A Montanan usually takes a practical approach. We study a problem, figure out how to solve it, and then do it. That's how I was taught. My Montana roots go back to the 1870s, followed by a long line of tough, practical, conservative Montanans. As a geologist I followed the mold, working in mining and then in oil and gas for Chevron for most of my career, where conservative and practical are good qualities.
So with that background, I recently set out to separate facts from hype on climate change. I was frankly surprised at what I learned.
First, is the climate warming? Yes. Temperatures have increased steadily over the last few decades. That is not opinion. It's measured. It's real.
Why is the climate warming? Accumulated fossil fuel combustion accounts for more than enough carbon dioxide to cause the warming we see. That is also measured. That is also real.
We didn't know our hydrocarbon economy would cause climate change when we built it. But now we know it does.
High carbon levels
Hasn't carbon dioxide been this high in the past? In the geologic past, yes, but not in the human past. Current levels are significantly above anything seen in the last 800,000 years. Homo sapiens have been around for only about 250,000 years. And throughout the 5,000 years or so for development of society and cultures we have seen very little change in greenhouse gases or climate.
Further, relative to the changes we see in geology, the spike in carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) is happening exceedingly quickly.
Does it really matter? Unfortunately it matters a lot. The levels of greenhouse gases we have already reached can cause major climate change, some we're seeing already. Because we have little information on such a quick, sharp increase of greenhouse gases, we don't know how to predict how much of a change we'll see, nor how quickly it will happen. But our predictions to date have been too conservative. Climate change is happening faster than we expected.
Can we turn it around? Yes. We need to phase out fossil fuel combustion, and we must act together. No state, no country, can turn it around alone. We need a global solution.
We can do it. We did it with the ozone. We did it with acid rain. Although climate change is a much bigger problem than either ozone or acid rain - and infinitely more complicated - we know what to do to start the turnaround.
Because our hydrocarbon economy is so dominant, change to renewable energy will take time. We simply can't build an entirely new infrastructure quickly. Like all new directions, we can't predict how the future economy will evolve, but we know we need to use all the options in hand now, including solar, wind, nuclear and the many creative ideas yet to be born.
What should we do right now? In addition to working toward a global shift to renewable energy, we must take action to mitigate and to adapt to the changes under way. Drought is expected to be a big concern for Montana, which will especially hurt our agriculture.
The facts are clear that climate change is real and caused by fossil fuel use, and the danger is serious. We know many of the steps we need to take. Let's move our discussions forward toward solutions, come up with plans and get down to some good practical actions.