By WILBUR WOOD - For The Outpost
If you were in college today, what would you major in?
Climate scientist Steve Running asked this question during the first week of April, speaking with mixed-age audiences at three colleges in Bozeman and Billings (Montana State University, Rocky Mountain College and MSU Billings).
He answered the question by suggesting future career paths for students, how they could stay busy and useful for the next 30 years, by creating:
• More energy efficient buildings and cars.
• Broadly decentralized renewable energy generating systems.
• Safe clean ways to recycle and reuse our mined, logged or farmed resources.
• And, “if you have land that can grow something, hang onto it” to produce food for an exploding human population without wasting energy, land or water.
“If you have water,” remarked someone in the audience.
“Yes,” agreed Running. “Water is the key.”
Thursday, April 4, I caught Steve Running three times on the Rocky Mountain College campus: at a noon talk geared toward environmental science students and professors; at a question and answer session later that afternoon; finally at an evening slide show lecture and Q and A session that stretched toward two hours, before a packed-to-the-rafters audience in Fortin Auditorium.
‘It’s not an exact science’
In 2007 Running shared the Nobel Peace Prize with his colleagues on the IPCC — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — and also with former Vice President Al Gore, whose movie on this subject, called “An Inconvenient Truth,” was stirring up both climate change believers and deniers. I’ve heard him speak before, watched his slide show, and I’m always curious to hear what new insights he and his fellow researchers have synthesized from their ongoing exploration of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, floods and droughts, melting ice fields, rising seas and intensifying storms.
He’s based in Missoula, where he is Regents’ Professor of Ecology at the University of Montana. He’s been there since 1979, much of that time working on computer models of ecosystems, bioregions, based on geophysical data collected from orbiting satellites and other, earth-tethered sites, measuring, collating, never sure what key variables are being left out – “it’s not an exact science,” he said.
‘It’s all about water’
Even so, he has a firm grip on trends in his home territory (grew up in Seattle, doctorate in forest ecology from Colorado State University, lives in Montana, pays especially close attention to the Western United States). His advertised slide-lecture show for this tour was called “Climate Trends and Ecosystem Impacts in the Northern Rockies — It’s All about Water.”
The trends? Our Northwest U.S. regional climate is rapidly shifting toward shorter and milder winters, less snowpack in the mountains, which melts earlier and runs into streams and rivers that now carry less and less water during our hotter and hotter summers, and toward fire seasons that are months longer, even extending into winter. This is all very different from the way things were in our region as recently as the 1950s.
“Old timers say, we used to have lots more cold days, minus 20 and lower,” Running remarked to the environmental science students at Rocky. “The old timers are right,” he said.
An avid cyclist who carries a fold-up bike in whatever hybrid car from the university pool he is driving (he unfolded the bike and peddled around Billings between engagements), Running never used to bicycle much during winters in Missoula. Too much snow and ice. But in recent decades, it’s more common to experience only a few days each winter when he can’t use his bike. “Some winters in Missoula the temperature never drops below zero.”
This might be fine, if all we need to care about is our own comfort and cheaper heating of our houses, but our ecosystem is about more than human comfort. Just a couple of nights of minus-40-degree Fahrenheit temperatures are great for killing off the larvae of mountain pine bark beetles and other insect predators, and subverting various diseases, but 40-below doesn’t seem to be happening here much — if at all - anymore.
I was alive and conscious in the 1950s, which makes me an old timer. The last 40-below temperature I recall, in the Musselshell River Valley, came sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s. Since 2000 I remember only one morning when the thermometer out my kitchen window said 30-below, and that came during a winter of uncharacteristically extended snow-cover (even out on the more open plains).
This lack of winter stress, for both human beings and pine bark beetles, may be one reason for the recent, apparently unprecedented outbreak of pine beetle-infested forests, conifers reddening into gray tinder, in Rocky Mountain forests - a plague that appears to be subsiding, Running says, but for how long?
This past winter of 2012-13, however, offered us, and the bark beetles, very few pre-dawn temperatures below zero. While winter temperatures in our valley are generally warmer than those on the plains north and east of town, in recent decades neither the plains nor the valley, nor the forested hills south of town, have experienced protracted spells of 30 to 40 below.
A prime factor is the blowout of fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas - over the last two centuries has raised the atmospheric CO2 level from 250 to nearly 400 parts per million. Though CO2 is not the most potent “greenhouse gas,” it is there in high volume and is key to the trapping of too much heat in our atmosphere.
