Perspective: March 29, 2017

The Idaho Legislature has punted the climate change teaching standard back to the state’s classroom teachers. Somewhere, my mother is smiling. More on this in a moment.

The legislature’s February 9 vote capped more than a year of teacher-led fact finding, as well as public hearings hosted by the State Department of Education and a subcommittee of the State Board of Education.

That such an arduous process was even necessary underscores the mean-spirited debate surrounding our changing climate and the still disputed claim that Earth’s atmospheric temperature is rising at an unprecedented and dangerous rate.

The disagreement is between scientists who believe Earth’s temperature is rising and those who think a long-term cooling cycle is underway. The history here is too long to be reduced to a few paragraphs, but as a forestry journalist, I have frequently reminded readers that fast-growing trees are our best natural allies in the battle to reduce carbon dioxide loading in our atmosphere – CO2 emissions being the main culprit in atmospheric warming.

FYI, trees absorb CO2 and give off oxygen. The process, called “photosynthesis,” is powered by the free, non-polluting energy of the sun. The end-product is wood, the only structural building material on Eartha that is renewable, recyclable and biodegradable. Good stuff in our greening world.

Writers are born skeptics, so the hysteria about melting glaciers, starving polar bears, earthquakes, superstorms, megafires and climate deniers who should be jailed doesn’t excite me nearly as much as the long slog to learn more about what makes our Earth tick. It’s the work done by the non-hysterical that doesn’t make headlines, but does yield benefits that improve our daily lives. Here I think of the ridiculously underfunded work done by the faithful at the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory at Madison, Wisconsin.

Yes, our climate is changing. It always is. In recent years, winters here in northern Idaho have been downright balmy – until this winter. We got hammered. It took me back to my boyhood in Kellogg. Five feet of snow on the level was nothing.

If you are truly interested in tracking long term climate trends, Google “Tree Ring Research” at the University of Arizona. You will find data sets that track climate trends in reverse more than 2,000 years. The warming and cooling cycles have lasted anywhere from 175 to 350 years, with mini-warming and cooling periods embedded in the longer cycles.

It’s fascinating stuff, not unlike my earlier reading about the redwoods that grew inside the Arctic Circle some 60 million years ago. Redwoods grow in very moist and mild climates, so way back when there was no polar ice cap. And then there was one and the damned thing crept south into the Pacific Northwest. At Libby, Montana it was a thousand feet thick. How warm must if have been at the top of the world before the Arctic ice cap began to form?

The very visible glacial cirque at the south end of Flathead Lake, overlooking Big Arm, Montana is one of the largest such geological formations on Earth. Composed of rocks and gravel left behind by receding ice, it rises more than 1,500 feet above lake level. You can see the same expanse atop the National Bison Range, south of Ronan, Montana. It stretches northward all the way to Big Mountain, north of Whitefish. The view is spectacular, as are the ever-present elk and buffalo herds.

And then there was the torrent of water released from ancient Lake Missoula when an ice jam broke on the Clark Fork River near Sandpoint, Idaho some 10,000 years ago. The lake covered most of western Montana to a depth of more than 1,000 feet. The ensuing flood – the largest in Earth’s history – is thought to have carved the Columbia River Gorge. Viewed from 35,000 feet, you can see the alluvial fans of rich soil stretching westward from Spokane, Washington. Montana soil, growing wheat, apples, grape vines, potatoes, watermelons and vegetables in Washington and Oregon.

Mount Mazama in southern Oregon and Mount St. Helens in southwest Washington returned the favor [St. Helens in 1980 and Mazama about 7,700 years ago], sending millions of tons of phosphorous-rich ash into the atmosphere. It drifted back to Earth in eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana, where today we enjoy a forest bounty of enormous economic and environmental importance to all of us.

The point here being that not every presumed natural disaster turns out to be so disastrous, so a little more humility and a little less by-god certainty would be helpful. Take a deep breath and Google the late Dennis Avery and read his stuff on how modest increases in atmospheric temperatures add millions of acres of arable land to Earth’s surface, increasing our ability to feed and clothe the poorest among us.

I mentioned my mother in my opening paragraph. She taught English to junior high kids in Idaho and Montana for 42 years, 32 in Kellogg, where I grew up. In the early 70s, long after I graduated from high school, Idaho legislators decided that teaching “The Diary of Anne Frank” was too traumatic for junior high sensitivities, so they struck her diary from the state’s history curriculum guide.

My mother, who was her own tour d’ force, thought it was wrong, so she added Anne Frank to her recommended reading list. She taught Anne’s prophetic diary and its meaning to her eighth graders until she retired in 1982.

Now that the Idaho Legislature has left the contentious climate change issue in the hands of classroom teachers – where it belongs – I suspect many teachers will keep the debate alive by exposing their students to it. That is as it should be, but for heaven’s sake, let’s teach these kids how to think critically. The hysteria that has engulfed the climate change debate has no place in world that depends on natural resources for its every lifegiving comfort and necessity.

Jim Petersen

Founder and President

The Evergreen Foundation