Percentage increase in wildfire area burned. Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Tuesday he has “serious reservations” about climate legislation unveiled by his Democratic colleagues, signaling trouble for a proposal that is stronger in certain respects than a bill passed by the House.

In an effort to inject drama and conflict into a hearing that lack both, the Washington Street Journal and other media outlets trumpeted the fact that Baucus said he thought Boxer’s proposed bill was too strong.

In fact, it’s obvious to everyone else that one couldn’t get 60 votes for Boxer’s bill and the final bill is going to be different (see Breakthrough Senate climate partnership: Graham (R-S.C.) and Kerry (D-Mass.) join forces and assert they are “convinced that we have found both a framework for climate legislation to pass Congress“).  The WSJ story never mentioned this fact, but ominously writes, “Supporters of the climate proposal can ill afford to lose any Democratic votes in the Senate, given stiff Republican opposition.”  Baucus himself said (full remarks at the end):

I support passing common-sense climate legislation that reduces greenhouse gas emissions while protecting our economy. And the key word in that sentence is “passing.”

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So Baucus will be voting for the final bill.

One part of the media focused on the real story that Montanans are increasingly concerned about:  Climate change is already hitting their state hard now and is poised to devastate it utterly.  American Public Media’s Marketplace has be done a terrific multipart series on climate change, which can be accessed here, along with a map of how different regions of the country are being affected now and how they are likely to be hit in the future.

The first piece “Climate change in our own backyards,” tells the amazing story of the warming-driven bark beetle infestation around Helena.  And yes, this is the same exact story that the NYT screwed up in July (see “Signs of global warming are everywhere, but if the New York Times can’t tell the story (twice!), how will the public hear it?“).

The figure above is from a major recent study, which projects a staggering increase in “wildfire activity and carbonaceous aerosol concentrations in the western United States” — “with the forests of the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains experiencing the greatest increases of 78 percent and 175 percent respectively” by 2050.  The graph “shows the percentage increase in area burned by wildfires, from the present-day to the 2050s,” if we only see an “average global warming of 1.6 degrees Celsius (3 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050.”  If we don’t start reducing emissions sharply — sharper than Baucus wants — the U.K. Met Office says the plausible worst-case is 13-18 degrees F warming over most of U.S. by 2060. Montana would be an inferno.

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You can see how serious Marketplace is about getting the climate story right from the very first words of Kai Ryssdal (audio and transcript here):

Marketplace sustainability reporters Sam Eaton and Sarah Gardner have been out the past couple weeks exploring the reality of global warming right here in the United States. They’ve come back into the studio to tell us, and each other, about what they found. Sarah?

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SARAH GARDNER: Thanks, Kai. So Sam let’s start with the “what is.” The changes that rising temperatures are already causing.

SAM EATON: Yeah, and I think a lot of people would be surprised. I talked to dozens of people over the past few weeks and there’s this one interview I did that’s really stuck with me. I was in Helena, Montana, where residents are getting a taste of climate change in their own backyards. Their forests are dying.

This is a woman named Diane Tipton.

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DIANE TIPTON: I grew up with this landscape. This always was my home and my heart, and I always knew that no matter how crazy things got out in the big world there was this place, this special place in Montana that I could come back to. And it never occurred to me that it could be so transformed in such a short period of time.

SAM: We’re going to hear from more people in Helena in just a minute.

SARAH: OK, but first let’s take a second to sum up what scientists are telling us about climate change:

There’s wide agreement that the planet is warming. And scientists can say with near certainty that the culprit is us — or rather, our burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil.

They’re also telling us that temperatures are higher and we’re warming faster than at any time since we’ve been keeping temperature records — that’s almost 160 years. In fact, in my own lifetime, average temperatures in this country have gone up more than 2 degrees.

We’re also seeing more extreme weather events, like floods and droughts. And less snow is falling.

