Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- August 18, 2003

Elegy for a Ponderosa Pine Tree:
Global Warming Hits Home.

August 18, 2003

Ernest Partridge

For over one-hundred and twenty years, it grew atop the ridge in the San Bernardino mountains that was to become our home. For most of those years, this was in a wild and roadless area, occasionally visited by loggers, but mostly unsettled.  In mid-life, it was struck by lightning, and thereafter grew outward in a manner atypical of pine trees. At the base, it achieved a diameter approaching three feet.

This magnificent specimen was the most striking and attractive feature of our front yard, when we purchased the house six years ago. From the deck at the rear of the house, we found still more pines of similar stature, and a spectacular view of an adjacent ridge, the high desert, and on a clear day, the southern extremities of the Sierras.

Two weeks ago our pine tree was cut down, along with all the ponderosas in the back lot.

In all, we lost eight pine trees – and we were among the lucky ones. Many of our neighbors were obliged to cut down dozens of trees on their property. We were so obliged, not merely by prudence, but also by the force of law.

Now the shade, wind-breaks, and forest ambiance that made our mountain home so attractive are gone.

These trees, and hundreds of thousands more in the San Bernardino mountains, are the victims of an infestation of bark beetles. The slopes of our mountains, once solid green, are now patched with the brown corpses of once-healthy trees, and day-by-day, those patches expand as still more pines fall victim to the beetles. The experts project that eventually few ponderosas, the dominant tree species, will survive, and we will be left with the cedars and oaks.

Worst of all for us mountain residents, we are in extreme danger of a catastrophic fire and will remain so until the dry needles fall from the trees, and most of the dead trees are “harvested.” And so we have carefully marked our escape routes, while overhead, almost daily, Forest Service helicopters constantly patrol the mountains.

Blame it on the beetles? Not entirely. Like most ecological horror stories, the plot is complicated, and the precipitating causes difficult to determine with assurance.

Bark beetles are natural enemies of ponderosa pine trees, and so the trees have evolved a defense. When attacked, a healthy tree will drive out the invaders with a flow of resin. The beetles survive by selectively attacking old, injured and diseased trees. 

But these are not ordinary conditions. Our mountains, indeed our entire region, has suffered from a prolonged drought. Deprived of water, the trees produce less pitch and thus become defenseless. The beetle population, with a seemingly endless food supply, exploded, with the devastating result that we see all about us.

But whence the drought? Now our speculations become less certain. Quite possibly, global warming has redirected the Pacific Ocean currents enough to steer “normal” precipitation away from our mountains. Our trees can survive occasional droughts. But if the drought is a precursor of a new, more arid “normality” then, to put the matter bluntly, these pines no longer “belong” here in this new climate. The beetles might merely be doing “nature’s work” by speeding the departure of the trees. The eventual result of the new climate may be a succession of these lush, green forested mountain slopes by the kind of bare brown wastelands that characterize the mountains of the Mojave Desert, just a few miles to the north-east of us.

Did global warming kill my ponderosa pine tree? We’ll never know for sure. Had there been no man-made greenhouse effect on the atmosphere, it might have survived. But this is what logicians call a “contra-factual hypothesis,” a supposition of “what might have been” – notoriously difficult or even impossible to prove.

The pine forest of the San Bernardino mountains may be what epidemiologists call a “statistical casualty” of global warming. Though virtually all climate scientists accept the fact of global warming (with the exception of those employed by fossil fuel industries and PR flacks for Bush’s EPA), the involvement of global warming in particular cases can be controversial. Its like smoking and health. Except for a few industry and political “science-whores,” all informed independent scientists agree that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. But there are other causes of lung cancer. Thus while we can be certain that many individuals in general contract lung cancer due to smoking, we can never be certain that a particular case of lung cancer was caused by the individual’s smoking habit. This specific uncertainty is how the tobacco industry has successfully won numerous law suits over the years. The industry was eventually nailed by the claim by individual states of generalized damage to their health care systems. The movie, “The Insider,” tells the story brilliantly. (See Section IV of my “With Liberty for Some”).

