Former Vice President Al Gore: “Climate change is a moral issue … and a fundamental challenge to our civilization”
By Bob Berwyn
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SUMMIT COUNTY — Scientists from across all disciplines said climate change is devastating Earth’s forests at an alarming rate, and former Vice President Al Gore capped the Feb. 18 series of presentations at the Aspen Institute at with a call to action, calling global warming a moral issue that demands a response. Click here to read a story about some of the global research.
“What right does our generation have to impose this burden on future generations,” Gore asked in his keynote talk at a forest symposium aimed at showing the link between building concentrations of greenhouse gases and alarming reports of dying trees from every continent.
“Global warming is a challenge to the existence of our civilization, and we have to address the root cause,” he said. “Scientists are unanimous worldwide. They are screaming from the rooftops, that this is unprecedented and we have to act, he said,” adding that it’s an insult to suggest that researchers have a financial motive for ringing the global warming alarm bells.
The short and focused lectures started with Colorado-based researcher Jim Worrall, who has spent the past few years mapping the spread of sudden aspen decline in southwestern Colorado. While the die-back has slowed, Worrall said the tree mortality — stunning in its suddenness — happened in exactly those areas where it was to be expected under climate change projections.
The aspens ultimately died of secondary causes, including insect infestations and other external pathogens, but the root cause appears to be an unprecedented spell of hot and dry weather, capped by the historic 2002 drought.
Cautious, as most scientist are, Worrall said it’s not yet possible to determine a direct causal link between the mortality and climbing temperatures, but that there is a great body of circumstantial evidence pointing in that direction.
“If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck … I would say yes, it’s a harbinger of climate change,” he said.
And given the projected increases in temperature, Worrall said it’s very likely Colorado will see more of the same, as he showed a series of maps delineating how suitable habitat for aspen will shrink dramatically in the coming decades. The die-back won’t happen at a steady gradual rate, but in spurts, as global climate change manifests itself in more severe droughts and hot spells, he explained.
Loss of aspens will have a ripple effect through other ecosystems, since the trees provide the most diverse wildlife habitat in the region and play a key role in attenuating runoff, he concluded.
Climate change is also inexorably changing the high-elevation subalpine landscape of the Rockies, where mountain pine beetles have worked their way into vast stands of whitebark pines, the dominant trees across a big chunk of the range in northern Colorado and Wyoming. Unlike ponderosa and lodgepole pines, which can sometimes resist the beetle invasion, whitebarks didn’t evolve with the insects, and they have no defensive mechanism.
“We don’t think whiltebark pine is coming back,” said Montana-based entomologist Diana Six. “It’s going to be a permanent alteration of the subalpine landscapes,” she added.
Six also does research on iconic giant Euphorbia trees in South Africa, and together with a colleague has established a startling record of tree mortality linked with temperature patterns, while another piece of the puzzle was completed by Phillip van Mantgem, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist who outlined a long-term research project at 76 study plots in old-growth forest across the West.
Background tree mortality rates were increasing steadily at 87 percent of the sites, he said, explaining that trees of all ages, at all elevations and of every species type were dying faster than they can reproduce. Essentially, forests are losing the capacity to replenish themselves, he said, adding the research shows good correlation with climate change data.
Gore finished his segment of the program with a Q &A segment with NPR’s Morning Edition cohost Renee Montagne, calling on a sustained public effort to tackle climate change systematically, and he also took aim at the fossil fuel industry for blocking attempts to legislate meaningful measures.
“Powerful interests find global warming facts to be inconvenient,” he said, explaining that the industry has launched an all-out and well-funded effort to discredit scientists and cast doubt about scientific findings. He challenged Americans to address climate changes with a long-term vision, similar to the Marshall Plan rebuilding of Europe after World War II.
“There are 12 12 independent lines of scientific evidence showing human-caused and there is no credible scientific evidence to the contrary,” he concluded.