Our survival depends on fighting climate change

  • Tom Bell


I am 88 and have seen a lot of change over the decades, but I do not think anyone living now has ever faced a more serious threat to life than the threat of global climate change. As President Obama said recently, “More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They’re a threat to our children’s future.”

I come from a far different time. Born in a coal-mining town, I was raised on a ranch five miles out of Lander, Wyo., just two miles from where my mother was born, in 1901. I went to one-room schools and graduated from Lander High School at 18, just in time to become gun fodder for World War II.

My crew of 10 young men flew a B-24 bomber from New York City to South America, then across the Atlantic to Africa’s Sahara Desert and a temporary training camp in Tunisia. At last we crossed the Mediterranean to our tent camp among olive trees near Foggia, Italy.  Five of those young men with me never returned home alive.  Just two of us are still living.

My 32nd mission finally ended my Air Force career.  Five miles above Vienna, Austria, on May 10, 1944, a German’s flak burst pulverized the right side of my face and destroyed my right eye. There was a long recovery, and for my actions that day, I was awarded the Sliver Star, the nation's third highest combat military decoration. Yet when I left the military at 20, I was still not old enough to vote or even buy a drink. I went on to college, got involved in wildlife and environmental work, and never wavered in my love of Wyoming, the West and the very planet itself.

So now, while I still have a voice to speak, I want to communicate a warning: I believe we are at a crossroads that puts our civilization at risk.  If we do nothing to stop carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere, the Earth will face a future similar to that of Mars, becoming barren and lifeless.

When World War II was thrust on us, we turned our economic system into a war machine as every American agreed to sacrifice in order to defeat Nazi Germany and its allies. That is the model for what it will take to overcome what now threatens our planet.

Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini, however, were human beings with faces, while carbon dioxide is invisible and yet a part of our everyday environment. How can you overcome something you can’t see?

ABC journalist Bill Blakemore thinks one of the reasons Americans don’t -- or can’t -- accept the threat of climate change is because of the “unprecedented scale and complexity of the crisis of manmade global warming.” And he adds, “It’s new, and therefore unknown, at first. And we’re naturally frightened of the unknown.”

Yet Rob Watson, an environmentalist, likes to say:  “Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is. You cannot sweet-talk her. You cannot spin her. … Do not mess with Mother Nature.  But that is   just what we are doing.”

You only need a lick of sense to see that something is terribly wrong. Devastating events, attributable to climate change, are destroying people’s livelihoods and taking lives all around the world. Climate scientists tell us it is only going to get worse unless and until we do something about carbon.


To do something about carbon means reducing our dependence on coal and oil, and here in Wyoming, even talking about it is heresy. But we must begin to talk about it before it is too late, and then we must act.

What can we do? Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy-Progress Energy, the largest electric utility in the United States, said this September: “I believe eventually there will be regulation of carbon in this country.” James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, agrees. In fact, everyone concerned about climate change believes a carbon tax has advantages over every other approach. Still, every single carbon-tax bill introduced in Congress has failed.

I believe it is past time for all of us -- and especially those of us who live in Wyoming, where so much carbon is produced -- to face the hard truth. We don’t have a choice: We have to face this crisis as if we were at war, because, unfortunately, that is the bitter truth. We are in a fight for our very survival – and for the survival of the whole planet.

Tom Bell is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org), which he founded in 1970, in Lander, Wyoming, along with the Wyoming Outdoor Council. He lives in Lander.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Hank Miller
Hank Miller
Oct 02, 2012 05:33 PM
AT EASE! the number one contributor to glbal warming is overpopulation, simple as that. Until population growth is curtailed we, the people, will remain the greatest contributor. All scientists agree on this. Global warming is and always has been cyclical.
Kip Dunn
Kip Dunn Subscriber
Oct 02, 2012 06:33 PM
Amen,Mr. Miller. Let me add that Americans are the largest energy users,per capita,in the world and thus the greatest creators of carbon emissions. Our birth rate is low but our population growth is high like that of Egypt or Afghanistan. Our greatest contribution to the fight against global warming would be to limit immigration into this increasingly overpopulated nation.
Hank Miller
Hank Miller
Oct 03, 2012 08:41 AM
Kip, that is ridiculous. Limiting immigration would do nothing to help the Global picture. Rather, Africa and Asia must enact birth control measures to help reduce the growth rate. Did i mention that bovines are the second largest contributor? that means cows, not machines.
Rob Ranf
Rob Ranf Subscriber
Oct 07, 2012 12:31 PM
I always find it interesting that those who want to enact population control measures always target dark people. Until he made the immigration argument, Kip Dunn was correct; we consume, in the west, far more per capita than those in Africa or Asia. Population is not a problem, over consumption is the problem. But I suppose it's easy to blame overpopulation in third world nations from the comfort of your cozy home and dining room table.
Jim Vance
Jim Vance
Oct 30, 2012 04:38 PM
This is a multi-variable problem, made even more complex because it includes a time-based functional component for both population, per capita energy use, energy source type and associated CO2 production, and many others. Reducing it to simplistic this-or-that, either-or sound bite causes or potential solutions doesn't really move the viable solutions which might be available farther along toward becoming reality.

The bottom line is that we, as a planetary human population, really need to slow the rate of CO2 production from geologically-sequestered carbon fuels, and pretty quickly. If not, then the prospects for sustaining the golden age of human civilization that many of us have experienced over the past half-century inevitably become bleaker and more tenuous.
melitta smith
melitta smith
Oct 30, 2012 08:10 PM
One basic reason people are reluctant to admit the carbon problem is that there is no easy solution that one can point to and say, "look, there is what we should do." In addition, the most popular solutions tell all of us that we, U.S. citizens, need to radically change our life style in order to "pay" for our carbon footprint. During my education I learned that what I do about any environmental problem does no good--unless many others do the same thing. That makes it easy to be a free-rider and let everyone else worry about it, however something has to be done, and done fast.
Where I think the solution lies is in the hands of industry. When corporate decision makers accept responsibility for the carbon use, either in mining, manufacturing, or potential of their product, then we will see a downward change in carbon based pollution issues. At the same time, the public will have to accept their own responsibility and pay for new technology that lowers each person's carbon footprint. Industry is reluctant to pass the cost on to the consumer because the competition might not do so and win a sale because of lower price. This is where government might need to step in, to force a carbon tax on all products, including imports. Another way to do this is to reward early adopters with tax reductions and incentives, such as those offered for change-over for local government and corporation fleets to hydrogen--something that has already taken place. If we don't choose a smaller carbon footprint, it will be chosen for us.
Joy Cimeni
Joy Cimeni
Nov 13, 2012 08:13 PM
@Hank Miller

Sir, how can you say the world today is over population?