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Risky Addictions

Fossil fuels, nicotine and civilization's perilous cravings

Twenty years ago I travelled from Denver to spend a week skiing volcanoes in the Cascade Range with some friends. I skied a great deal then, but the most cherished times were in May and June, when days lengthened, avalanche danger diminished, and the melt-and-freeze cycle produced a firm surface similar to kernels of fresh-picked corn.

One blissful morning in late May we set out at 5 a.m. to climb Mount Shasta, the 4,322-metre-high volcano near the California-Oregon border. I led much of the day as we ascended 2,700 metres in elevation. From the summit, we admired the Trinity Alps and Mount Lassen in the distance, then were rewarded with graceful, easy turns as shadows deepened across the landscape.

I did a lot of such skiing in the '80s and '90s in mountains above Vail, Aspen, and other Colorado towns. It took a big set of lungs, but I had them.

Then, I also smoked tobacco, mostly Camels, the cigarette packages ornamented with pyramids, palm trees and a dromedary. Like Mark Twain, I found quitting easy. Staying quit was the hard part. I quit on that trip to Mt. Shasta, but returning to my work at a newspaper in Colorado, the computer screen stayed blank. Finally, I bought a pack of cigarettes and smoked two. The story got done. After another, year-long hiatus from smoking, the same trick got me through a magazine story in Vail that earned me $200. But I could never quit at two cigarettes.

And so it went, starting and quitting, quitting and starting. My superb conditioning, the doctor said, could mask the ill effects of my smoking. By the time I finally quit for good, I had 23 or 24 pack years in my lungs. Two packs a day for one year is two pack years. Mostly, I smoked less — but the years slipped by.

Finally crushing the last butt, I still felt good. Only later did the damage become obvious. I began getting hypoxic, mentally sluggish and confused when I lingered above 3,960 feet. The ceiling dropped. Finally, my doctor gave me an ugly name for my worsening problem: emphysema.

I don't ski uphill anymore or climb mountains. Boarding an airplane, I should be lugging an oxygen concentrator. It's still a good life, but very different. It's also expensive. That $200 that I made on the magazine story was long ago dwarfed by the medical bills caused by my smoking. And those stories that caused me to start smoking again? Nobody remembers them except me.

My smoking has parallels with our current struggles over global warming. Twenty years ago, descending Mt. Shasta in late afternoon, I understood the immediate risk of remaining after dark on those steep slopes, when the soft snow had become hard ice for the night. But putting tar into my lungs was only a vague and distant risk. Hadn't I been the first one up the mountain?

Smiley face
Crater Lake

Prisoners of the Present

As a civilization, we're in a similar pickle as we burn fossil fuels profligately, polluting the sky and warming the ocean. The damage isn't evident like a bloodied nose, so we drag out feet, continuing to chug vast quantities of coal, natural gas, and oil.

For every problem, fossil fuels are the answer. Athabascan bitumen will make North American energy independent, make Canada wealthy, and allow people to fly great distances for a few days of merriment at Whistler, Aspen and other resorts.

China, with 1.35 billion people, and India with 1.25 billion, build ever more coal-fired power plants. And who would begrudge them wanting televisions, mountain holidays, and advanced quality of medical care we already enjoy?

We do this despite accumulating evidence. "Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia," the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) reported earlier this year. "The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased."

Scientists are rarely, if ever, 100 per cent sure of anything. Truth is provisional, theories subject to rearrangement to account for new evidence. Look for numerical expressions of confidence. "It is extremely likely (greater than 95 per cent) that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century," says the IPCC.

"It is very likely (greater than 90 per cent probability) that the Arctic sea ice cover will continue to shrink and thin, and that Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover will decrease during the 21st century as global mean surface temperature rises."

The problem, like my smoking 25 years ago, is that the signals are mostly masked by the historic range of variability. Hurricane Katrina in 2005? It nearly levelled New Orleans, but it was within the parameters of past hurricanes. In 2012, a few more scientists were willing to attribute greater intensity to Hurricane Sandy, which flooded the subways of New York City. But hurricanes always have raked the East Coast.

Attribution is difficult. Activists tend to wag their fingers at every hiccup in weather as evidence of global warming, as if no drought, wildfires, and floods ever existed before. Our climatic systems are too complex for such glib assignations.

Often, I am reminded of a remark by Susan Solomon, an atmospheric chemist who was an important figure in identifying the ozone-damaging pollution in the 1980s. At a presentation in 2004, she said that effects of greenhouse gas emissions will mostly become clear only in retrospect.

That puts us in a difficult place. It's a human tendency to wait until the evidence is clear and compelling. But if we delay action to change our energy system until those terrible effects of accumulated greenhouse gases are manifested, it's already too late. It's like waiting to quit smoking until you've been diagnosed with lung cancer.

