Fire in Our Back Yards and Our Children’s Future

I’m doing a slow burn. The Lake Christine Fire — which [as of this writing] has again flared up and prompted evacuation notices — strikes me as an apt metaphor for the reason why.

Our democracy, our shared future and our small planet are all aflame, but it seems that nothing immediate can be done to contain the blaze.

Like the firefighters who have convened to save our homes, we’re constrained: The flames are burning in territory too inaccessible for us to reach. The conditions were set by climactic forces long in play and largely beyond our control. They were sparked by dangerous attitudes. They will burn far too long.

All we can do is to carve out distant firebreaks, wait and tamp down the outbreaks.

Photo of the Lake Christine fire by my friend Jae Gregory. This was taken from her deck!

Appalled as I was by hearing the president toady up to Vladimir Putin and deny (again) that Russia tampered with the 2016 election — a crime now substantiated by 13 criminal indictments and four U.S. security agencies — those treasonous acts pale in comparison with ignoring the climactic conflagration breaking out near and far.

On June 28, Denver tied its all-time high at 105 degrees. On July 2, Montreal recorded its highest temperature ever. On July 5, the planet’s hottest continent reached the highest temperature ever recorded on earth, as the thermometer in Ouragla, Algeria soared to 124.3 degrees.

Global warming is here. It’s visible from my driveway in Carbondale.

I can see smoke from the Lake Christine Fire, which has now burned 12,000 acres, as it continues to consume Basalt Mountain. The pines and pinions there are tinder-dry due to drought. That drought, classified as “moderate” in our neck of the woods and “extreme” in Southern Colorado, came about because our snowpack was the poorest in 30 years.

This year’s skiing was often rocky, our season having shrunk by more than a month since I was a kid. Our views are currently hazy due to wildfires. Our rivers have shrunk, affecting boating and fishing. But we’re the lucky ones.

This month, international diplomats met in New York and Geneva to discuss what to do with a worldwide surge in refugees. There’s no official agreement yet on how to define a “climate refugee.” But since 2008, an average of 24 million people have been displaced by weather disasters every year. Those numbers are growing annually, and rapidly.

In our valley, the fire forced 1,793 people to evacuate. Three families lost their homes. Dozens of Basalt businesses had to close temporarily. The Temporary canceled several concerts, and dozens of flights to the Aspen Airport were scratched.

Those losses and inconveniences are related to global warming.

So are these: 2,300 Puerto Rican families have remained homeless since Hurricane Maria. Two million U.S. homes will be lost to a very-possible six-foot ocean rise by 2020. And climate change will likely displace 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America over the next 30 years.

That last number comes from a report entitled “Groundswell — Preparing for Climate Migration,” published by the World Bank early this year. In its introduction, World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva writes, “Increasingly, we are seeing climate change become an engine of migration, forcing individuals, families and even whole communities to seek more viable and less vulnerable places to live.”

The earth is doing a slow burn. But our president is responding as Nero was fabled to have done while Rome burned: The U.S. pulled out of the United Nations-led Global Compact on Migration in December, just as our nation pulled out the Paris agreement on climate change in 2017.

The two issues are interdependent. We have seen that in microcosms since our local fire began (ironically enough) on Independence Day.

Although treasonous statements and refugee children in cages have fanned the current political flames white hot, I fear the worst damage wrought by this administration will come from fiddling away while the earth smolders.

By failing to act, we’re allowing parts of the globe to become uninhabitable. We’re sentencing millions to famine, disease and dislocation. And we’re saddling our “own” children (those of wealthy nations), with a debt of $585 trillion. That’s how much it will cost to mop up the extra CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere and return earth to livability, according to an international team of experts, headed by James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute.

It’s the hottest summer on record, and the feds should be responding to the climate crisis in the same way that local governments have responded to the Lake Christine Fire.

But they aren’t.

I, for one, can’t imagine how to explain this to the children.

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Originally published in the Glenwood Springs Independent on July 26, 2018

The New Deep Throat is a Park Ranger?

During the election, as “fake news” (i.e. propaganda) flew from both the left and the right, I had several conversations with other local journalists about where they get their news and made some personal adjustments and resolutions.

With local news, it’s easier to nail down. I know most of the Roaring Fork Valley’s reporters and editors personally. I can corner them between the potatoes and the artichokes in the grocery and ask, “Why in heck did you write that?”

I have spent most of my career writing about travel, the outdoors and other supposedly nonpolitical topics. I graduated from the CU Boulder School of Journalism with honors, then worked as a feature writer, a nonprofit publicist and an ad agency copywriter. (The latter involves being paid a princely sum to crow about something readers may or not want to buy.)

But even as a copywriter, I drew the line at lying. I think Thomas Jefferson was right in asserting that a free press was (and is) essential to democracy. Writing to a delegate of the Continental Congress, Jefferson famously opined that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government”, he would not hesitate to prefer the latter.

Sadly, much has changed since my J-school days, a time when Woodward and Bernstein were heralded as heroes. Last September, a Gallup poll found that only 32 percent of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the news media. Among Republicans, that number drops to 14 percent, down from 32 percent last year.

Still, I suspect that our new president will soon learn why Mark Twain quipped that it’s poor idea to pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.

In an open letter to Trump published in the Columbia Journalism Review, the voice of the journalistic profession, CJR editor Kyle Pope warned,

“We believe there is an objective truth, and we will hold you to that…You and your staff sit in the White House, but the American government is a sprawling thing. We will fan reporters out across the government, embed them in your agencies, source up those bureaucrats.” As the White House’s webpage on climate change disappeared and the new administration barred the EPA from sharing information with the press and public, I began to wonder how many Deep Throats would appear in the coming months.

It took days, not months, to get an answer. Following White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s assertions about inaugural crowd, the press began digging and the National Park Service (NPS) tweeted out side-by-side photos of crowds at Trump’s and Obama’s inaugurations. That quickly led to the silencing of the Park Service’s official Twitter account.

 The NPS account came back some hours later, but dragon’s teeth had been sown. Badlands National Park quickly began tweeting about climate change — and soon found its Tweets deleted.

But by the end of that day, more than 50 “alt” or “rogue” Twitter accounts appeared, speaking for government agencies that deal with environment, science, health and food safety. They can be found under the hashtag #twistance (Twitter resistance).

 I’m now following “Rogue NOAA”, an unofficial National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration account that promises “research on our climate, oceans, and marine resources should be subject to peer [not political] review.” NOAA operates 17 environmental satellites and myriad land- and ocean-monitoring instruments that collect data used for everything from farming to weather forecasting to insurance.

Because I’m sure that the climate is warming, I’m also following “EPA Ungagged” for “news, links, tips, and conversation that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is unable to tell you.” And I’m wickedly cheering on the bad hombres at AltBadlandsNatPark, who tweeted that “the current pace of global average temp rise puts approximately 25 to 35 percent of plant and animal species at increased risk of extinction.”

I followed the Twitter resisters because like “Alt USDA”, I’m “resisting the censorship of facts and science.”  I too believe that “truth wins in the end.”
But these days, the truth is an endangered species. It’s no coincidence that I get news about Standing Rock from the reports of former Sopris Sun editor Terray Sylvester. Or that I have donated to our local media news outlets. Or that I have subscribed to the New York Times.

Or that I’m launching a new career as a columnist.
You’re welcome to corner me by the artichokes and ask me all about it.


Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on Feb. 2, 2017.