On the trail of global warming

by Greg Hanscom

Weird weather stole the headlines in Western newspapers this winter. We read about a mudslide in the Grand Canyon, Seattle’s jet stream showing up in southern Utah, and the appearance of shorts in Bozeman, Mont., in February. The weather has been downright bizarre, and the media have been there to report every dramatic detail.

But the press has made remarkably few attempts to answer the one question on almost everyone’s lips: Is this global warming at work?

Reporters shy away from the question for good reason. For starters, as HCN Contributing Editor Michelle Nijhuis reports in this issue’s cover story, there is no easy answer. Climate scientists say with near certainty that we are warming the planet with our cars and factories and power plants, but they can’t pin specific storms or strange seasons on global warming. It’s one thing to write about the weather; it’s another thing to leap into the bigger, more complicated story of climate.

There are also bad reasons behind the media’s avoidance of the question. Global warming has become a political hot potato. The Bush administration continues to wave the final shred of scientific uncertainty about the causes of global warming as an excuse not to worry about it. (To assuage fears and marginalize critics, the administration has always dodged the term "global warming" in favor of the more benign-sounding "climate change." At a recent United Nations conference, U.S. emissaries took it one step further, insisting on using "climate variability.") This has driven many journalists away from the topic, for fear of being branded as liberal Cassandras. It doesn’t help that industry-funded think tanks and right-wing political commentators gleefully attack those who take the issue seriously.

HCN is no stranger to this particular spotlight, so we decided to see if we could dig up some answers to the question that is still hanging in the air. Besides, we thought we might jinx the situation by putting it down on paper. In my hometown in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, locals hankering for a big dump of snow head to the carwash en masse. Scrub the road salt off of the old Subaru, and you’re guaranteed to be spinning your wheels through a foot or two of the fresh stuff in a matter of days.

So far, HCN’s metaphorical carwash seems to be working. A week before the publication of this story, the weather in the Northwest did an about-face. It’s doubtful that the late-winter rally will make a dent in the drought, but after being closed for several weeks, some resorts in the Cascades opened for a few days of spring skiing.

Can HCN claim responsibility? That’s tough to prove. But we like to think we’ve done our part.

© High Country News