Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Climate Change Discussion

Here is a thoughtful response to my posting of February 11:

Mr. Ranney,

You echo many of my thoughts and concerns about how global climate change will affect the fundamental mission and purpose for the National Park Service. There's some truth to the notion that events and human-caused changes are increasingly making the goals of the NPS Organic Act moot, especially the no-impairment standard. The problem for NPS is that, as a federal agency, we can't determine our own legislative mandates. We take such direction from the Congress (legislation) and the President (Executive Orders). We're not independent operators, like a corporation, that can switch its basic purpose whenever it wants due to market conditions, new ownership, or other business conditions. Holding us publically accountable for our actions is the way it should be.

Another big problem for NPS is that in years past we operated under the basic principle of the early 1960s Leopold Report that called for NPS to manage its landscapes as 'vignettes of primitive Amerca.' While that philosophy is widely recognzed as out of date and impractical, it hasn't been replaced by any kind of coherent management philosophy that is as broadly recognized and understood. Ask 10 different NPS resource managers today what our guiding resource principle is, and I bet you get a wide range of answers. This makes it a little harder to rally internal consensus for a single agency approach to a problem like climate change.

The climate change question is forcing land management agencies to do some pretty basic analysis of just what are realistic resource objectives in the face of this global phenomenon.

And it's not just the NPS Organic Act. Look at one of our most powerful environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act. Under the terms of that law, species should be considered candidates for listing when certain conditions are met regarding population size, trends, habitat, and future viability. Joshua trees, as a species, might merit consideration for listing under ESA as either threatened or endangered before much time passes. Should they be listed under ESA? How would you apply the tools of ESA when the primary threat is climate change? ESA might help with easing some of the habitat destruction of Joshua trees due to widespread development although it would not alter the jeopardy to Joshua trees due to climate change itself. If you decided as a matter of public policy that you were committed to saving Joshua trees due to their ecological significance
in the Mojave, how far are you prepared to go to make that happen? Would you look at genetic manipulation to breed a heartier Joshua tree that can better withstand warm climates and drought? What are the implications of such an effort for the other species that are linked to Joshua trees if you do this? What are the implications for these creatures of you don't take
such drastic action?

I'm worried that some in the science community have already moved on to how do we adapt to climate change without fully considering the social and public policy consequences of such decisions. Who makes the decision as to what we save and what we let go? Are there universally applied criteria for making such decisions? If so, what are they? From where does science derive its ethical foundations in making such decisions?

I very much agree that NPS interpreters have to use the climate change issue as the ultimate teachable moment and try to improve people's science and environmental literacy so that they can make more informed choices. Paternalistic rhetoric about doom and gloom scenarios, while not helpful overall, does at least take advantage of the idea that nothing concentrates the mind so well as impending catastrophe. One of the biggest problems for environmental interpreters today is that public awareness of the issue and calls for action are outpacing the science and policy arena. While the jury is largely in on the question of human caused climate change on a global level, much less is known about local and regional effects of
climate change and how we should respond to them.

Anyway, I appreciate your thoughtful comments.


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