Dead lodgepole pines in Colorado. Dead and dying lodgepole pines in ColoradoPhoto courtesy vsmoothe via Flickr You’d never learn this from the NYT, but global warming has created a perfect climate for these beetles — Milder winters since 1994 have reduced the winter death rate of beetle larvae in Wyoming from 80 percent per year to under 10 percent, and hotter, drier summers have made trees weaker, less able to fight off beetles.

“The pine beetle infestation is the first major climate change crisis in Canada” notes Doug McArthur, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. “We’re seeing changes in [mountain pine beetle] activity from Canada to Mexico,” said Forest Service researcher Jesse Logan in July 2004 (here), “and the common thing is warming temperatures.”

A 2005 study, led by the University of Arizona, with Los Alamos National Laboratory and the U.S. Geological Survey, “Regional vegetation die-off in response to global-change-type drought,” examined a huge three-million acre die-off of vegetation in 2002-2003 “in response to drought and associated bark beetle infestations” in the Four Corners area (Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah).  This drought was not quite as dry as the one in that region in the 1950s, but it was much warmer, hence it was a global-warming-type drought. The recent drought had “nearly complete tree mortality across many size and age classes” whereas “most of the patchy mortality in the 1950s was associated with trees [greater than] 100 years old.”

Most of this tree death was caused by bark beetle infestation, and “such outbreaks are tightly tied to drought-induced water stress.” Healthy trees defend themselves by drowning the tiny pine beetles in resin. Without water, weakened, parched trees are easy meals for bugs.

Marketplace makes this all crystal clear in one of the best stories ever produced on how global warming is harming this country right now.  It deserves to be read in its entirety:

SAM: But of all the impacts of global warming being felt right now, here in the U.S., the most extreme example by far has been the death of pine forests in the West. And it’s all because of a beetle, the mountain pine beetle to be exact. You may have heard of it. It’s no bigger than the tip of a kitchen match. But it’s killing millions of acres of trees all across the West.

And that’s why I went to Helena, Montana. It’s surrounded by pine forests. And it’s basically ground zero for the state’s beetle infestation. Here’s Helena’s mayor, Jim Smith.

JIM SMITH: There’s just a whole host of psychological worry that has descended upon our town … all because of some teeny little beetle.

SARAH: But wait a minute. Explain for us how this little beetle has anything to do with climate change? Because, I mean, my understanding is that the pine beetle is a native species, right? It’s always been there. And a lot of westerners believe the only reason it’s gotten out of hand is because we haven’t been thinning out the forests enough, right?

SAM: That hasn’t helped. And you throw in fire suppression and the beetles basically have an all-you-can-eat buffet of lodge pole and Ponderosa pine. But the scientists I talked to — like Jesse Logan, who’s been studying the beetles for decades — say the main thing driving this outbreak is human-caused global warming.

JESSE LOGAN: It’s by the actions of people. It’s directly our actions that are taking these forests out.

SAM: Let me connect the dots here. Logan says pine beetles have always been held in check by deep winter freezes. But that 2-degree increase in average temperatures you mentioned earlier, Sarah, has meant fewer cold snaps — especially in the high elevations of the Rockies. Basically, the pine beetle couldn’t have asked for better breeding conditions.

Now, let me go back to my interview with Logan.

SAM: So it’s like this beetle’s sitting here waiting for the thermostat to go up and suddenly …

LOGAN: That’s a great analogy. It was sitting there waiting, and we reached the tipping point in these high-elevation systems, a true threshold event.

SARAH: . So what’s this done to the city? I mean, I’ve been to Helena. It’s a beautiful town. What does it look like now?

SAM: Well, let me play you some tape from the mayor. He’s describing what the area looks like from a bird’s eye view.

SMITH: Well, you’d see dappled orange hillsides right on the crest of the continental divide. And if we kept flying south to Butte, Montana, we’d see entire hillsides that have turned red, orange, gold, within the last two or three years.

