“We’re slowly, and maybe without even realizing it, adapting,” said Lisa Dale, assistant director for parks, wildlife, and lands at the Colorado Natural Resources Department. The people in charge of managing the state’s natural resources are dealing with climate factors even if they don’t call their problem “climate change,” she said.
One of Colorado’s U.S. senators, Mark Udall, has for years pointed to the beetle epidemic as the kind of evidence that conclusively shows climate change is occurring in plain view. But his and other lawmakers’ efforts to move the needle on climate policy have gone nowhere.
“To a large degree, our nation’s parks are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to on-the-ground effects of a warming climate,” Udall said at a 2009 hearing on climate change that the Democrat held at Rocky Mountain National Park with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. At the time, Udall pointed to “trees killed by a bark-beetle epidemic that has been exacerbated by a warming climate.”
Three years later, Udall is still calling Colorado’s forests “canaries in the coal mine for the effects of a warming climate.” In a statement released by his office last week, the senator said, “We need to look into understanding the very real impacts that affect the health of our resources and our ability to protect them.”
Udall supported the Senate draft of a highly contentious bill to “cap and trade” carbon emissions. After a mad scramble for votes, the legislation barely based the House in the summer of 2009. It soon bogged down in the Senate—largely because of coal-state Democrats’ fears that the legislation would damage their local economies and open them to political attack.
Their fears were justified. Scores of House Democrats lost their seats when opponents and interest groups pounded them with their cap-and-trade vote, along with votes on health care reform and other Democratic priorities. Even some who had opposed cap-and-trade fell victim.
“If you believe [climate change] exists, you are somehow—you are at least a socialist.” —Howard Hallman, describing the prevailing attitude
“Candidly, I think the Republicans—who were in the minority—saw the opportunity to use this bill to make inroads,” said Rick Boucher, who represented a district in Virginia’s coal country for 28 years before losing his seat in 2010. Attack ads hammered swing-district Democrats like him for their cap-and-trade votes, Boucher said. He was particularly vulnerable because he chose to try to help craft a bill that would strike a balance between regulating emissions and protecting industry back home—the very thing we expect responsible lawmakers to do. “It was a factor in my race,” Boucher said.
Since the cap-and-trade bill faltered, Congress has shown little inclination to act. The Republican Party seems more dug in on the matter now than ever, with most GOP lawmakers publicly doubting evidence that human activity is warming the planet, opposing any regulation that would curb fossil-fuel use, or both.
The party’s standard-bearer, presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney, openly distanced himself from the science of climate change in remarks to donors in Pittsburgh last fall. “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us,” Romney said.
Even Colorado Republicans in Congress, who see sickly forests on a regular basis, refuse to tie the beetle infestation and drought to human activity and resist the idea of regulating carbon emissions.
In May 2012, GOP Rep. Scott Tipton held a field hearing on the bark beetle in Montrose, in the southwest part of the state. At the hearing, he blamed “federal obstruction” and mismanagement of Colorado’s forests for the beetle epidemic and called for more timber extraction to thin aged pine stands. Federal mismanagement, Tipton maintains, is the primary driver of the beetle outbreak.
He says that the climate has been changing throughout history and that there’s still debate over the role human activity has played in current shifts. “We’ve got to be responsible,” the lawmaker said, when reached by phone at his office in Washington. “We’ve got to be able to create jobs; we’ve got to be able to provide energy.” Even if the United States and Europe both stopped emitting carbon for the next 25 years, the difference would soon be made up by other nations, Tipton said.
Rep. Mike Coffman, another Colorado Republican, said: “Climate change is naturally occurring. What influence do we have over that, we certainly need to look into, but that’s subject to debate.”
Tipton and Coffman (and Romney, for that matter) have plenty of company. Fifty-two percent of Americans believe that the effects of global warming have already set in, according to a March Gallup Poll, down from a high of 61 percent in 2008. Forty-one percent believe that the climate is changing because of natural causes, compared with 53 percent who blame human activity. The number of people who say that human activities are the primary cause of global warming has dropped 8 percentage points since 2003.