the Trump administration to publish it,” according to the New York Times.
Political blowback damaged Al Gore’s environmental mission ten years ago, and the same forces seem to be in play now.
“It’s irrational to be a climate change denier,” says Harte, preparing for his Aug. 26 lecture at Quarryhill. Though that talk is titled with a question, “Can Civilization Endure?” Harte does not seem optimistic. When asked what he thinks the odds of human survival are in the face of climate change, he demurs.
“I try to avoid that question, because I just don’t think it fits within the domain of where probability analysis is applicable. It really is in our hands, and what makes one optimistic is that the economics and the engineering are all extremely favorable.”
Then he goes on. “What makes one a pessimist is that human nature and politics makes everything look extremely unfavorable. It’s really a battle between economics and engineering on the one hand and ignorance and human nature and politics on the other.”
Contact Christian at firstname.lastname@example.org.