SARAH: You know, it’s funny. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was just describing pretty fall colors or something.

SAM: You know, it does. But really what he’s talking about is the color the pine needles turn after the trees die. The locals call them “red dead.” And Smith says it’s spreading so fast that if you flew over that same area a year from now it would be twice as bad.

SARAH: So, Sam, how are the people of Helena reacting to this?

SAM: Well, as a matter of fact, many people are afraid. I spent a lot of time visiting people who live right in the middle of these dried-out dead forests. And I have to say, when you’re looking up at the sky through trees with these bright orange pine needles there’s almost a surreal beauty to it.

But then it dawns on you — you’re basically standing in the middle of a million dried out Christmas trees. And all it would take is one match to turn the entire place into an inferno.

Now there’s one guy in charge of keeping that from happening. His name is Patrick McKelvey.

We drove up into the hills above Helena so we get a better look at just how serious the fire danger is. Let me just play that tape for a few minutes.

PATRICK MCKELVEY: That’s actually a city chunk of ground right below us. And you can see. Look at that. It’s 100 percent — 100 percent mortality.

[Sound of getting out of car]

SAM: We stopped at a place where we could look out over the dead trees, all the way down to the state capitol building.

MCKELVEY: So we’re up, oh, probably right at 5,000, 5,500 feet, somewhere in there, elevation probably. Just south of town.

SAM: So what’s, I mean, when you look at this picture, does it worry you?

MCKELVEY: Well, yeah, certainly. When you are here and look at this venue, and you’re seeing all of those trees … I mean, look at that — there’s a forest within the city limits. So as this fire progresses through the topography and through that weather that we know hits us every year — hot, dry, windy — the risk terminates right there in the population center of Helena.

SARAH: Wow. That’s a really chilling sound bite.

SAM: Yeah, and actually the day after I left Helena they had a really close call. A fire started a little further up the mountain from where we were standing. And luckily fire crews were able to control it before it got out of hand.

SAM: … Once the beetles kill a tree, it costs more to cut it down and take it to the mill than the lumber’s worth. Some people want to use the dead trees as fuel to generate electricity. But that requires these high-tech biomass power plants. And those cost a lot of money.

So nobody really knows what to do with these trees once they cut them. Many are just rotting in piles in the middle of clearcuts.

SARAH: OK, here you have this incredibly scenic mountain town, the capital city of Montana, right, and it’s basically surrounded by dead forests that are essentially victims of warmer temperatures, right? So given that, are there still residents there who don’t believe in global warming?

SAM: Well, this is a really important point, Sarah. I spent some time with a local writer. His name’s Jim Robbins. And walking around his property, which is now essentially a clearcut, you really get a sense of how much this beetle is changing people’s lives.

[Sound of walking.]

JIM ROBBINS: This was all forest here. And now it’s a lot of smashed pieces of wood here and pine needles and occasional patches of weed that we’ll have to spray next year.

SAM: So Robbins says when people are faced with these kinds of images daily, in their own backyards, it becomes a lot harder not to believe in climate change.

ROBBINS: There’s a saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. I think there’s something along that line happening here. I mean, there are still some people who refuse to believe it. But I think there’s been an erosion of that disbelief and it’s changed pretty dramatically.

SAM: And a lot of people don’t want to call it global warming simply because it’s such a politically charged term. They basically equate it with Democrats like Al Gore. People they’d never vote for.

Helena’s Mayor Jim Smith definitely falls into that category. But Sarah, he told me something I’d never heard before. He said when your community is threatened, the political debate over climate change no longer matters.

SMITH: Whether this climate change is man caused or just the natural order of things, I don’t know and I don’t have a lot of time to ponder that important question. We just got to deal with the situation on the ground here regardless of what the cause is. So we’re doing that.

Yeah, well, Mayor Smith, it matters to Montanans that this is in fact being driven in large part by human emissions — because it means that Montanans, like all of us, are partly culpable and that things are going to get much, much worse if you and your Senator don’t support strong action.

