Our sly climate

 

It was bound to happen. Regardless of the cynical denialism of some politicians, climate change is now entering our lives in very real ways. This is especially true in the West, a region clearly defined by its environment and natural resources. In this issue, almost without our knowing it, the climate crept into nearly every story.

In Montana, for example, a farmers’ union is trying to break through the politicization of climate change rhetoric, knowing that it is in its members’ best interest to better understand what is happening to their crops. The group has begun inviting experts to talk to farmers, to help them prepare for what’s coming.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been somewhat slower to react. As increased temperatures and drought bring more wildfires to mountain communities, floods from fire-scoured slopes become a real danger. But most FEMA money comes only after disaster strikes, rather than in ways that could improve infrastructure to mitigate the damage beforehand.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has finalized his Clean Power Plan, something that he and the EPA were required to do by law, following court decisions affirming carbon as a pollutant that must be regulated. That will have major implications for parts of the West, contributing editor Cally Carswell writes, sparking ire in places where jobs are closely linked to coal, like Wyoming, and adding to industry resentment. Still, the plan is not a death knell for King Coal or the West’s oldest plants.

Regardless of its merits or weaknesses, the plan is a positive sign that our policymakers are starting to wise up. Yet some of their proposed solutions may not be solutions at all. For some time now, natural gas has been hailed as a “bridge fuel,” the energy source that could ease us out of our dependence on fossil fuels and move us toward renewables. But, as senior editor Jonathan Thompson reports in our cover story, natural gas might prove less a bridge than the troll beneath it. Scientists are now trying to figure out how much methane — a potent greenhouse gas — leaks from oil and gas production. It’s a potentially significant amount, and unless new regulations force the industry to plug or capture these fugitive emissions, natural gas will simply add to the climate problem.

Taken together, we’re starting to see how real, and how complex, climate questions are in the Anthropocene, especially here in the West. Climate change is no longer just for scientists or environmentalists. Our ranchers and farmers, miners and drillers, county commissioners, mayors and city planners all have to deal with it. Ready or not.

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