Staring at Climate Change in the Mountains of Death

Dead trees are everywhere in the Sierra Nevada mountains

I just got back from a few days at Kings Canyon National Park in the southern Sierra. The place is awe-inspiring, but I can’t shake something I saw that you won’t find in any tourist guide.

The photo above was taken on my way up the mountains, at about 4,000 feet. You can find dead trees like this all over California’s largest mountain range (and much of the rest of the state) right now — 66 million of them. Look carefully at that shot, and especially at the background, and you can just make out that at least half the trees on that slope are brown and dead or dying.

That’s the face of climate change.

I first attributed the massive tree death to California’s severe drought, but that oversimplifies things. Lack of water isn’t the main tree-killer, though it stresses the trees and leaves them more vulnerable. Mainly, a park ranger explained to me, the trees have fallen victim to a little critter called the pine bark beetle.

The beetles have been around basically forever and usually just do minor damage, but conditions over the last few years led to a beetle population explosion. Normally, freezing winter weather kills of most of the beetles, keeping their numbers in check. But California’s recent winters haven’t just been dry, they’ve been unusually warm, allowing these little tree-killers to survive and multiply. With global temperatures setting new records nearly every month, this looks like the new normal. And to pine bark beetles, drought-stressed pine trees look just like Thanksgiving dinner.

In some places, more than half the trees are dead. That means tens of millions of trees no longer cleaning carbon out of the air and no longer protecting our state’s water supply.

So yeah, this climate change thing matters.

The Greenlining Institute’s Environmental Equity team works a lot on climate change policy for two reasons. The obvious one, as the example above illustrates, is that climate change imperils nearly everything about the life we’ve known in California and elsewhere — and when something bad happens, low income communities of color almost always feel it first and worst.

But just as important, the growing realization that we must act on climate means that the U.S. and the world will create a new, clean-energy economy to replace the dying fossil fuel model. The question is no longer if we will do this, but when and how. We will either replicate the old inequities or we can build this new economy to be fairer and more inclusive than the old one, making sure that investments and the new jobs that will inevitably come reach those who’ve traditionally been left behind. Greenlining is trying like hell to make sure it’s the latter.

Progress has already begun, and you can see some examples at And as my recent vacation showed me, the effort has never been more urgent.

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