Unlike my smoking habit, which started out at two packs a day and then slackened to a half-pack, civilization has picked up its pace of carbon puffing. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide stood at 280 parts per million before we began burning coal in large quantities in the 1700s. We were still at only 315 when Charles Keeling began taking measurements high on Mauna Loa, a volcano in Hawaii, in 1958. Last year we bobbled above 400 ppm.

In other words, it took us two and a half centuries to gain 35 ppm. Within my lifetime we've gained 85 ppm.

Here's another statistic to stew over, courtesy of David Hughes, a geoscientist who lives on Cortes Island after spending 32 years with the Canadian Geological Survey: Ninety per cent of all the oil ever consumed has been used since 1961. And, 50 per cent of all consumption has occurred since 1988.

We're not going to run out of oil anytime soon. We may run out of time before carbon dioxide in the atmosphere produces changes beyond our ability to adapt.

Scientists have long used the figure of 450 ppm as the place where major, significant changes occur. They really don't know, however. It could be higher — or lower. The scientist James Hansen has decided that the tipping point for major changes was 350, a level we shot past in the early 1990s.

There's much we don't understand. Has this warming averted a return to the ice age? Possibly. On the other hand, collapse of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets might trigger even larger changes, like a washing machine whose load has shifted out of balance.

So far, the physical record supports climate change theory. The future, however, gets fuzzy in the details. Warmer, but exactly how warm? It depends. Precipitation is a harder call yet. Will Aspen and Vail, Telluride and Park City, gets more snow, or less? Climate models now are ambivalent, little better than a coin flip—although, of course, winters will get shorter, with clear ripples to an industry built on the model of a 100-day season.

Smiley face
Mt Shasta 1995

Withering snowfields

Last summer, I attended the Aspen Renewable Energy Day conference. It drew Ted Turner, Jesse Jackson and T. Boone Pickens. They were gone when Mike Marolt mounted the podium.

Marolt, 48, comes from a family with deep roots in Aspen and skiing. His father, Max, was in Aspen the day the lifts began operating and later competed at the 1960 Olympics. An uncle, Bill, directed the U.S. Ski Team for many years.

The Marolts loved everything about snow — except maybe shovelling, said Mike. They skied through winter. In summer, they sought out the high peaks for lingering snowfields. On July 4, the American holiday, Mike's family drove 19 kilometres from Aspen to the old ghost town of Independence. There, just below treeline, they crossed a river to hike up the snowfields of Fourth of July Bowl.

"There was so much snow that you could use snow bridges to get across the (Roaring Fork) river," he said.

That skiing tradition ended 15 years ago.

"The (variability) in the amount of snow we're getting isn't all that much different, but now when the sun hits the snow, it's so intense," said Marolt. "The peak runoff now comes in a two- or three-week period. How do you explain it other than the science behind global warming? It's just a completely different world than when I grew up here."

Marolt also talked about changes on Castle Peak, a 4,267 metre peak near Aspen. A north-facing vault on the mountain called Montezuma Basin holds snow uncommonly well and once was officially designated as a glacier. When in high school and even into the 1980s, the Marolt boys skied the bowl on Castle Peak every month of the year. Not now.

"Over the past 15 years, the glacier up there is pretty much guaranteed to melt out every year. It used to be beautiful skiing year round," he said. "Now, the snow is gone after June or July."

It's not just Colorado. Marolt and his twin brother, Steve, who are both certified public accounts, became acclaimed extreme skiers. They were the first Americans to climb and ski from 8,000 metres. Without oxygen, porters or altitude drugs, they also skied from above 7,000 metres on Everest.

Mike Marolt says such feats are becoming even more difficult. Snow is being replaced by ice. "It's a case where snow is melting faster than it's accumulating. It is making for an incredibility difficult proposition for climbing," he said.

He expects even greater changes ahead. "The only good news for me is that at my age it isn't going to impact me. But it's going to impact my kids."

Can human-caused global warming be blamed? In the last 11,000 years, Colorado has been both hotter and colder, wetter and drier, the treeline higher and lower — all of this without the stimulus of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Climate, even in stable times, is a bit wobbly.

Yet the IPCC is clear on this point: We're responsible for much of the one degree Centigrade increase in temperature during the last century. The report sees another two degrees C likely — and even much more possible.


Whistler's customers

Arthur De Jong, the mountain manager for Whistler Blackcomb, says he's not worried about the skiing economy falling apart in Whistler soon. Snowfall has actually increased, although hotter summers have shrunk the glaciers atop the ski area. Warming temperatures will make access to lifts more problematic during coming decades as more storms produce rain, instead of snow. The snowline will rise. That can generally be dealt with. Plenty of snow is likely to remain higher on the mountain. And even if skiing should decline substantially, there is always summer — something that Whistler Blackcomb anticipated, at least in part, with its Peak 2 Peak Gondola.

