Last week Senator Max Baucus joined several mainstream environmentalists in adding pine beetle outbreaks to a long list of things that can be blamed on climate change. As Baucus said in a Congress Quarterly report,
Running on the trails by my home in Helena, seeing the red forests destroyed by pine beetles or seeing sustained drought and increased wildfires, we feel the impacts of climate change.”
Baucus is referring to the recent breakout of pine beetles in Montana. These insects bore their way into pine tress and lay their eggs inside the tree; the larvae of the beetles feed off the bark and this eventually kills the trees. The beetles thrive in climates that are dryer and warmer than usual for that region, and this has led environmentalists to link the outbreaks in the Western United States and Canada to climate change; many have called it a climate change catastrophe.
However if we look at the history of outbreaks in the western mountain states, the climate change argument is on very shaky ground. Montana has been hit by pine beetle outbreaks on and off since the 1920s so this is nothing new for the state. An even earlier outbreak is documented from 1894 to 1908 in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Since Co2 concentrations were considerably lower around the turn of the century, it does not follow that a reduction in Co2 will eliminate the pine beetle problem.
According to a recent study done by the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, these outbreaks should not be regarded as a crisis: “There is no evidence to support the idea that current levels of bark beetle or defoliator activity in Colorado’s lodgepole pine and spruce-fir forests are unnaturally high” and that “Historic photos and tree-ring evidence also document extensive insect outbreaks prior to the 20th century.”
Furthermore, there are more factors than just temperature which cause outbreaks of pine beetles. According to Dave Thom, a natural resources specialist with the Black Hills National Forest, the density of the forest is a major contributor,
“As the trees get more dense, they are less able to resist bark-beetle infestations. When you take increasingly dense trees and add the drought, the intersection causes weakened trees that are more susceptible to beetle attack. That phenomenon can happen regardless of a few degrees of change in climate, measured on a global scale.”
These experts reveal that current outbreaks are neither unusual nor preventable by a few degrees of global cooling.
So cap and trade legislation won’t kill the beetles but it will kill the economy of the Western states. According to Ben Lieberman, a Senior Analyst at the Heritage Foundation, many Western states will be hit the hard by cap and trade legislation because their economies rely heavily on energy production and agriculture—two industries that climate change legislation attacks:
Since farming is energy-intensive, that sector will be particularly hard-hit. Higher gasoline and diesel fuel costs, higher electricity costs, and higher natural gas-derived fertilizer costs all erode farm profits, which are expected to drop by 28 percent in 2012 and average 57 percent lower through 2035. […] The disproportionate burdens affect the West. Coal mining will be very hard-hit, so Montana and Wyoming and other coal-producing states will see this important sector of their economies shrink significantly. Western oil and natural gas producers will face higher costs as well. The promise of oil shale in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming will never be realized under Waxman-Markey. As I mentioned, agriculture is hard-hit, and that particularly includes things common in parts of the West that are not well positioned to partially defray their costs by availing themselves of offsets, like ranching on federal lands, fruits and vegetables, and potatoes. And of course the long distances rural Westerners have to drive in the course of each day means that gasoline and diesel price increases hurt them more than other Americans.”
In light of this, let’s hope that the Obama Administration does not move forward with their plans to introduce the “pine beetle” of the American economy.