Saturday, July 20, 2024

The Climate Conversation: Focus on the climate, not the cold

by Jeffrey J. Smith
| January 25, 2024 12:00 AM

I was sitting next to the woodstove last week as the temperature plunged and the sideways snow squalled outside my window. I couldn’t help but remember 1978 when I took a job as a timber feller for Champion International. I was in my mid-20s and relatively new to Montana. And I was up for adventure, not to mention a paycheck.

It was not my most stellar move.

Each morning hours before dawn, I’d ride to Missoula with two other Bitterrooters, Steve and Delbert, to the company’s shop on Russell Street in Missoula where 40 loggers would yawn at each other until Smokey, our supervisor, gave assignments. We’d climb into company crew-cabs, and our driver, a guy named Rocky who wore a coon-skin cap, would battle ground-blizzards on I-90 and race other drivers to the job site in McGinty Gulch near Superior. 

You think this winter was bad! That December and January only 12 days remained above freezing. It stayed below zero for 24 days. Eight days dropped below minus-20. Everyone I knew was dealing with frozen pipes or cars that wouldn’t start. Had I been banished to Siberia?

One morning every single tree I cut was frozen to the core. They snapped off and gravity took them straight downhill. It was an epic struggle with the branches, the cold, the snowdrifts, and a powerful-as-lightening chainsaw in my stone-cold fingers. 

I was losing my man-against-nature battle when the foreman’s voice broke through. “What the hell are you doing out here? It’s 25-below. Go home!” 

Forty-five years later, I smelled just a whiff of that winter of ’78/79, but I might caution folks from thinking a few cold days in 2024 proves our climate is not warming. Weather is the day-to-day variations, but climate is the long-range weather trends. If you’re a person who is comfortable with facts, these trends don’t look good.

I’m concerned about the world my children and grandchildren will inherit. Last year was the hottest year on record (150 years of record-keeping), and the margin of record-breaking caught scientists by surprise. NASA says the average surface temperature on Earth rose 1.4 degrees Centigrade (or 2.5 Fahrenheit). The increased heating occurred because of the El Nino phenomenon, the hot house of warmer waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean, and because of record-breaking greenhouse gas pollution. 

The graph of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere looks like a hockey stick, horizontal from the 1880s through to the last decades of the 20th century, when whoops, it bends nearly straight vertical. 

One climate scientist, Ed Hawkins from the University of Reading in England, had this to say about record-setting temperatures brought by record-setting CO2 and methane emissions: “Surprising. Astounding. Staggering. Unnerving. Bewildering. Flabbergasting. Disquieting. Gobsmacking. Shocking. Mind boggling.”

You know we’re entering frightening new territory when usually staid scientists use that vocabulary.

Let’s connect the dots. Exxon made a record $9 billion in profit in the third quarter last year. The U.S. is now producing 13.3 million barrels of oil a day, a world record. Our exports of oil and liquified methane now rival those of the hydrocarbon heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

We must ask ourselves, is the cost of our comfort and convenience coming at the risk of future suffering for hundreds of millions of our children and grandchildren? That’s the question that haunted me during the brief cold spell.

Jeffrey J. Smith is co-chair of 350 Montana and co-hosts a conversation at the Climate Café, held the third Friday of every month at the Flathead Lakers’ office in Polson, 9-11 a.m.