We’ve partnered with The Lands Council to bring more perspectives on the environment and climate change in the Inland Northwest.
Often, when we talk about preparing for climate change, or lessening its most tragic potential effects, the argument is framed as the earth vs. the economy. This is the wrong framing. Climate change is happening, and especially in an area like the Inland Northwest — where so much of our economy depends on thriving forests, consistent growing seasons, and predictable rain and snowfall — failing to build a more resilient economy tied to the changing realities of our ecosystem dooms both our local environment and community.
“What can I do to ensure that the Inland Northwest and my community at large is resilient to climate change?” That question has been at the forefront of my mind for years. Often, I find myself examining this question, considering it from all angles. Lately though, with deafening whispers of an impending recession, the question has become: “What is my community, the Inland Northwest and our state and federal government doing to be economically prepared for climate change?”
I’m not an economist. I’m a naturalist and environmental scientist, so I often look to nature to find answers to my questions. If we want to know what adaptations are needed for our economy to be resilient to climate change, we can look first at how nature achieves resilience.
Resilience is the ability to keep functioning in the face of disturbances. Climate change is sure to bring many unexpected disturbances, but there are some climate change disturbances we can predict. And what we can predict, we can plan for.
In the Pacific Northwest, climate change doesn’t just mean temperature increases, it also means a change in the hydrologic cycle — the timing and volume of precipitation. Climate scientists predict less precipitation overall, and more of that precipitation falling as rain than snow, meaning it isn’t stored on the landscape for as long. This has serious implications for urban planning as we expect Spokane and our surrounding region will deal with more runoff and less snowfall.
It also has major implications for our region’s forests. Inland Northwest forests will be drier in the future, which will bring higher wildfire risk and insect predation. Thirsty trees are weak trees, after all, and are more susceptible to insect invasion. These predictable changes to forest health could significantly affect timber revenue and biofuel markets in the Inland Northwest. Creating resilient rural economies in areas that rely on timber revenue requires reimagining how the timber economy can support both healthy forests and communities.
Resilient rural economies can also help steward resilient forests. Studies show that forest thinning can reduce high severity forest fires in low severity systems like the drier, less-dense forests we see east of the Cascades. This reality isn’t currently reflected in regulations around local forest health. Many of the Forest Service thinning guidelines used in eastern Washington are taken from scientific research on the westside, where more natural precipitation gives way to denser forests. To better conserve forest resources for the future we need place-based solutions that consider the ecology and economy of eastern Washington.
Forestry isn’t the only part of our region’s economy that will see drastic changes as the climate changes. Local agriculture will also be vulnerable as seasons shift and extreme weather — like late-spring cold snaps and mid-summer heat waves — become more frequent and intense. Figuring out how to adapt to these changes again requires that we consider our relationship with the environment as well as the impact these changes will have on farmworkers and vulnerable communities on the frontlines of climate change.
There are so many questions to ask about how our region will adapt to climate change. Can rural communities be economically prepared for the drier and more fiery forests of the future? What about how changes in seasons impact farming? How are heat waves displacing already vulnerable populations?
With these questions, and so many more, The Lands Council called on leaders around the state to help us understand what actions are being taken to build a more resilient future.