“Luckily, though, there are still a few guys around who will look you straight in the eye and say, eloquently and to the point, ‘It’s been too goddamned hot for too long and the river has gone off.’” — John Gierach, Sex, Death, and Fly-Fishing
I cut my fly fishing teeth on John Gierach, and when he first published those words back in 1990, it all seemed innocent enough. Sure, ’88 was a hot son-of-a-gun, and the legendary waters around Yellowstone were beaten up by the heat in ways that nobody back then ever anticipated. Still, it seemed like an anomaly. Weather does crazy stuff. Some years are wet, others are dry; some are hot, some are cold, and some, on those occasions when the fishing gods happen to smile down from on high, are classic ‘Goldilocks' just right. That’s how it always worked, and nobody I knew back in the early ‘90s ever considered that things might end up differently.
Fast forward to 2014, though, and any mention of extreme weather starts to sound ominous.
“Fluctuations in the weather used to be just that, but now, with everyone looking over their shoulders at global climate change, there’s the fear that any extreme could become the new normal. And when you guide fishermen for a living, the thought of your rivers drying up is the stuff of nightmares.”
That’s Gierach again, from his book All Fishermen Are Liars, and he frames our current reality in language that’s awfully hard to ignore. So what is the truth about climate change? What is the “new normal” - and how will it impact us as anglers?
First, let’s define exactly what’s happening. Greenhouse gasses, which we produce when we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, are changing the earth’s energy balance. As our CO2 levels increase, less of the sun’s energy is reflected back into space, while more of it warms our atmosphere and our oceans. Over time, the planet heats up - which is why climate change is also referred to as global warming.
If it helps, you can think of CO2 as the goose down in your down jacket. It turns out a little goose down goes a long way toward keeping us warm & cozy. At the same time, when we add even more down, we hold in more heat. Scientists have known about the heat-trapping properties of greenhouse gasses like CO2 and methane since the 1800s. It’s basic physics.
So what are our scientists saying about global warming? While there are any number of questions that still need to be answered, and complexities that still need to be sorted out, approximately 97% of our climate scientists agree that:
- The earth is warming.
- People are responsible.
- We’re putting our future at risk.
Our National Academy of Sciences, which is considered the gold standard when it comes to science, has called human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change a “settled fact.” They’ve also stated: “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems.” In case that isn’t clear enough, they added, “Emissions continue to increase, which will result in further change and greater risks.”
Which wouldn’t be such a big problem if we didn’t see the impacts of those rising temperatures right out our front door. On average, our summers are getting hotter, our winters are getting warmer, our storms are getting stronger and our sea levels are rising. Depending on where you live, that may translate into less snow, earlier runoff, hotter heat waves, more extreme droughts, dying forests, bigger wildfires, more intense rainfall events, more flooding, the spread of disease and invasive species, habitat loss, species extinction …
It’s a whole Pandora’s Box of weather-related afflictions, and none of it is good for fish - or for anglers.
Which, as you may have guessed, leaves us between a rock and a hard place. There’s really no way to roll back the warming that’s already occurred, or to keep the planet from continuing to heat up over the next few decades. Fortunately, though, there’s still time to avoid the catastrophic problems on the horizon.
Bottom line, if we’re going to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, then we have to kick our addiction to fossil fuels and move toward clean, renewable energy. We also - and this is absolutely vital - need to start speaking up. If we don’t raise a little hell, it’s hard to see how we’ll ever change the status quo, or how our politicians will ever say “No!” to Big Coal and Big Oil.
Global warming sucks. There’s really no other way to look at it. It’s a huge, difficult issue that was dumped into the partisan meat-grinder and came out smelling like catfish bait. But that doesn’t mean we can afford to ignore it. Last fall, researchers from the University of Hawaii looked at all the latest climate projections and announced that, with a business-as-usual approach, we have perhaps 35 years left before the average location on the planet shifts to a radically different climate.
In other words, if we don’t get our act together and do something about our CO2 emissions, we’re likely to lose most, or even all, of our fishing.
Here the truth of it. I love to fish. I love it. I love to wade deep into cold, clear water, and I love to cast dry flies for rising trout, and I love the mountains and rivers and forests that make western Montana, where I live, so incredibly special.
I should also point out that I have a 9 year old son who hasn’t done anything - not one damn thing - to deserve a world torn apart by climate change.
If we want to hold on to our fishing, and if we want to share our favorite places - our trout streams and bonefish flats and steelhead rivers - with future generations, then we need to tackle climate change now, while we still have a chance. As the distinguished climate scientist Lonnie Thompson said recently, “Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.”
That’s right. Our scientists, who “are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies,” are convinced that “global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.”
We’ve messed around long enough. Everything we care about is at risk. It’s time to get serious about kicking our fossil fuel addiction and making the switch to clean, renewable energy.
Todd Tanner is an outdoor writer, a former fly fishing guide, and the president of Conservation Hawks. To learn more about climate change and its impacts on sportsmen, please visit ConservationHawks.org.