But what about the customers? Warmer global temperatures will produce winners and losers. William Nordhaus, a Yale economist, discusses this at length in his 2013 book, The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty and Economics for a Warming World. He points out that even as temperatures rise, increased burning of fossil fuels can benefit many people in Africa and India because of improved standards of living, including better health care.

In the longer run, however, it doesn't take us to a good place. Challenged water supplies and food production will create geopolitical stresses. Shoreline cities where many of the world's people live will be damaged by the rising oceans. In the short term, shifting our energy sources from carbon will cost us. In the long run, we have no choice. But we are, he says, "prisoners of the present."

From his position in Whistler, De Jong well understands this duel between today and a seemingly distant tomorrow. It's not enough to have snow. You also need customers. Warming may disrupt the economy that produces those customers.

The recession of 2008 showed that even rich people flail in roiling economic waters. Whistler's economy is only as good as the regional, national and international economies. If the world goes to hell in a handbasket, Whistler will be damaged fruit.

But won't warmer temperatures create winners? For example, can't more northerly areas of Canada become food-producing areas?

I posed that question to Cary Fowler, an agriculturalist and former executive director of the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust. He had spoken at Mountainfilm in Telluride, where he had identified climate change as the greatest threat to the agriculture that sustains the world's seven billion people.

But can't you just start planting the crops in Saskatchewan that grew in Nebraska? No, he says, before listing a variety of reasons. It has taken us 10,000 years to develop our agriculture system. It's too inflexible to withstand rapid disruption.


Moral responsibilities

Ski area operators in North America have had varied responses. A few quietly deny the risk of warming. Vail Resorts has asserted that if global warming becomes a problem, skiing is the last thing people will worry about. The Aspen Skiing Co. has urged skiers to become advocates, to "save our winters." The company, taking an activist position, also filed a brief in an important Supreme Court case involving greenhouse gas emissions. That ruling led to the recently announced measures by the Environmental Protection Agency to clamp down on coal-fired emissions.

But there's also a moral element to this. It was expressed well, and often, by John Hickenlooper, when he was still mayor of Denver. (He's now governor of Colorado). "Even if there is only a three per cent chance that 95 per cent of the world's scientists are right that global warming exists, we risk the chance of being the first generation to leave a problem for which there is no solution," he said.

The closest analogue during my lifetime has been the civil rights struggle. When I was a child, Jim Crow laws were still common in some states, designating people as inferior based simply on the color of their skin color and hair type. It took many people, but famously Rosa Parks in 1955, who was arrested after refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. Late one night last October, I drove down those same Alabama streets, thinking about her courage.

Bill McKibben, a writer and activist, has made the most cogent arguments. Two years ago, after crunching the numbers, he concluded that private companies own five times more carbon in the ground than the world can possibly absorb. "On current trajectories, the industry will burn it, and governments will make only small whimpering noises about changing the speed at which it happens," he wrote in an essay titled "A Call to Arms" that was published in the June 8 issue of Rolling Stone.

He identifies a clear problem. "The fossil-fuel industry, by virtue of being perhaps the richest enterprise in human history, has been able to delay effective action, almost to the point where it's too late," he wrote.

McKibben's has been fighting the Keystone XL pipeline, which would export Alberta's bitumen to refineries along the Gulf Coast. It's largely a symbolic fight, as Michael Levi points out in his book The Power Surge. The tar/oil sands would, if fully developed, elevate atmospheric concentrations of C02 by 60 ppm. At current rates of tar/oil sands mining, that would take 3,000 years, he says. Isolating the climate debate to Alberta's bitumen, he says, is a mistake.

But Keystone XL represents business as usual. We need accelerated change. The United States should follow the lead of British Columbia in levying a carbon tax. My impression of B.C.'s tax is that it not precisely the best model. We need a revenue-neutral tax, accelerating over time, giving the private sector clear market signals to instigate changes.

Henry Paulson, the former treasury secretary in the Bush years, made this case in an 1,800-word essay in the New York Times on June 22. A few days later, a group that includes Paulson, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Stanford's George Schultz, who is another former treasury secretary, and a number of other high-profile individuals — including billionaire Tom Steyer — released a report titled "The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States."

Should mountains towns take a stance on such matters? I think so. Global warming is a threat to both of their core missions of business and lifestyle.

Many of the most transformational laws of my lifetime have been adopted only after grassroots action. It took Rosa Parks in Alabama, the Freedom Riders of Mississippi, and Martin Luther King's march on Selma before the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago this September. Within a decade, we also had major national laws addressing air and water quality, but again only after grassroots voices.

Of course, we could dilly-dally another 20 years, waiting for absolute certainty of repercussions from elevating atmospheric pollution. By then, we might be up to 450 ppm. Twenty years ago this spring, just three years before I quit smoking, I skied up Mt. Shasta, much of the day at the front of the pack. Emphysema was the last thing on my mind.

Allen Best publishes an e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which can be found weekly in Pique. He is found at