You are here

NPCA: Climate Change Greatest Threat Facing the National Park System


Climate change could rid Joshua Tree National Park of joshua trees. NPS photo by Dar Spearing.

When you think about threats to national parks, you can point to air pollution, water pollution, development on a park's boundaries, and genetic bottlenecks affecting a park's wildlife. But few people seem to think about climate change.

Indeed, climate change is neither sexy nor glamorous, and judging from how many folks read Traveler posts about climate change and the parks, not too many folks care to hear about it. Well, the National Parks Conservation Association wants you to start thinking about it.

During a House subcommittee meeting held in California today, NPCA representatives testified that their organization views climate change as the "greatest threat" to the national parks. Indeed, researchers predict Glacier National Park will lose all of its glaciers within 20 years, and some models suggest Joshua Tree National Park will have no living Joshua trees left within a century.

During this morning's field hearing, held just outside Joshua Tree, NPCA's California Desert Office program manager, Mike Cipra, told the representatives that national parks are already showing the effects of climate change. Some are seeing less snow and rainfall, others are dealing with increased pests and disease, some are being confronted by abnormal flooding and fires, and there's a shift in the habitat ranges of plants and animals, he said.

The bottom line, said Mr. Cipra, is that Congress needs to provide funding to help wildlife and ecosystems adapt to climate change while also taking steps to slow global warming by limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

He said NPCA supports providing the National Park Service with a dedicated funding stream for this need, such as could be provided from a percentage of profits raised by the sale of carbon pollution allowances under a cap-and-trade policy. Such funding would allow land managers to plan long-term and ecosystem-wide instead of making piecemeal changes with limited effect, he said. The cost would be far outweighed by the economic benefits of having working ecosystems and protecting keystone species, added Mr. Cipra.

"As Americans, we have faced tremendous environmental challenges before," the NPCA representative testified. "We met these challenges with courage, with urgency, and with a coordinated response. ...Our health and economic future depends on how we meet this challenge."

To listen to a podcast about the dangers climate change is posing to Joshua Tree, click here.


Wow, Frank C. gives me a link to a paper written in 1998, someone else tries to rephrase my question, but changes it entirely. Hey Frank C. Here is a link for you:

Original Anonymous: I did not ask if CO2 changed the climate, I asked what the naysayers thought happened when we raised the CO2 levels.

I once read that one way to visualize the earth's atmosphere is to think of a standard desk model of the earth. The atmosphere would be represented by a single coat of varnish on the globe. The envelop of gasses critical to life on earth is literally tissue paper thin. Now, imagine countless millions of tons of CO2, methane and other human generated greenhouse gasses being released into this amazingly thin layer. Can we impact our climate? The answer seems obvious.

"All catastrophic climate change predictions depend on the idea that small amounts of warming will themselves cause larger amounts of warming. This goes beyond the complexity of the original equation, and requires a shocking amount of voodoo and guesswork, to come to a conclusion that is wholly counterintuitive."

Why do you think it requires a shocking amount of voodoo and guesswork? It's actually based on solid science. We have extensive records of climate changes over hundreds of thousands of years. The connection between the ice ages and the Milankovitch cycles (variations in the earth's orbit) are well established and yet those variations aren't remotely large enough to cause climate change of that magnitude on their own. Clearly they triggered something else much more significant.

It was also counterintuitive (to some) once that the earth is not at the center of the universe. Nor do I think it is counterintuitive. It is easy to see that the melting of sea ice, ice caps and glaciers will cause the planet to reflect less heat and absorb more, and that the melting of permafrost leads to more greenhouse emissions.

The evidence that positive feedbacks play a strong role initially after a smaller effect triggers the start of a climate-changing episode is overwhelming. Negative feedbacks are strong, but kick in much later, which is why climate change periods don't lead to ice worlds or a Venus-on-earth.

I think that in the end, the question is this: are people willing to follow the science where it leads, whether or not the result is intuitive to them, or will they always see another conspiracy when they don't like the results of the research.

Of course, there are large uncertainties involved in forcasting climate change. Climate change specialists work with uncertain data, alternative mathematical models, competing models, and full quantitative uncertainty analysis. Much of the details are documented in the numerous technical reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which few who have commented thus far on NPT seem to have taken the time to study).

The overall IPCC conclusion, with 90% certainty, is that the present trends in climate change is being caused by anthorpogenically enhanced levels of greehouse gases.

Here is a link to an extensive 2007 technical summary from the IPCC on the physical science basis for their conclusions that it is highly likely, even when accounting for all known sources of uncertainty in data and models, that the present increases in global warming are anthropogenic (i.e., not from sun spots or from insect gases).

It seems to me that one of the first steps of human-assisted climate change deniers is to lable the IPCC as a "political" rather than a scientific organization. This to me is an easy tactic used to debunk the concern and to argue against the commitment of any societal resources to combat global warming. The global warming deniers recognize that few individuals have the time or patience to digest the scientific literature to independently evaluate the overall merit of the scientific argument. However, when such an independent service is provided by the IPCC, it's simply attacked as being without appropriate credentials.

