"Energy and global warming news for December 28: Warming-driven beetles massacre The Rockies’ whitebark pines; Paul Krugman on ‘The Finite World’ aka Limits to Growth"
Many dead trees appear gray and red on the high-mountain slopes of Union Pass Bridger in Teton National Forest in Wyoming
The Whitebark pine trees in the high-elevation areas of America’s Northern Rockies have stood for centuries. But these formerly lush evergreen forests are disappearing at an alarmingly fast rate; what remains are eerie stands of red and gray snags.
Warmer climates have sparked an outbreak of a voracious mountain pine beetle that is having devastating consequences for whitebarks and the wildlife that depend on them.
If you want to see how quickly tiny mountain pine beetles are devouring Yellowstone’s majestic whitebark forests, you have to ski uphill “” way uphill. The trees only grow at altitudes higher than 8,500 feet above sea level.
As entomologist Jesse Logan looks up at snow-covered slopes speckled with skeletons of dead trees, he says the massacre is happening faster than even he expected. More than a decade ago, Logan predicted that with global warming, these tiny, ravenous beetles would start to thrive here. At the time, other insect experts were skeptical. But in recent years, winter cold snaps haven’t been nearly as brutal as usual.
“It’s the sort of time in your life that you hope to hell you’re absolutely dead wrong, and it comes to be that you weren’t right enough,” Logan says. “And now I wonder if my grandchild will ever have the experience of being in white bark.”
For background, see:
- Is human-caused climate change killing the great forests of the American West? Montana entomologist on bark beetles: “A couple of degrees warmer could create multiple generations a year. If that happens, I expect it would be a disaster for all of our pine populations.”
- Science: Global warming is killing U.S. trees, a dangerous carbon-cycle feedback
- A 2008 Nature study looked at the beetle’s warming-driven devastation in British Columbia and concluded, “This impact converted the forest from a small net carbon sink to a large net carbon source.“
The NPR story continues:
So what can be done to prevent the whitebarks from dying?
“There’s not any silver bullet or like a pesticide or something we can apply,” Logan says. “That’s just not going to happen. What we can do is begin to address seriously the issue of climate change. That’s what’s really causing this.”
But it’s no easy task getting governments and individuals to make the significant changes necessary to significantly reduce human contributions to global warming.
And the beetles are making it even harder to fight climate change. As the trees they’ve killed decay, they release the carbon dioxide that they’ve been storing into the atmosphere.
Oil is back above $90 a barrel. Copper and cotton have hit record highs. Wheat and corn prices are way up. Over all, world commodity prices have risen by a quarter in the past six months.
So what’s the meaning of this surge?
Is it speculation run amok? Is it the result of excessive money creation, a harbinger of runaway inflation just around the corner? No and no.
What the commodity markets are telling us is that we’re living in a finite world, in which the rapid growth of emerging economies is placing pressure on limited supplies of raw materials, pushing up their prices. And America is, for the most part, just a bystander in this story.
Some background: The last time the prices of oil and other commodities were this high, two and a half years ago, many commentators dismissed the price spike as an aberration driven by speculators. And they claimed vindication when commodity prices plunged in the second half of 2008.
But that price collapse coincided with a severe global recession, which led to a sharp fall in demand for raw materials. The big test would come when the world economy recovered. Would raw materials once again become expensive?
Well, it still feels like a recession in America. But thanks to growth in developing nations, world industrial production recently passed its previous peak “” and, sure enough, commodity prices are surging again….
… commodity prices are set globally, and what America does just isn’t that important a factor.In particular, today, as in 2007-2008, the primary driving force behind rising commodity prices isn’t demand from the United States. It’s demand from China and other emerging economies. As more and more people in formerly poor nations are entering the global middle class, they’re beginning to drive cars and eat meat, placing growing pressure on world oil and food supplies.
And those supplies aren’t keeping pace. Conventional oil production has been flat for four years; in that sense, at least, peak oil has arrived. True, alternative sources, like oil from Canada’s tar sands, have continued to grow. But these alternative sources come at relatively high cost, both monetary and environmental.
Also, over the past year, extreme weather “” especially severe heat and drought in some important agricultural regions “” played an important role in driving up food prices. And, yes, there’s every reason to believe that climate change is making such weather episodes more common.
So what are the implications of the recent rise in commodity prices? It is, as I said, a sign that we’re living in a finite world, one in which resource constraints are becoming increasingly binding. This won’t bring an end to economic growth, let alone a descent into Mad Max-style collapse. It will require that we gradually change the way we live, adapting our economy and our lifestyles to the reality of more expensive resources.
But that’s for the future. Right now, rising commodity prices are basically the result of global recovery. They have no bearing, one way or another, on U.S. monetary policy. For this is a global story; at a fundamental level, it’s not about us.