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Know the West

Our survival depends on fighting climate change


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.