ASPEN — Forty years ago this spring, Al Gore first felt the magic of the forests around here. He had been honorably discharged from the U.S. Army and decided to motor west from his home in Tennessee.
“I put a tent in the trunk of my Chevrolet Impala and drove to the White River National Forest, no kidding, and camped there,” the former U.S. vice president told a room packed with cultural, scientific and political leaders at the Aspen Institute on Friday night. “In the following years I came back and I’ve been back many times since – not camping – but I have my own relationship with the forests here.”
A lot has changed since then.
While Gore’s passion for the environment helped him ascend to the highest political offices – and earned him a Nobel prize and an Oscar — the forests he loves have plunged into despair no thanks to rising temperatures, poor political will and tiny insects.
Bark beetles consumed more than four million acres of trees in Colorado and southern Wyoming since the mid-1990s, a U.S. Forest Service report declared last month, and scientists blame global warming.
“The linkage these scientists have referred to over and over again with global warming is something some people resist but it’s a fact,” Gore said. “It’s unprecedented and we really have to face up to it.”
The nearly seven-hour symposium in Aspen, entitled “Forests At Risk: Climate Change & the Future of the American West”, had been billed as the first major discussion connecting global climate change to the deteriorating health of forestland in the American West.
It didn’t disappoint.
One speaker after another explained how milder winters have allowed forest-thrashing insects to survive longer and how the extended warmer seasons have allowed the bugs to proliferate faster.
Jim Worrall, a leading authority on climate change for the Forest Service, noted that two years ago in Colorado over a half a million acres, or more than 17 percent of all aspen trees, suddenly began to die.
An extended drought that peaked in 2002 is the primary factor behind sudden aspen decline, he said.
“It was not only very dry but it was also very hot and that’s a bad combination for trees,” Worrall said.
Diane Six, a University of Montana biologist, detailed how the mountain pine beetle began in British Columbia, jumped the Continental Divide and wreaked havoc on trees across the American West.
She pointed out similar trends in other parts of the world, particularly massive tree die-offs in Africa.
The effects of global warming, of course, don’t begin and end with trees.
“Trees are far from the only life form giving us a clear signal,” Gore said. “Thousands of species are reacting to this new reality we have created on the planet.”
He noted rising sea levels, shrinking northern hemisphere snow and ice cover, warming oceans, escalating inland lake temperatures, and other scientific evidence that seem to confirm global warming.
He said other indicators of our sweltering planet include the horrific floods in nations such as Australia and Brazil; devastating wildfires in Russia; a 129-degree Fahrenheit heat wave that saw Mohenjo-daro, Pakistan, break the highest recorded temperature for any city in Asia; and spring flooding in Tennessee.
“Thousands of my neighbors lost their homes and businesses and had no flood insurance because it had never flooded there,” the former Tennessee senator said of the catastrophic Nashville floods last May. “They lived so far outside the flood zone that it was considered absurd to have flood insurance. We have a tendency to confuse the unprecedented with the improbable. If something has never happened in the past, it’s usually a good rule of thumb that it’s not going to happen in the future. But the exceptions can kill you.”
In spite of it all, Gore remains an optimist. More and more, climate change is becoming a front-burner issue for the world’s leaders and children. Future generations, he said, can reverse the planet’s course.
“We have everything we need except political will, but political will is a renewable resource.”