SAM: Now, one of the things I realized during this trip was that this beetle epidemic really caught people off guard. And the scary part is all of this devastation was caused by a really small change in average temperatures. Scientists like to call these events early warnings of what’s to come. Basically the more we tweak the global thermostat, the more nasty surprises we’re likely to have down the road.

How bad could it get?

Back in 2004, researchers at the U.S. Forest Services Pacific Wildland Fire Lab looked at past fires in the West to create a statistical model of how future climate change may affect wildfires.  Their paper, “Climatic Change, Wildfire, and Conservation,” published in Conservation Biology, found that by century’s end, states like Montana, New Mexico, Washington, Utah, and Wyoming could see burn areas increase five times.

For completeness sake — and because I remain optimistic that more in the media will routinely make the connection between increased forest fires and global warming — let me note that back in 2006 Science magazine published a major article analyzing whether the recent soaring wildfire trend was due to a change in forest management practices or to climate change. The study, led by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, concluded:

Robust statistical associations between wildfireand hydroclimate in western forests indicate that increasedwildfire activity over recent decades reflects sub-regionalresponses to changes in climate. Historical wildfire observationsexhibit an abrupt transition in the mid-1980s from a regimeof infrequent large wildfires of short (average of 1 week) durationto one with much more frequent and longer burning (5 weeks)fires. This transition was marked by a shift toward unusuallywarm springs, longer summer dry seasons, drier vegetation (whichprovoked more and longer burning large wildfires), and longerfire seasons. Reduced winter precipitation and an early springsnowmelt played a role in this shift.

That 2006 study noted global warming (from human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide) will further accelerate all of these trends during this century. Worse still, the increased wildfires will themselves release huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which will serve as a vicious circle, accelerating the very global warming that is helping to cause more wildfires.

Let me end by reprinting Sen. Baucus’s (hurried) opening remarks yesterday that made so much news:

I’m keeping Director Orszag and Mr. Summers waiting in my office for 12 minutes, and I deeply apologize. I’ll be very, very brief. And I really thank the indulgence of my colleagues. Again, I’ll be very brief.

First, I want to thank the senator from Massachusetts. Senator Kerry has worked so hard on climate change. And clearly, his statement today shows how hard he’s worked. He’s done a great job.

Madam Chairman, I want to thank you and thank Ranking Member Inhofe and our witnesses for being here today to discuss climate change.

The legislation before us today is about protecting our outdoor heritage. We, I think all of us in the county, certainly those of us in Congress, when we leave this place, have a moral obligation to leave it in as good a shape or better shape than we found it. If uncontrolled, the impacts of climate change put this future at risk.

The legislation before us today is about our economy. Montana, with our resource-based, agriculture and tourism economies, cannot afford the unmitigated impacts of climate change. But we also cannot afford the unmitigated effects of climate change legislation.

That is why I support passing common-sense climate legislation that reduces greenhouse gas emissions while protecting our economy. And the key word in that sentence is “passing.”

I have some concerns about the overall direction of the bill before us today, and whether it will lead us closer to or further away from passing climate change legislation. For example, I have serious reservations with the depth of the mid-term reduction target in the bill and the lack of preemption of the Clean Air Act’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

We cannot afford a first step that takes us further away from an achievable consensus on common-sense climate change. We could build that consensus here in that committee. If we don’t, we risk wasting another month, another year, another Congress, without taking a step forward into our future.

I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle in this committee prior to the mark-up, to address these issues and other key issues. I think it’s very important that we do so.

Thank you, Madam Chairman.

Who can doubt that — notwithstanding the status quo media’s spin — Baucus will vote for the final climate bill?

But the real story here is that Montana is being ravaged by climate change and won’t be recognizable in a several decades if we don’t make the deepest and most rapid emissions reductions possible.  That’s what Baucus and the media should be talking about.