Forest Fires, Ocean Warming, Climate Refugees, and the People Taking a Stand

August 21, 2015. Missoula, Montana.

I woke up this morning to find my pickup truck hood covered in white and black ash. On the radio, I heard of the death of several fire fighters in north-central Washington.

The forest fires aren’t visible from here, but the smoke fills the air, making eyes water and throats scratch. People I met at a coffee shop this morning told me that fires are common, but this fire season started earlier and is more intense.

There may be a storm coming through in a few days, a gas station clerk told me. It could bring winds that might blow away the smoke. But it might also bring lightning that could start more fires in these dry pine forests.

Before leaving on this journey, I paddled with the Suquamish Tribe on several short trips around the Puget Sound. I let the sparkling salt waters be my focus, knowing it would be some time before I saw it again. A child in the canoe dangled her hand in the water as it moved past the bow. The sun glinted off the water with much stronger light than in previous years. Porpoises cruised by. A seal with a pup watched warily, and three eagles wheeled overhead.

Everything seemed to be as it should, but it wasn’t so. Puget Sound is becoming acidic from absorbing excess carbon in the atmosphere. Scientists worry that shellfish, and the phytoplankton that form the foot of the food chain, will be affected. Jelly fish are thriving, but salmon — which depend on clean, cold water — are in trouble, and nearly all the starfish in the region disappeared within a year from an uncertain disease.

On Sunday, I had my first glimpse of the northern reaches of Glacier National Park. A hike through alpine meadows at the Continental Divide was punctuated by rain, hail, a rainbow, and squirrels (that hibernate seven months of the year, getting quite fat in between). And of course there were the glaciers. Depending on who you believe, those glaciers will be gone by 2020 or 2030 — another casualty of climate change.

The Road to the Sun, the spectacular route that clings to the edge of a cliff up and over Logan’s Pass, had been closed due to fires until just a few days before we arrived. Smoke was still heavy in the air, and the eastern part of the park was blackened by recent fires. Emergency vehicles sped down the road, and signs warned travelers not to stop.

The drought, the heat, the fires, the reduction in snowpack — all were predicted by the climate models, as were warming and acidifying oceans. And, of course, analysts, including those at the Pentagon, predicted the disruptions in food and water supplies and the violent conflicts that would result. The United Nations reports that a record high number of people are migrating. Some 60 million people, now homeless, are trying to escape wars and violence, and are vulnerable to the exploitation of human traffickers. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that drought in Syria, worsened by climate change, has contributed to the conflict there that has displaced millions.

The climate crisis is no longer an abstraction. Instead of being a distant worry that will affect the lives of future generations, it is here and it is now.

I am starting my travels with reports on the Northwest, where efforts to extract and export coal, tar sands oil, and natural gas to Asia have run into widespread opposition.

I want to learn about the Native American tribes that have been at the forefront of the opposition. They are joined by young people of all races, grandmothers, ranchers, people from small towns and large cities who worry about the highly flammable, mile-long trains traveling through their communities and the toxic coal dust that spreads out from the uncovered coal trains. The cleanliness of water, soil, and air. And the climate impacts.

These carbon fuels, according to the science, need to stay safely in the ground if we are to avert real calamity. But if it is cheap and easy to export, it will get burned. A handful of energy companies and their investors will make money, and the world will be that much further away from a solution to the climate crisis. Throughout Washington, Oregon, and Montana, people are saying no.

More reports on this to come…

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