The Waldo Canyon fire destroys homes in the Mountain Shadows...

The Waldo Canyon fire destroys homes in the Mountain Shadows area of Colorado Springs, Colo. (June 26, 2012) Credit: AP

A while back, in my neighborhood in the mountains west of Denver, a couple heard some strange sounds on their deck about 1 in the morning. They went out to investigate and found a mountain lion upside down with its legs around the neck and belly of a standing elk. Its teeth were sunk in the elk’s jugular. One of these neighbors shouted something to the effect of, “Hey, cut that out!” and the mountain lion took heed.

The creature let go, landed on its feet and scooted from sight while the elk jumped off the deck, a 15-foot drop. It raced away, leaving only a few drops of blood. Listening to the tale recently, I was transfixed. I love living in the Rocky Mountains, where lions, elk, bears, foxes, chipmunks, rabbits and coyotes roam, where hawks fly high and the ponderosa pine stand tall. To me, it is paradise.

But paradise can have its downside, and I do not mean a nature drama in the early morning. I mean wildfire that a couple of weeks back struck in the mountains west of Colorado Springs, destroying nearly 350 homes.

I watched a large-screen video of this blaze inspired by drought and encouraged by broiling heat. It made me shudder. The flames were high and wide, a reddish-orange, giant wave enveloping all in sight with no quick way to stop it. That meant that if my tree-surrounded living area west of Denver ever saw anything like that, my multiplying efforts to protect my home would be of no avail.

Enter the issue of global warming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been examining whether extreme weather events like those in Colorado might be caused by greenhouse gases emitted as a consequence of human activities such as driving cars and burning coal. The agency’s answer is a qualified yes. Even without human effects on climate, nature is going to give us unbearably high thermometer readings, tornadoes and the like, but greenhouse-gas emissions will make such weather events more likely and, in some instances, more intense, the agency concluded.

Long before this study, some urged we temper warming with the supposed remedies of cap-and-trade, tax hikes on gasoline, new taxes on carbon, more aggressive Environmental Protection Agency interventions, more demands for vehicles that consume less gas and still more federal investments in solar energy.

Considering that continued heat and drought could lead to a fire costing me a sizable library lovingly assembled over a lifetime, and more memorabilia than can be packed in a getaway suitcase, you might think I would concur. My advice instead is to let the free market do most of the job.

Leave this show entirely to government, and we could end up with something like an anti-warming plan advocated by former Vice President Al Gore. According to a book by Yale economist William Nordhaus, “A Question of Balance,” his proposal could cost $21 trillion more than any benefits it produced. Meanwhile, owing to an entrepreneurially developed high-pressure drilling technique known as fracking, natural gas is inexpensively saving the day.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel low in cost and carbon emissions, now easily accessible in enormous amounts and such a bargain that fewer and fewer will opt for coal. The federal government’s Energy Information Administration says its increased use is a major factor in driving down carbon emissions, to the point where they may soon be as low as in 1990. Meanwhile, China is reported to be taking a close look at our fracking technology, meaning international emission reductions may be in the offing.

My worries about fire getting between me and the joy of living with wildlife and woods all around are being addressed in the short term by rain and cool air. Owing mainly to the work of private enterprise, the long term looks a little better, too. It is providing the lower carbon emissions some think are crucial and buying time for other technologies to come along without government underwriting.

Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado

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