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Rob Byers: Climate change on the hilltop

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There's a tall pine tree near my driveway that needs to come down.Its death seemed sudden for a mature tree. Only about a year ago, I noticed the first brown needles, 60 feet up, at the tip of its crown. Today, all of its needles are gone, and strips of bark litter the ground.I can't say I'm surprised it's gone. In the 10 years that I've lived on my latest little plot of Almost Heaven, I've stayed busy sawing down each year's crop of spindly skeletons.My neighbor often helps me, and as we work we commiserate about the die-off on his several acres and my adjoining three.You could say that I'm in touch with nature. My critics will, of course, say tree hugger. But, as with the land where I was raised, I feel like I know every tree and shrub in the woods that surround my house -- and I know that they are not well.To me, my hilltop is a microcosm. It's my up-close-and-personal view of our changing climate.The trees are dying for several reasons. They are, as always, under siege by disease and pollution, but more recently they are victims of an ugly cocktail of stressors. New insects have moved in, welcomed by the warming winters. Invasive vines, emboldened by the new climate, move farther and farther up the mountains, strangling young trees in their path.The periods of drought we've suffered over the past several years have forced plants and trees to shift resources to survive. Eventually, they succumb to diseases they can no longer fight.The missing trees leave plenty of room for the invasive species that take their places, and the fallen timber turns the forest floor into a tinderbox.
A few years ago, after spending the Easter weekend with relatives, my family and I returned to find the forest behind our house a blackened wasteland as far as the eye could see, full of smoldering stumps, wisps of smoke and empty turtle shells.Then, of course, there are the tree-felling storms fueled by the warming atmosphere -- the ones where I hear myself saying, "In all of my 40-some years, I have never seen ..." You can fill in the blank: hailstones that huge; winds that strong; hurricanes that ferocious.My children are young. What does it say that they've already seen some of the worst weather that I've ever witnessed?When they are my age, will they, too, be describing hail and winds and droughts like none they have ever seen? If so, can we in this day and age even imagine what kind of hell storms like that will unleash?I worry about their generations, about what they will have to endure because of what we have or haven't done.
I have little patience for climate change deniers, for the people who use every cold day as an excuse to stick their heads in the sand.Often, their motives are so obviously financial that I wonder if, deep down inside, they truly believe the words coming out of their mouths. I wonder if they have children or grandchildren -- and if they do, if they simply don't give much thought to the lives of those kids down the road.For every wishy-washy politician in industry's back pocket, for every right-wing editorial writer or blogger who feels it is their duty to smirk their way through another denial piece, for every armchair climate scientist, we are one day of idleness deeper into this problem. I suppose I'm writing this column so that maybe one day, decades from now, my kids or grandkids -- dealing with more vicious storms, deadlier droughts and more people fleeing the coasts -- will find these dusty words and realize that I was trying to be a part of the long-term solution rather than a devotee of the here and now.The reality of climate change is all around us. If you listen, you can hear it through the trees.Byers is the Gazette's executive editor.
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