The Gift of Snow

By Julia Olson, Executive Director, Our Children's Trust

My son just asked me if there would still be snow for him to ski on when he grew up.

How do you answer an 8-year-old who asks that question, when Oregon’s snowpack will be less than 50% of what it is now within 4 decades if carbon emissions aren’t cut quickly and substantially? Our snowpack in the Pacific Northwest is already receding at a faster pace than elsewhere in the West. Whether ski resorts will be able to sustain operations in spite of the diminished snowpack is unlikely. Whether snow-based recreation in the lower-48 states will maintain its viability through the coming decades is an open question.

It’s the time of year when snow is on my mind and I daydream about the times I spent as a child waking up to a foot of snow on the east slope of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Winter is my favorite season. I love the crisp crunch of snow beneath my feet, the heaviness of snow-covered tree limbs, and being able to see your breath when you walk outside. I can’t imagine not passing that winter gift down to our children of cool climates.

Over the past few weeks, the powerful emotions around climate change have been once again seeping their way through the walls I put up to protect my own wellbeing. I was working on a brief describing the impacts of climate change in our state of Oregon, knowing that shellfish hatcheries collapsed between 2004 and 2009 due to ocean acidification and someday soon, our local supply of oysters will be gone, as those fishery operations close shop. We’ll have twice the number of acres lost to forest fire in the coming decades. And the reason I live in Oregon (besides the great people) is the amazing locally grown food. But agricultural impacts, while volatile, are anticipated to be grim. Climate change could be the nail in the coffin for salmon too. And without all the summer snow runoff, so goes our hydropower supply and our irrigation water.

In the midst of a week of brief writing and contemplating my son’s question, I shared a meal with a 70-year-old sustainability commissioner and a 16-year-old young woman who is taking the State of Oregon to task to protect the atmosphere as a public resource in trust for future generations. As the “older” spoke to the “younger” about their joint efforts to get our local city councilors and county commissioners to grasp the need for urgent action on climate and to use the power they have to take such action, he succumbed to tears. I think his tears of compassion, which then led to my own, as we sat in our local high school, were as much tears of hope that kids like Kelsey Juliana instill in us as tears of our extreme despair for the inaction on human-caused climate change. Michael Meade says it well:

“A culture that rejects the spirit of its youth will come to lack spirit and imagination when faced with life’s almost impossible challenges. A culture that forgets the necessity of converting “olders” into genuine elders will have leaders who can’t learn from the past and, therefore, can’t imagine a meaningful future.”

That day I had the great fortune of sitting in a room with a true elder and the true spirit of youth.

The heaviness of this climate work weights me to the ground, strengthens my resolve to keep working, educating, and making the call to action everywhere we can. Over and over again I have seen incredible hope and resolve emanating from the youngest among us. And that energy is nothing short of inspiring.

This week of the Winter Solstice, Our Children’s Trust has supported youth by pulling together a “friend of the court” brief in Oregon on behalf of political leaders, and a broad group of interests from agriculture, a fueling company, tribal groups, health care, private business, education, and others. The amount of support from our community has been overwhelming. Twenty-two law professors also filed a brief in support of Oregon youth saying they are right on the legal obligation government has to protect certain natural resources for current and future generations. And a fantastic group of attorneys from Pennsylvania took up Ashley Funk’s case against the Department of Environmental Protection for not protecting her constitutional right to clean air and a healthy environment, the latest ATL action to be filed.

With time moving too quickly as another year closes, with warmer temperatures than I remember and tremendous work to be done toward a safe climate and healthy oceans, I hope people resolve in the new year to work ever harder to compel the urgent action we need from all branches of government, from all sectors of society, and from each of us individually. We need to question, challenge, and rethink our systems, we need to bring humanity into the current age and protect future generations. We need to restore our public trust resources and reclaim justice for future generations.

My answer to my son’s question of whether there would still be enough snow when he grew up was to tell him that I will work every day for snow. I won’t deceive him or belabor the grim facts, but I do want him to know, and every child to know, that their parents, and the elders of this world, have their back.