What Are We Really Talking About When We Discuss Climate Change?

Imagine you are a traveler on a good horse, in eastern Kansas, 1854. It's a warm early summer day, the scrub oaks full of birdsong, the road not yet dusty under your horse's hooves. At a ford on Potawatomie Creek, you meet a band of rough-looking men, riding skinny mules. They tote a variety of weapons, knives and dirks, a pepperbox jammed into a rope used as a belt. They smile. The oldest, a bearded man in an old slouch hat, Sharp's cavalry rifle in his left hand, rides up directly to the water's edge, blocking you from crossing. He grins, the black stumps of teeth in his gums glistening. "So, friend," he says, "How do you stand on the goose?"

If you are smart, you'll kick your horse and make a run for it.

The phrase "I am sound on the goose" is 1850s Kansas code for saying that you are in favor of slavery, and of Kansas becoming a slave-owning state. Since both pro-slavery and abolitionists had their murderous militias in Kansas at the time, there was no safe answer to the question, "How do you stand on the goose?"

I tell this little story because, after reading Todd Tanner's post on climate change, and the excellent work of my friend Bill Geer, I couldn't get the goose-question out of my mind. In Montana or Alabama (the two places I know best), spring of 2011, the question of whether you "believe" in human-caused climate change is much like the goose-question. It no longer means exactly what it asks. The person who asks it is not prompting a discussion of what can done, or what the effects of climate change might be. They are, simply, asking if you are a conservative, or a liberal.

Which is a shame. For a lot of years now, I've ignored the question altogether, even as I have watched the climate in the world-- or at least the parts of it that I know well-- change pretty dramatically:

I've hiked off of Mt. St. Nicholas in Glacier Park across gravel flats that are shown as glaciers on maps that are only 25 years or so old.

I've swam comfortably in Lake McDonald, which used to require a kind of Canadian tolerance for icy water to dive into for a few seconds.

Watching the television this fall in Alabama, the weather man said that "frosts are about on time this year, right around Halloween," and my jaw dropped. The opening of the Alabama bow season in the late 1970s and 80s was October 17th, and that was almost always the week of the first frosts.

Then again, like a lot of people reading this, my family has just endured one of the most trying winters anybody can remember. Days of 27 below zero, nights of 30 below, strung end on end. Until the big chinooks came in this weekend, I was looking at a snowdrift that came up to the windowsill, and piles of snow eight feet high on the streetcorners. My kids and I joked that soon there would be mammoths instead of elk on the range west of town. Only the toughest and smartest of the big game animals around here will live to enjoy the springtime sun.

As a thinking, observing, sometimes half-frozen human being, I wonder how such a winter could fit in with the notion of global warming. But I have been taught, too, that one bad winter does not a climate make. And I was in Alabama, rebuilding a tractor shed, all during last August, when we broke the record for the number of hottest consecutive days and the warmest consecutive nights.

But this is just anecdotal evidence, right? Any of us who spend most of their time outside can think of a thousand such anecdotes, from northward fire ant marches to all-time summer highs in streamwater temperatures.

I've become convinced that there's no way to "tackle global climate change." It's too big of a subject, and it has become too political. And we don't have to argue about it anymore.

But if we can just stand together and start working for the things that we agree on, we will have a tremendous effect. Instead of the sound and the fury that accomplishes nothing, we can make the nation ring with the more humble music of the hammers and saws of innovation, pragmatism and the enforcement of established laws.

For example, we don't have to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants because some people are afraid of sea-level rise. We already know that mercury from coal-fired power plants is accumulating in our fisheries. The greatest of our sport and food fish are increasingly contaminated with enough methyl mercury that we're not supposed to eat them with our children, or our pregnant wives, or eat too many of them, ever.

If self-sufficiency is the first requirement of freedom, being able to take some of your family's food from the land and waters seems like a basic right. Read any of the fish consumption advisories issued over the years and see if you don't agree that this is a serious problem: http://www.fda.gov/food/foodsafety/product-specificinformation/seafood/foodbornepathogenscontaminants/methylmercury/ucm115662.htm

We don't have to poison our own fish resources, because we already know how to achieve reductions in mercury and other emissions from those plants. We already know (and so do our nation's leaders) that coal, even though it is a powerful source of energy, cannot be the fuel of the American future. We have to develop alternatives that have fewer external costs to our lungs, waters, and our lands.

We already know that intact forests and grasslands soak up carbon dioxide. We also know that they provide great hunting, protect watersheds from runoff and pollution, control floods (all of which protects fishing and fisheries), and can provide sustainable timber and grazing, and provide a sanctuary for wildlife and human beings. None of this is a new discovery--we've known about it at least since George Perkins Marsh wrote Man and Nature in 1864.

That is why Americans created the mechanisms-- Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, tax incentives for conservation, habitat acquisition, and best-management forestry practices, to name a few. And those mechanisms work, as long as they are adequately funded. It makes no sense to me to storm off on grandiose, nebulous, and politically impossible schemes to control carbon dioxide while we are letting our actual, in-place, effective mechanisms for addressing climate change and everything else we all value, be defunded and rendered useless.

If I see you down at Tongue River Reservoir or Wheeler Dam this summer, I won't ask you whether you believe in anthropogenic global climate change. I might ask you if you are worried about eating those pretty stripers in your ice chest, or why gas to get here just keeps getting more and more expensive every day, and how we seem to be waiting around for some Plan B that nobody in our country is working on. We can talk about the future of our kids, and the real economy that we need to build, the one where we have clean air and water and jobs and don't have to break out in a sweat every time some oil-producing country goes into turmoil.

That's how we'll talk about global climate change, until the fish start hitting again.

I definitely won't ask you about the goose. That was a question that we really couldn't agree on, and it was settled in a terrible way. With the question of global climate change, almost all of us actually agree on the solutions. We just haven't realized that yet.