My apologies for the lack of website activity for the past week, but I sought the solace of being surrounded only by nature.
I have returned refreshed, but my backpacking trip did nothing to reduce my concern over what climate change is doing to Montana and the planet.
I hiked in on the Rocky Mountain Front south of Glacier National Park near Dupuyer. We had high temperatures of mid-80s going in and the heat increased each day. But the 90-plus temperatures that Montana has endured since June have already taken their toll.
Swift Reservoir was low. Normally covered by iridescent blue water, its stark stair-stepped shores were exposed far into the center.
The forks of Birch Creek were also depleted. Their gin-clear water barely slid across the granite cobble, making me glad I carried two water bottles in spite of the added weight.
Setting up camp miles inside the Lewis and Clark National Forest, I slowly scanned the surrounding peaks for any whisper of white among the grey cliffs. Even though it was only the end of July, I spied only one miniscule snowfield high on a northern slope.
Only a few decades ago, the mountains in northern Montana used to nurture more snow, helping it to last into mid-August.
As we explored surrounding drainages, it was clear that the snow pulled out weeks ago. Several of the little tributaries that in the spring send snowmelt crashing to the valley floor and that still burble in mid-summer were dry and dusty, their sun-bleached boulders more reminiscent of scree slopes than stream bottoms.
I wished for just a light wool blanket rather than my sleeping bag, because nighttime temperatures never got cool enough for me to stay in my bag long without sweating. I watched the sun rise feeling only a little cool wearing only a T-shirt. I missed needing a fleece jacket and being warmed by the first cup of camp coffee.
Another thing I missed was wildlife.
We were far enough in the mountains that we should have been more aware of other beings around us, especially at dawn and dusk. But I heard only one bird, saw just one bunch of nuthatches flitting west and a few bats veering through the pines at night. My camp mates finally saw one chipmunk on the last day. With many firs succumbing to budworm - a situation exacerbated by climate change - or reduced to silver skeletons, the world seemed silent and dead, even though any animals that were around probably sought out the forest depths to stay cool.
So though I was surrounded by natural beauty, it was blemished by the effects of heat and drought, the likes of which I haven’t seen in Montana in my lifetime.
Anyone who spends time outdoors working or recreating knows Montana’s seasons are changing and that’s not good news. This summer, two of Montana’s favorite fruits, cherries and huckleberries, saw short seasons that were two to three weeks early, causing worries that bears and other wildlife won't have many berries to augment their diets. Farmers’ crops have been wiped out by hail, heat and drought. Fishermen watch trout die or become sluggish as stream levels drop and water temperatures rise. Hunters lose opportunity as deer, antelope and moose die because of heat stress and increased parasite loads.
That’s not surprising. When you look at global average temperature, last year was the hottest year on record and 2015 is looking to surpass it.
While Montana is wilting under 100 degree temperatures, in Iraq, a dome of heat hovering over the Middle East is causing the heat index to climb as high as 175 degrees.
We have seen the effects of climate change intensify over the past decade. Apply that same change over the next 10 years with our current situation as the starting point and the future looks desperate.
The only way to keep a little of what we cherish is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon, accumulating in the atmosphere.
Today, the Environmental Protection Agency released its final draft of new regulations to cut carbon emissions by a third within 15 years by cutting back on coal-power generation. That’s similar to taking 166 million cars off the road.
The initial draft was released last summer, 4 million Americans submitted comments, and now the final product has gone a bit farther than what was initially proposed.
In a press conference Monday, Pres. Obama said that’s because the world can’t afford additional delays in taking action. So he wanted a plan that was realistic and achievable but still ambitious.
“We’re the first generation to feel the effects and the last to be able to do something about it,” Obama said. “There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change.”
Power plants are the biggest polluters, producing a third of the planet’s carbon emissions. But carbon emissions have never been regulated like other air pollutants.
Under the new EPA rules, states have more flexibility and more time to choose how they want to reduce the amount of coal-produced power in their energy mix over the next few years.
“We will reward states that take action sooner rather than later because time is not on our side,” Obama said. “When the world has its toughest challenges, America leads the way forward.”
Gov. Steve Bullock was displeased with the new rules.
“At first glance, it looks as though the Obama administration has moved the goal post on us. I am extremely disappointed by this. I understand that we need to address climate change but how we do so has to work for Montana. The rule is very complicated and we will carefully review it and make sure we fully understand the implications for Montana’s economy and the future of energy in our state,” Bullock said in a release Monday.
After the EPA released its draft proposal last summer, the Chinese government announced its plans to cap coal use by 2020, a necessary target to meet its global pledge of starting to reverse greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
While the coal industry has threatened to sue to stop the new regulations, climate change scientists warn that the regulations don’t go far enough to stop greenhouse gases from accumulating to the point where the continual increase in global average temperature will be not just uncomfortable but possibly deadly.
Obama was optimistic even though he knows the fossil fuel industry use its billions in profits to oppose any action.
“This is going to be hard. No single action, no single country can stop climate change on its own,” Obama said. “I don’t want my grandkids not to be able to swim in Hawaii or visit a glacier because we didn’t do something. Let’s do this for our kids.”