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for people who care about the West

Climate change is our new reality

A summer of hurricanes, flooding and wildfires made it clear: the climate is changing.


Climate change is no longer a hypothetical threat from some distant future. This summer, it showed up in force.

In Texas, Hurricane Harvey pummeled the Gulf Coast and inundated Houston, dumping many trillions of gallons of water in rain and causing so much damage it will take years for the state to recover. There is no definitive science saying that climate change causes specific hurricanes. But what we do know is that global warming has raised sea levels, which strengthens hurricane storm surges. It also increases precipitation, the real destructor in Texas. That’s because warmer air holds more water, which falls as rain — in the case of Harvey, record-breaking rain that has caused perhaps $180 billion in damage.

Montana, meanwhile, has a different problem. In the past century, the state has warmed by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat waves are more common than they once were, and drought has killed trees, dried soil and increased the risk of wildfires. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2016 that the number of above-100-degree days that Montana experiences each year is likely to double. This summer, drought and dry weather have created a terrible fire season. At the time of this writing, 4,000 firefighters, 125 aircraft and 350 National Guard troops are fighting more than 40 active wildfires in Montana alone. Well over 600,000 acres have already burned there, with no end in sight.

Hurricanes and wildfires are real threats to life and property. They cost lives and money, and while they cannot be prevented, they can be prepared for. But doing so requires acknowledging that these extreme weather events are bound to get worse, and that is something our current policymakers can’t seem to do. The president insists that climate change is a “hoax” and won’t allow government agencies to even mention it.

Editor-in-chief, Brian Calvert
Brooke Warren/High Country News

In this issue, we’re asking a seemingly obvious question: What if — just what if — climate change is not a hoax? What if there is no global conspiracy of scientists (or the Chinese) manipulating data to trick people into reducing the use of fossil fuel? Who in the American West accepts the reality of climate change and is working to lessen its impact? We sent writers across the region, from the Pacific Coast to Alaska, Arizona to Wyoming, to see where and how climate change is affecting the West, its people and its politics. What we learned is that though the West is extremely vulnerable to a changing climate, it is also full of people who are determined to address it. If only that were true of our national leaders, flying over flood-stricken Texas or fire-ravaged Montana and wondering why in the heck things seem so out of control.