Climate change solutions do exist
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released a report on the status of the world’s mountains and oceans. It makes for grim reading. As climate change transforms the globe, even the most remote regions feel the effects. The oceans are warming and growing more acidic, destroying marine life and generating devastating storms. The mountains are losing their glaciers, threatening water supplies and triggering wildfires.
Here in America, we are facing the same thing. There are changes across the nation, with serious damage even to the places we think of as nature’s refuge. In fact, especially to them: temperature increases in the national parks from 1895 to 2010 are twice those in the rest of United States.
Without drastic action, this trend is projected to continue, rendering the parks unrecognizable within decades. Glacier Park will lose its glaciers; Joshua Tree will have no more trees. Only the names will remain, and photographs of things that are no more.
It was a prospect Theodore Roosevelt foresaw at the turn of the 20th century. “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources,” he wrote. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
Roosevelt took action. He created the United States Forest Service, protected 230 million acres of public land, and signed into law the Antiquities Act, which he used to protect national monuments including the Grand Canyon.
He knew that preserving our natural wonders expressed our deepest American ideal: that the country belongs to the people, all of us; that it is held in trust from one generation to the next. “Here is your country,” he wrote. “Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
For generations, the parks have been protected from development and exploitation—though less so in recent years. But preventing development does nothing if a park’s whole ecosystem is destroyed by climate change. Yet not only are we doing too little to address the broader problem, we are not even protecting our hardest-hit treasures. The national parks budget, adjusted for inflation, has not increased in 20 years. In 2018, it was $2.5 billion.
Why are we not doing more? It is not the result of the democratic process: The people want greater protection. A nationwide peer-reviewed “willingness to pay” survey found that Americans would accept $62 billion more in taxes to preserve the parks, and $32 billion to keep the park service’s educational programs.
The needs of business and economic realities are often put forward as a reason why the environment cannot be protected, but the parks generate $36 billion in economic activity per year and support 300,000 jobs. As the study’s author put it, the parks “deliver at least 30 times the value of what the federal government contributes each year.”
We are at a crossroads. Ecosystems are on the brink of collapse, threatening not just the natural world but also human health, infrastructure, food supply and more. (That we are part of nature and suffer with it is a lesson we will learn whether we open our minds to it or not).
Another UN report warned — one year ago — that we have just 12 years to cut emissions in half to avert catastrophic temperature rise. If we do nothing, it we continue on our current course, future generations will come to the national parks not to experience natural treasures held forever in trust but only to see pictures of what our shortsightedness took from them.
Solutions exist. The science of green energy has made spectacular advances. A path to a sustainable future still exists, if we have the will.
The question we face is whether we can act collectively for the common good, for the welfare of those who live now and those yet to come. It is a difficult question at the global level, as nations struggle to balance their self-interest with the collective good. But here in America, we answered it hundreds of years ago. We adopted the Constitution in the name of We the People, dedicated to promoting the general welfare for our posterity and ourselves.
Or so the Constitution says. The current moment is a test of that ideal. Have we the people become so divided we can no longer even agree on protecting the nation we will give to those who come after us? That would be a tragedy. Americans have always argued over the meaning of our ideals, but we have always hewed to the concept of America as a collective project, a great experiment in the ability of people to govern themselves.
Essential to that is the idea of improvement, that each generation can inherit an America made a little better by the efforts of its predecessors. That is an aspiration we must not lose sight of. If we fail, it is not just parks but the Constitution that will be left as names for things that no longer exist.
Kermit Roosevelt III is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the great-great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt. P.L. Hamilton is a documentary producer and a board member of the Deadline Club, the New York City chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.