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The data is in and the conclusion is out – July was the hottest month on record in the last 135 years for good old Mother Earth. With global temperatures clicking in at almost a full degree and a half Fahrenheit hotter than the previous global average, we are now approaching what was once thought to be the critical two-degree increase that would throw the planet’s life-support systems – including humans – into massively destructive and irreversible changes.

Yet in the face of science, our politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, continue to push more fossil fuels while loudly whining about the inevitable result – our forests on fire, our rivers going dry, crop failures and wild, costly storm events across the nation.

It’s diametrically opposed to a huge body of science that burning more coal will do anything except exacerbate the climate problem. But that hasn’t stopped Montana’s cluster of high-level politicians from continuing to cheerlead for using even more coal.

Just last week Republican state Sen. Dee Brown penned a guest column (Aug. 18) touting Montana’s coal, blasting the Obama administration’s efforts to clean up power plant emissions, and urging quick approval of highly controversial Pacific coast coal export terminals. According to Brown’s column, it only makes sense to ship Montana coal across the Pacific Ocean to Asian countries because it is marginally less dirty than other sources of coal. Hence, ignoring the larger overall climate impacts of burning more coal, Brown concludes that using Montana coal would somehow “lower emissions.”

Brown also cites Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s support for coal, as if support from members of both political parties somehow equates to logic. They are joined in their conclusions by Democrat U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Republicans U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke and Montana Attorney General Tim Fox. Ironically, but in a sort of twisted form of justice, Brown in Coram and Bullock and Fox in Helena now find themselves locked in thick clouds of smoke from fires burning not only forests, but grasslands, wheat stubble and scrub brush.

Desperately trying to find someone or something to blame for the wildfires, these same politicians have embraced the industry-spawned “forest mismanagement” line while ignoring their own roles in our ever-warming climate. But here’s the weak spot in that theory – it is fantasy to believe that the Forest Service ever had the resources or capability of putting out all the fires for a century which, they contend, led to our “overgrown” forests.

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About four decades ago a much younger version of this writer found himself cloaked in smoke and surrounded by flames for days while fighting a huge wildfire near Thompson Falls. We had basically the same capabilities then that we do now in regard to air tankers dropping retardant, D-9 Cats, and boots on the ground with pulaskis and shovels. The combined effect of all these resources on that fire was negligible. As today’s most current science shows, large wildfires are primarily driven by high winds and temperatures and only go out when rain or snow events finally put them out.

To somehow believe that the Forest Service extinguished so many fires on the millions of acres of Western landscape that it led to overly dense forests is simply a fantasy, in large part a politically and economically motivated myth concocted for the sole purpose of ratcheting up even more logging on our national forests to primarily benefit the timber industry. That the proponents of this myth claim “a century” of suppressing fires is likewise a bizarre concept since 100 years ago there were no air tankers, no retardant, no chain saws, feller-bunchers or the vast spiderweb of logging roads by which to extinguish forest wildfires.

But hey, combined with the delusional belief that we can mine and burn more coal without increasing global temperatures, the fairy tale about suppressing all wildfires for a century makes a perfect example of circular logic that allows no hint of reality into the equation.

Truth, however, is the ultimate defense against such foolishness. And the truth is that mankind’s use of fossil fuels is turning up the heat on the planet to such an extent that wildfires are likely to be with us for a long time into the future. The choice seems clear – it’s time for Montana’s politicians to waken from their dream state, take the reality bull by the horns and admit we have to leave the coal in the ground if we ever want to breathe clean Montana air in August again.

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George Ochenski's column appears each Monday on the Missoulian's Opinion page. Contact him at oped@missoulian.com.

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