Thursday, August 25, 2016

Your Climate Crisis, Effective Immediately

U.S. National Parks--and the National Park Service--turn 100 years old today.  The most widely reprinted and excerpted article marking this occasion earlier this week was from the Guardian: Climate change will mean the end of national parks as we know them.

wildfire in a parched Yosemite
If the causes of the climate crisis aren't adequately addressed soon, there may be no glaciers in Glacier National Park, no Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park, as President Obama pointed out in June in a visit to Yosemite, where its famous mile-wide glacier is nearly gone.  Rising tides could soon threaten the Statue of Liberty. "That’s not the America I want to pass on to the next generation,” he said.

But as this article points out, thanks to cascading effects of heating and sea rise already underway, parks are already seeing severe damage, and more is on the way. "Change, however, is inevitable no matter how quickly greenhouse gas emissions are cut. An NPS study from 2014 found four in five of America’s national parks are now at the “extreme end” of temperature variables charted since 1901.

“We are starting to see things spiral away now,” said Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist at the NPS climate change response program. “We are going to look back at this time and actually think it was a calm period. And then people will start asking questions about what we were doing about the situation.”

This article details some of the damage, to ecosystems, species and historical monuments and features.  Global heating is attacking our cultural memory, our natural context, and ultimately may well challenge our ability to survive as a civilization and perhaps as a species.

Because the emphasis is understandably on addressing causes so global heating may not become utterly catastrophic, there's less attention to the effects that will need to be addressed---beginning now and into coming decades.  For example, the New York Times' eye-opening maps showing the increasing number of 100 degree plus days across the US bases its estimates on greenhouse gases pollution continuing at current rates.  However, some significant rise is built-in for the next couple of decades at least, and cities have to prepare to deal with them.

Under any scenario--from continued increasing carbon pollution to declining emissions towards Paris agreement goals, to even a sudden total carbon-neutral world--the nature of some problems can be predicted, if not the severity or extent.

Some ongoing crises, exacerbated and accelerated by the climate crisis, include species extinction.  Climate crisis-assisted drought in California is killing millions of old trees.  Climate crisis-assisted flooding and sea-level rise will cause the shape of cities and communities to be changed.   Relocation of entire settlements now underway in Alaska are the harbinger in some places.  Even a study that premises unabated carbon pollution and forecasts that some 2 million homes in America could be underwater by 2100, can suggest where the most vulnerable areas are in any scenario before then.

Also in the Guardian last week was an article about an anthrax epidemic in Russia that was the direct result of climate crisis thawing releasing old pathogens, and other such possibilities.  This is only a more exotic reason why a founding member of Doctors Without Borders said this week that the climate crisis is "the greatest global health threat of the 21st century."

Public health is a front line in addressing climate crisis effects.  Here as elsewhere, leadership on the national level is severely lacking.  We don't have to look any further than the US Congress failing to appropriate funds to deal with Zika virus outbreaks, the most fundamental responsibility that national legislators have.  Only by moving money from other vital programs has President Obama and public health officials at every level been able to address Zika as much as they have.

Whatever national leaders do or don't do, we must look to those skilled and dedicated people on levels below--regional, state, metropolitan area, community--to patiently and steadfastly address these problems.

Thanks to the new regime at FEMA instituted by President Obama, effective federal help was immediate in Louisiana for their flood, unlike Katrina almost exactly 11 years before.  "You are not alone," President Obama said in Louisiana. "The whole country is going to support you and help you until we get folks back in their homes, and lives are rebuilt," Obama vowed.

This is what federal response to emergencies should look like, and must be, non-political. "I guarantee you nobody on this block, none of those first responders, nobody gives a hoot whether you’re Democrat or Republican," the President of the United States said. “What they care about is making sure they’re getting the drywall out, getting the carpet out, there’s not any mold building, they got some contractors in here and they start rebuilding as soon as possible. That’s what they care about, and that’s what I care about.”

But it doesn't always happen that way--and multiple climate crisis effects simultaneously, less dramatically present than a flood, pose other challenges.  Response often depends on members of local communities--as we've seen in Louisiana and in other recent disasters.  Places where community ties as well as empathy and personal character--where "you'd do the same for me"--are the guiding lights.

It is on the spot also that dedicated public servants such as first responders, medical and public health workers are the crucial interface. They have the skills and dedication as well as the will. Which brings us back to the National Park Service.

As USA Today writesToday, more than 20,000 men and women employed with the National Park Service, alongside 221,000 volunteers, continue the charge and share “a passion for caring for the nation's special places and sharing their stories” - all 412 national parks, monuments, battlefields, military parks, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House.

Some 307 million people visited these places last year, and they physically experienced elements of cultural heritage in their natural context, as well as special examples of our greater context of nature.  All of this is what's at stake in our response to the climate crisis, both the causes and effects.

The National Park Service is already on the front line of the climate crisis, as the Guardian article illustrates. Such focused, dedicated public service is a template for what that response might look like elsewhere, for a long time to come. Effective immediately.

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