NW View: Pacific Northwest not immune to climate change

Is climate change happening now? Is this year’s early spring and hot, dry summer a symptom, or is this just a weather anomaly?

In a recent New York Times article about wildfires, here’s what Peter Goldmark, Washington’s commissioner of public lands had to say:

“Our fire season started a month ahead, our crops matured weeks ahead and the dry weather we usually get in August, we’ve had since May . . . By heavens, if this isn’t a sign of climate change, then what is climate change going to bring?”

There are many signs of climate change, if not directly overhead, then certainly visible on the horizon. The National Atmospheric and Space Administration website offers a compelling list of symptoms:

▪  The rate of sea level rise has doubled in the last decade compared to the past century;

▪  The 10 warmest years on record have occurred in the last dozen years;

▪  Oceans have warmed .3 of a degree since 1969;

▪  Ice in Greenland, the Arctic and the Antarctic is melting ever more rapidly;

▪  Glaciers are retreating in mountains all over the earth;

▪  The number of high temperature events has increased and low temperature events have decreased;

▪  There have been a growing number of intense rainfall events;

▪  The surface waters of the oceans have become 30 percent more acidic since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Nonetheless, there are still skeptics and climate change deniers, and you can bet they will weigh in in the online comments section of this paper.

Now, to add to the folly of denial, there are the provincial exceptionalists: a school of thought that believes that the Pacific Northwest will be spared the worst effects of warming, and that our region will become a “climate refuge” living in comfort while the rest of the earth suffers. This school of thought acknowledges that we face hotter, drier summers, further retreat of glaciers, low stream flows and warmer water temperatures in the summer, and other effects. They just think that compared to other regions, we’ll be pretty well off.

Cliff Maas, the popular local public radio meteorologist, is in this camp. In a recent blog post, he wrote “Although it may not be politically correct to say this, might we find that 2070 weather has some positives? Like a longer hiking season? Less bugs in the mountains? More pleasant temperatures though most of the year? Lower winter heating bills? Less seasonal affective disorder? Less avalanche injuries? Forget I said it.”

We’d like to forget he said it, but there it is online, and he is not alone in thinking that way. Never mind that warmer rivers would wipe out salmon, that unchecked ocean acidification spells doom for shellfish, that rising sea levels could bankrupt government budgets before we could build enough seawalls, or that wildfires even in the Olympic rain forest could become commonplace.

If our climate, however it changes, is less awful than the drought-stricken, flooded, or burned up areas of the country, we will not be living the life of Riley. We are not an island, and if we do not act decisively and fast to reduce it, climate change will inevitably cause enormous disruptions in food production, global trade and human health that will affect us as much as everyone else.

There is, to be sure, a powerful, primal desire to believe that somehow we’ll be spared when the big earthquake hits, or when climate change disrupts our environment. But that’s not any more reasonable than simply denying the scientific consensus that climate change is real.

The earth, containing as it does seven billion people, is too small to truly provide climate refuges. We are all in this together.


This column reflects the views of the editorial board of The Olympian newspaper in Olympia.