DENVER–Man-made climate change has been blamed for hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, drought–and now, Colorado’s wildfires.
The Climate Reality Project, the Washington, D.C.-based group founded by former Democratic vice president Al Gore, is taking the lead in promoting the view that wildfires in the American West are getting bigger and that climate change is responsible.
“Both NASA and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have predicted that wildfires are likely to be more frequent and widespread because of climate change,” said Shravya Reddy, solutions analyst for the Climate Reality Project in a website post. “That happens for two reasons: Higher temperatures, and also a drier climate.”
What about the bark-beetle epidemic, which has killed four million acres of forest in Colorado since the mid-1990s? It turns out the bark beetle can also be blamed on climate change.
At a conference last year in Aspen entitled “Forests at Risk,” Gore said warmer winters have allowed the beetle to proliferate at the same time that pine trees are weakened by the higher temperatures.
“The linkage these scientists have referred to over and over again to global warming is something I’m sure some people resist, but it’s a fact,” said Gore at the symposium, billed as the first to discuss the connection between degraded forest health and climate change.
The Climate Reality Project is the latest Gore effort targeting global warming. Using the proceeds from his film An Inconvenient Truth, Gore founded the Alliance for Climate Protection and the Climate Project in 2006. Last year, Gore merged the two organizations and changed the name to “broadcast the reality of the climate crisis and mobilize citizens to help solve it,” he told Climate Progress.
The group has been prominent in Colorado as a result of its connection with the state’s top Democratic power couple. The CEO and president of the Climate Reality Project is Maggie Fox, who lives in Boulder and is married to Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.
At the Aspen symposium, Gore called Udall “my senator. I don’t live in Colorado, but he’s my senator.” Former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, who was also featured at the conference, was an early believer in the link between climate change and forest fires.
There is widespread agreement that beetle-kill forests are a primary reason for this year’s virulent wildfires. Bark beetles have destroyed more than 41.7 million acres of trees in the western states, including 21.7 million acres in the intermountain West.
There is much less unity on how to combat the beetle infestation. The Climate Reality Project supports tougher federal and state regulations on fossil-fuel emissions, or the “save a tree, kill a coal-fired power plant” approach.
“We need policies that reduce carbon pollution from fossil fuels,” said Juanita Constible, science and solutions director for the Climate Reality Project, in an email. “For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently finalizing the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from new power plants. This is a great first step to reducing the impacts of climate change on Colorado’s forests.”
Critics of the Climate Reality Project say the group is using another natural disaster–in this case, wildfires–to attack fossil-fuel energy sources and squelch calls for logging the devastated areas.
“There’s a very strong belief in the environmental movement that human intervention is the source of the problem and that nature would be fine if we didn’t do anything,” said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “So whenever you have catastrophic fire, they’ll find something else to blame, like global warming, when the real problem is that we’ve stopped managing the forests.”
The National Climate Data Center shows that temperatures January-to-May 2012 broke records for heat in some localities, including Grand Junction, which posted its third-hottest January-to-May in 113 years. At the same time, Ebell pointed to center data showing that Colorado has actually seen its average temperature drop slightly from 1998 to 2011, when data is collected only from rural stations and not those that have been urbanized since 1900.
Critics argue that If trees were fewer and spaced more widely, which was the standard in national forests until the early 1990s, they would have more access to moisture during the typically dry Western summers. The result would be healthier trees better able to resist insect attacks.
Timber-cutting in the national forests has fallen from 12 billion board feet per year in the early 1990s to 2 billion board feet today, he said, even though those forests add about 17 billion board feet per year.
“It means there’s been a huge build-up of material for fire, and as you know the forests are more like thickets now,” said Ebell. “We’ve given up managing the forests by design–now we manage them by catastrophic fires.”
Bill Gherardi, president of the Colorado Forestry Association, also takes issue with the climate-change theory. He advocates a long-term forest-health stewardship plan that includes logging to clear the insect infestation, stop the beetles from moving to healthy stands of trees, and reduce tree crowding.
“Everyone wants to point to climate change as the reason we’re losing our forests,” said Gherardi. “Forests in Bavaria and Germany are still green, and they’ve had natural disasters, climate swings, and insect infestations. They’re green because people appreciate and value the forests.”
He notes that the rise of the bark beetle has coincided with the decline of the logging industry in the West. The number of saw mills in Colorado has dropped from 65 in the 1970s to two large mills now, in addition to a handful of mom-and-pop mills, said Gherardi.
Last week, Sens. Udall and Michael Bennet introduced an amendment to the 2012 Farm Bill that would double to $200 million the amount set aside for beetle-mitigation efforts. The amendment includes tree-thinning–but only near homes, campsites, roads and power lines, which excludes most forest acreage.
“I continue to echo the concern that we cannot turn back the clock on bark beetles, but we can relieve the immediate risk to human health and safety by removing beetle-killed trees from high-risk areas . . . And biomass energy facilities and traditional sawmills can convert this problem into jobs and revenue if we approach it the right way,” Udall said in a statement.
Udall didn’t mention global warming, but that’s where Gore’s group comes in.
“I’m not a forest expert so I can’t speak to the pros and cons of specific management proposals,” said the Climate Reality Project’s Constible. “I can tell you, however, that forest management plans need to explicitly incorporate the effects of climate change.”