Of this we can be sure: global warming will have harmful and possibly catastrophic affects upon the global economy and human civilization. Some catastrophes will be totally unrelated to climate change: e.g., earthquakes and asteroid impacts. But anything at all to do with weather, climate, and by extension of ecosystems – which means virtually every other terrestrial phenomenon – may to some degree be affected by anthropogenic climate change. If not my pine trees, then certainly something else – be it the heat waves, earlier in India and now in Europe, the introduction of tropical diseases in the southern United States, the shrinking alpine and continental glaciers, rising sea levels, etc. And there is very much worse to come.

Personally, I blame global warming for the loss of my pine trees.

What the political Panglosses (rarely scientists, disproportionately neo-classical economists) never tire of telling us, is that human ingenuity will solve any difficulties that might arise from global warming. Thus, typically, the late economist, Julian Simon, observes:

... no threatening trend in human welfare has been connected to [global warming]... It may even be that a greenhouse effect would benefit us on balance by warming some areas we'd like warmer, and by increasing the carbon dioxide to agriculture... [Moreover], we now have large and ever-increasing capabilities to reverse such trends if they are proven to be dangerous, and at costs that are manageable. (N. Myers and J. Simon, Scarcity or Abundance, 1994, Norton, pp. 18-19).

And two British writers (a philosopher and an economist) thus dismiss global warming: “the worst that one recent study of the effect of climate change on the region of Britain could come up with was the possible need for longer tea breaks for employees.”  (Beckerman and Pasek, Justice, Posterity, and the Environment, Oxford, 2001, p. 179).

Such ill-informed critics tend to think of “global warming” as akin to turning up the thermostat in a house – everything warms up uniformly. No problem. Just buy more air conditioners. End of story.

Trouble is, one can’t “air condition” an entire ecosystem (such as a forest), or an agricultural region such as the central valley of California, or the grain belt of the Midwest.

Still worse, many economists, who are geniuses in “systems theory” as it applies to their own discipline, fail to understand that the global atmosphere is a system – a set of dynamically interactive components, such that interferences with parts resound throughout the entire system.  (The butterfly’s wing causing a typhoon, and all that.  For more about systems, see Section 3 of my “Reconstructing Ecology”). Accordingly, a warming of the planetary atmosphere as a whole can cause catastrophic cooling in local regions. For example, some scientists have projected that the decreased salinity of the surface of the North Atlantic due to glacier and ice-cap melting in the Arctic, combined with sea-level rising and a consequent deepening of the Davis and Denmark Straits (east and west of Greenland), may sufficiently affect the Gulf Stream to bring about in Great Britain and Northern Europe, a climate similar to that of their longitudinal opposite, Labrador. The grain belts may migrate north, leaving deserts behind: a disaster for the American mid-west and a boon to Canada and Siberia.

We can only guess at the consequences of global warming, and only be sure that many of these consequences will be unexpected and most of them harmful. Possibly as catastrophic as the Yucatan asteroid of sixty million years ago, that ended the Age of the Dinosaurs. (See George Monbiot’s “With Eyes Wide Shut”).

This calls for energetic and inspired leadership, combined with a full-scale program of public education and activism. Nothing could be further from the minds and policies of the Bushistas. 

Is the Earth’s atmosphere becoming warmer?  Without a doubt. Did global warming doom the pines of the San Bernardino mountains? Of this, and other particular cases, we can not be certain.  This suffices for the Bushevik spin-doctors, whose “logic” follows this sequence: “we are not certain about this specific manifestation of global warming, ergo global warming does not exist, ergo we continue with business (“the awl bidnis”) as usual.” Straight out of the Philip Morris manual of public relations sophistry.

But then, Dubya has always said that he wanted to run government like a business.

Copyright 2003, by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .