Drought, warming change our colors

Friday, Sept. 7, 2018 3:19 PM
Aspens begin to change during fall 2017 on Bear Creek Trail near Dolores.

If you’ve been seeing the tinge of yellow on trees, signaling the end of summer, and wondering how the season escaped you, we have some news: It’s not just you.

Fall color is coming on sooner this year. We almost said sooner than normal, but for all we know, this is the new normal. It’s sooner than in recent years past.

Most of Colorado is experiencing significant drought. When that happens, trees such as aspens become stressed and the color change comes faster and doesn’t last as long.

One good snowpack this winter and the foliage will get back to its old schedule, and the rivers and reservoirs will rise. We can all hope for that.

Yet we also know that, because of warming, we can expect more frequent periods of drought. What we don’t know is what, if anything, we can do now to stave off warming.

This has infected our politics, wherein Democrats accuse Republicans of not believing in warming. Of course, science was never about belief. The question should be, what can we do to mitigate or reverse it? And at what cost? Not whom should we blame. Surely, if we are to blame, we are all to blame.

There is reason to be fatalistic. In 2012, James Hansen, the former NASA climatologist, said if Canada continued to extract oil from its vast tar sands reserves, and if the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline facilitated that, “it will be game over for the climate.”

That was six long years ago. Canada went right on drilling, slowed only – and only lately – by increased U.S. oil and gas production, and by the relatively low price of oil.

Last year, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum to revive Keystone XL by expediting the environmental review process. And the virtuous government of Justin Trudeau has backed the increased export of Alberta tar sands oil via Keystone XL.

Game over came and went. If we take Hansen at his word, this is the long goodbye.

Thomas Jefferson said the earth “belongs in usufruct to the living.” Trained in the law, he chose a term that means the right to use something one doesn’t own without altering it.

Yet it was never in our nature to use Earth without altering it. At least, that has not been true since Spindletop gushed in 1901. It might not have been true since we climbed down from trees and confronted the big cats that were eating our young.

None of this is to say that we should not go on trying to develop clean sources of energy. If nothing else, it could buy us time. And it is possible the same ingenuity that got us into this mess will get us out. But perhaps it is time to reconsider our relation to nature.

Nature is indifferent to us. If we alter it in such a way that it no longer supports us, some other life form will come along that thrives on acidified oceans and climate extremes. The other animals, our hostages, will perish with us. And we will not be missed. If we are losing Earth and nature as we have known them, it is not Earth that will be lost. It is us.

So autumn comes a little sooner this year and lasts a little less long. There is at least one practical thing we can do: Relish the glory that was ours.