06/27/2012 11:57 am ET Updated Aug 27, 2012

The Hinges of Hell

If global warming is nothing more than a liberal hoax, I'd sure like to know how and why these malefactors keep turning up the heat in Colorado. Have climate scientists constructed a secret, underwater control room off the California coast where they vent volcanic furnaces into the atmosphere? Then again, if they are all deliberately lying to us in some grand conspiracy to alter our behavior, how come it seems to be actually getting hotter with each passing year? It's possible, I suppose, the fact that seven or eight of the hottest summers in Colorado history have been registered during the past dozen years represents a run of dumb luck for the Cassandras in the climate change chorus. Then again, I've lived here long enough to remember a decidedly chillier time.

Talking about these changes can prove risky. Both the Virginia and North Carolina Legislatures have adopted bills this year making it illegal to discuss rising sea levels. One Virginia Legislator observed that the claims of rising tides were "liberal talk" and therefore deserved to be banned. A North Carolina colleague was probably closer to the truth when he pointed out that accepting these predictions would move tens of thousands of acres of beachfront property into tidal flood basins, preventing their development. Far better, of course, that the remainder of the country insure this real estate against the state's next "once in a century" hurricane! Warming is the threat that cannot be mentioned.

And, it's not just hotter summers. Having moved here in 1972, I recall frequent reports about "Stock Show" weather -- the paralyzingly frigid temperatures that seemed to afflict Denver's annual rodeo each January. There were heartwarming tales of teenagers sharing sleeping bags with their prize livestock simply to keep them alive. Attendance demanded 'long johns,' ski gloves, snow boots, down jackets and wool caps. The past few years, I haven't even bothered to take a coat with me. Until the 1990s, Denver never experienced more than two 100-degree days in a row. Now, we often rack up a week or two of consecutive centuries every month from June to September. Air conditioning in Colorado homes and cars has become a necessity rather than a luxury.

As a teenager, I grew up outside Washington, D.C., while my father worked for the (dreaded) federal government. Our housing development abutted up against farmland that included a small stock pond. The pool froze over each December and provided neighborhood kids with a hockey rink into late March or early April. About 50 yards away, in the nearby woods, was a stone-lined ice cellar, where previous generations had cut ice from the surface of the pond to store it in layers of sawdust through long, hot summers. Its fetid waters had become a breeding ground for the bullfrogs that resided along the edges of the pond and the creek that flowed from it. Another hundred yards away was a tiny graveyard for a half dozen Confederate cavalry who met their fate amidst these rolling Maryland hills. Whether they were raiders, or scouts testing Union defenses of the nation's capital, their excursion had not ended well. Looking back, I wonder who placed these gravestones, only two of which carried a name.

The last time I visited this childhood haunt I learned that our pond hasn't frozen over in nearly 20 years. No more full moon hockey games, no fires burning on the bank to warm wet hands and feet. Our climate has changed. It is decidedly warmer. Whether this change is the result of human activity or a natural cycle seems irrelevant. The consequences will be the same either way -- more droughts, more forest fires, reduced agricultural yields, water shortages, health impacts and increasing misery. It seems it would be a good time to err on the side of caution.

While biosystems have proven far more resilient than expected, in fact, much of the strength in balanced ecosystems is their inherent capacity to accommodate intrusions and rapid environmental change; they are prone to collapse rather than decay. Instead of rusting out, they may appear to be thriving one day, and then, as was the case with acid rain, all the fish are found floating on the surface the following morning. Or, closer to home, think about the Lake Granby of just a dozen years ago, nestled pristinely in an apparently healthy Alpine forest. Today, it's a mud puddle jarringly contrasted against a moonscape of beetle-infested timber where nary a single green shoot remains. Forest managers blame this catastrophe, as well, on climate change, fingering rising night-time winter temperatures, which no longer reach the sap cracking, days-after-day, sub-zero minimums required to kill pine beetle larvae.

Given enough time, we may determine that greenhouse gases were not the trigger for the widespread warming that is so evidently altering ecosystems across our planet. But, they sure as hell can't be helping. In the meantime, sitting on our hands and waiting for the jury to return, feels profoundly shortsighted. Not to mention, hugely stupid!