Wilderness and climate change

Posted on Thursday, November 4th, 2010 by »

Change.

Now, that’s a scary word, particularly when the onus to do so is on us, personally. Or when we are facing some that is inevitable.

The discussion about climate change, also known as “global warming,” has been heating up over the past few years — sort of like the planet, eh — and will continue to do so. There are disagreements about the reality of the phenomena, and even more about what might cause it (if it’s real), but let’s pretend for the moment that it is real, and consider what we need to do if it is.

Carbon dioxide, produced when carbon-based fuel (almost anything that will burn)  combusts, is blamed for much of the problem. It is the main “greenhouse” gas (keeping heat from escaping the planet by being a “blanket” of sorts), and is emitted by the millions of tons in the process of burning carbon-based fuels. (29,321,302 metric tons in year 2007)

Each time a tree is cut down or a field is paved over, the planet becomes less capable of ingesting CO2 and spitting it back out as oxygen and water vapor, and we have cut down a lot of trees and paved many fields in the past 200 years. On top of that, the human capacity to burn carbon-based fuels has increased dramatically in the past 200 years. The curve on both of these trends is trending toward vertical faster every day.

In the past 100 years, scientists tell us that the average temperature of the planet has increased by 1° F. No big deal, huh? Except for the shrunken arctic ice cap, the missing glaciers of the central Rockies (including Glacier Park) and the disappearance of few huge and environmentally important ice fields in South America, almost no harm done.

Some scientists predict that temperatures will continue to rise in the next 100 years, but only about 2 ° F, which again seems to be no big deal. Unless of course, other scientists are right, and temps rise about 11° F. That would be a big deal. A very big deal, and we should hope fervently that the conservatives are correct.

What does wilderness have to do with this? Wilderness is pretty much a carbon-positive landscape. In other words, wilderness sucks up and processes or holds more carbon dioxide than it produces. It either spits it back out as oxygen and water after filtering it through trees, grasses, brush and all other green, chlorophyll-producing things, or stores it in those things (plants) as part of their inherent structure. Wildlands also store carbon in other ways, particularly in wetlands. Beaver ponds, for instance, store many tons of carbon in the sediments in their bottoms.

So, keeping places wild and pristine helps with the carbon balance.

That won’t solve the whole problem. We also have to rethink ourselves, our transportation modes, consumption habits, power sources, water uses, and even what we eat and wear to put a dent in the problem. If it really exists, of course.

All of which means we have to change — we have to change how we think. Which may seem the most frightening thing of all. But, I don’t think it would be as frightening as an increase of 11° F in the average world temperature.

— Sandy Compton

About The Author:

Sandy Compton is the program coordinator for Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. He grew up on a small farm/woodlot at the south end of the proposed wilderness and lives there still.

He is a storyteller and author of both fiction and non-fiction books, and the publisher at bluecreekpress.com.

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