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Climate change expert: Global warming did not kill Seattle tree

The power plant in Colstrip, Mont. provides electricity for residents in Washington state. (AP)

The Seattle Times reported over the weekend that climate change has already claimed one victim in Seattle — a pine tree at the Washington Arboretum.

That’s stretching the reality of climate change, however, according to University of Washington professor and climate authority Cliff Mass.

Mass tells KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson, that people are harming awareness of the issue by pointing to current events as proof of climate change. Mass says there is very little evidence from current Northwest events that point to the issue.

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“By the end of the century, that won’t be true,” Mass said. “By the end of the century human-inspired changes will be dominant. What this kind of article does, and other articles like it, they are trying to point to things happening now as signs of global warming and that’s where the problem is. They are exaggerating and hyping current changes and that is not being truthful.”

“When I read the story, right up front they state the tree died because of climate change, in particular the summer temperatures have gotten warmer and the precipitation has gotten less and that is a sign of global warming,” he said. “Well, I knew right away that was completely wrong.”

Mass said that unlike what The Seattle Times reported, the 72-year-old pine tree did not experience warmer, drier Northwest weather. Mass argues from his expertise noting that Northwest temperatures have barely budged over the past 50 years, and if anything, more precipitation has fallen in recent time.

“I find it’s pretty far-fetched to think that a few tenths of a degree change over 50 years is killing trees,” Mass said. “Particularly, since there were two similar trees right next to that one that didn’t die. I’m not a tree expert and I don’t pretend to be, but I do know about climate change around here and I know that the climate has not changed very much.”

A long-term view is essential to the concept of climate change and human influence upon it, Mass Notes. So when someone walks outside and sees snow during a time that is usually warmer, or doesn’t need a jacket when it’s traditionally colder, and then tries to argue for or against human-influenced climate change, their arguments are pretty pointless. Or in this case, when someone tries to argue that one tree in the Northwest was killed because of climate change, it doesn’t hold up.

The issue gets more complex when considering that different parts of the globe react differently to the climate. Mass points out that the Northwest is downstream of the Pacific Ocean which has not warmed as other parts of the planet have. So the Northwest weather that is influenced by the Pacific Ocean hasn’t changed much. There is also natural variability to the climate. For now, human influence in the Northwest is not outweighing that variability, Mass said.

That’s where Dori and Mass part ways on their perspectives of climate change. Dori promotes that money is driving a climate change conspiracy and objects to anyone who denies a debate on the issue. Which is partially why he called out The Seattle Times for reporting on the tree the way it did. Mass, on the other hand, agrees that people should not make arguments like what happened with the tree. He, however, relies on hard data and years of research to speak on the issue.

“It’s not money,” he told Dori. “There are a number of people concerned about global warming and they should be – trust me. This is where I spend all my time investigating. This is a long term, serious issue. They see that mankind is not doing much to change the trajectory. For good reasons they are trying to encourage people to make changes in their lifestyle right now, but since the changes aren’t very large, they are hyping and exaggerating stuff that is really quite natural.”

“The issue about climate change is very serious,” Mass said. “The fact is that increasing greenhouse gasses will warm this planet and change the climate. Everything I’ve learned about the climate system tells me that and our best models tell us that. By the end of the century the climate here should be very different because of greenhouse gases, because of climate change.”

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