A challenge to the theory
At the evening session in Fortin Auditorium, during the Q and A, a woman stood up to challenge Running’s assertions about carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases leading to warmer temperatures. She read quotations from an unspecified text detailing how air temperature readings over the planet have been lower than what climate scientists predicted, based on increasing emissions of CO2 and other gases.
Running stood patiently listening to what was becoming a lengthy recital, occasionally nodding, until several members of the audience turned to the woman and said, “OK. You’ve made your point. Let him answer.”
Running was familiar with this evidence, and said that, indeed, since 1998, the planet’s air temperature has not risen as fast as predicted. But, he said, “I dispute your logic.” He pointed out that “air temperature is just one component of the system” and that “CO2 energy is dissipated in many ways.”
What ways? “Melt rates are going crazy” in polar regions of the planet. (Both ice sheets and frozen tundra are melting.) And ocean temperature — in contrast to air temp - is rising rapidly. (And as oceans absorb excess carbon they become more acidic, which among other things impairs the ability of shellfish to create shells and coral to create coral islands.)
The ocean is rising an average of 3.4 millimeters per year, he said, due to this melting and thermal expansion. One recent year, Running remarked, the ocean went down – “it freaked everyone out” – but next year it resumed rising.
“It isn’t a perfect science,” he reiterated.
Opportunities for restoration
Someone asked if pine beetle kills actually could have some positive effect on forests that have grown too thickly and devolved into monocultures, and Running acknowledged that insect kills, as well as natural fires, could clear out large swatches of forest and, in the longer term, allow a more healthy and resilient “mosaic” of open spaces amidst trees of differing species, heights, and ages.
In the shorter term, the beetle-killed pine — some of it cut and stashed “in slash piles as big as this room” – offers opportunities in all the Western U.S. forests, if done carefully and in appropriate places, opportunities for forest restoration and production of energy in the form of heat and electricity.
Biomass gasification can produce both heat and power — this could work well at the University of Montana, he said — in a combined process that is 70 percent efficient, Running said. Or there is the possibility of portable biomass electrical generators, traveling from site to site on semi trucks, producing electricity until the fuel runs out, then moving on.
For this, “All the pieces are not yet in place,” Running acknowledged. Electrical lines would need to be extended into remote forest areas – just as, out on the plains, they need to be extended to areas where local people could take advantage of prime windpower sites.
Using it all up
He acknowledged that human beings will probably use up the last viable deposits of oil in about 30 years – oil likely will still be refined into petrochemical products, but will be too expensive to burn. The same will be true of natural gas, which leaves coal, the worst polluter of the fossil fuels, and the most abundant.
Thanks to momentarily cheaper natural gas (from practices such as hydraulic fracturing) and the expense of retrofitting old coal-fired generating plants or building new ones that meet air quality standards, coal is on the decline in the U.S. Sending it by train, then ocean barge, to be burned in China only means that the pollution reaches us faster than it takes the barge to return. He agrees with James Hansen (an even more famous climate scientist) that if we don’t get off coal, well before it too is depleted, it may be too late for human civilization.
“This is not about the earth surviving. It’s about us.”
So Steve Running would like to get to a sustainable future faster. And we can get there with a change of priorities.
He offered this example: the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by the U.S. to invade Iraq – which has the second or third largest petroleum reserves on the planet (though the supposed reason was to find weapons of mass destruction which turned out to be non-existent) — could have weatherized every home in the U.S.
A sustainable vision
“When is enough enough?” Ruuning asked. Thanks to Earth’s burgeoning human population, headed toward 9 billion by the year 2050 (three times what it was in 1950), human demand for basic resources and ecological “services” is outstripping the ability of Earth’s biosphere to meet it. And conventional economic growth does not offer a solution. He quoted Robert Kennedy, in 1968: “The GDP (gross domestic product) measures everything except that which makes life worth living.”
Happiness, Running said, is achieved with just a minimal amount of financial security, and surveys show that as you improve your financial status “more doesn’t make you happier.” To the college students in the audience, he joked, “You may be as happy as you ever will be!”
He offered this vision:
“Every house solar. Every farm a wind generator. The technology is here. It doesn’t need to be invented. Run-of-the-river hydro power — turbines in a flowing stream rather than building a dam. Geothermal energy, very site specific, decentralized as well.”
Tapping into decentralized renewable energy rather than continuing to rely on large centralized power plants is not only “a job creator” but “these jobs are not clustered in cities but spread out across the state.”
He said: “We just need coordination and the system – a grid – to support it. I think this is where the future’s going to go. Little by little.”