Now with regards to our national parks, I believe that it is perfectly appropriate for the NPS to become engaged in public awareness education about real and potential threats to park resources and to the park experience. What is delivered in official programs, however, should always have a basis in scientific fact. Public education about the potential impact of global climate change on our parks is a legitimate NPS function. Pubic education about other potential threats is also appropriate.

Whether or not climate change is the single most important threat to our parks depends on one's overall perspective. It depends whether one's outlook extends only to the next park visit, to future visits over the next decade, or whether one is looking at the future of parks over the next 100 to 1000 years. A perspective over the next 10,000 to one million years will likely produce other priorities.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

I'm afraid the comments section of National Parks Traveler is, if anything, a less suitable place to get into intricacies of climate dynamics than an NPS visitor center. And it strays far from the original point of the post and the comment thread.

But since you insist on an answer, Richard, I respond that your question is invalid. (This is the correct answer to a lot of life's questions--ask a philosopher!) You seek a simple answer to a question that defies simple answers.

Let's re-phrase the question: You want to know whether an increased proportion of carbon molecules in the atmosphere will cause the planet's aggregate average temperature to A.) Increase, or B.) Decrease. What this question fails to recognize is that there is an unfathomable number of constants and variables affecting that equation. Many, if not most, of those constants and variables are debatable, unknown, or unknowable. Some cannot be measured with any technique we have. Some, we measure entirely wrong. Of some, we are entirely unaware. Some act in completely screwy ways that we don't understand. Many affect each other in real time. Many have effects that don't manifest for years or decades. Most are of infinitesimally small effect.

In concrete terms, those variables include the entire global atmosphere, all liquid, gaseous, and frozen water on Earth, a wide variety of geological factors, every living thing, including rainforests, ants, and humans, the position and mass of the Moon, and any and all solar activity, or lack thereof. We know that the Earth's climate has varied in the past--this is not an insignificant point. So whatever the role of greenhouse gases, we know that some of these other variables can have an impact far larger than anything we have actually observed from CO2.

This is why it is fabulously difficult to solve for the effect of carbon gases on global temperature. And that's assuming that the desired solution is itself a valid [url]concept[/url].

Then there is the matter of feedback loops. All catastrophic climate change predictions depend on the idea that small amounts of warming will themselves cause larger amounts of warming. (This is reflected in Ray Bane's comment, and every claim that it is already, or may soon be, "too late.") This goes beyond the complexity of the original equation, and requires a shocking amount of voodoo and guesswork, to come to a conclusion that is wholly counterintuitive. In the macro view, the physical history of these systems shows that in the most recent few millions of years, the Earth has been fairly steady. An Ice Age here, a great drought there; these things are normal, and do not lead to catastrophic, cascading changes. Yes, massive glaciation across the upper Midwest would be terribly inconvenient, but it's happened before, and life went on. It is the very existence of life, in all its glorious variety, which illustrates that the earth's climate, as a whole, possesses positive dynamic stability.

That is, when something like CO2 concentration gets out of whack, the system as a whole compensates. It's not a conscious thing; rather, the system can exist only because it compensates. Otherwise, it would have spun out of control eons ago, and would never have attained the stability necessary for millions of years of evolution. A simple and familiar illustration of positive dynamic stability would be vegetal processing of CO2. If increased CO2 concentrations (natural or anthropogenic) warmed the Earth's climate, one important result would be an increase in vegetation, as ranges and growing seasons expanded. Greater plant growth would consume more CO2 and sequester it in solid organic matter, leading eventually to a reversion to the mean--less atmospheric CO2, cooler weather, decreased range, less plants. This is merely an example to illustrate the concept, though I stress that this interaction is described by the same great equation that we previously arranged to solve for global average temperature. It has just as many constants and variables, and is just as difficult to test.

Did anyone bother reading all that? Now would be a good time to mention that I gave up on my scientific career goals somewhere around 10th grade, when I figured out that my chemistry teacher was a schmuck, and that I sucked at math. But I was around long enough to learn that science is about debate, not consensus. (Would now be a good time to talk about eugenics, and how nasty things can become when scientists convince politicians that they've figured it all out?) Instead, I'm just a historian. A historian with enough career ambition not to put his name on comments that, I hope, have been reasonable and insightful, but that are contrary to the prevailing political and organizational winds.

Now, here's what I want out of this. I don't want to convince anyone that I know everything, or anything, about climate science. I don't want to convince anyone that global warming is a myth or a hoax; I don't have the scientific moxy to do it. But I do want every reader to stop caricaturing their political opponents! Each camp is made up of a range of people, including some on both sides who contribute nothing more than annoyed scoffs. There are enough evasions and logical fallacies bandied about by both sides to make Aristotle cry. But there are also people who know what they are talking about, and are debating in good faith. Let each reader consider: If you brush these people and their arguments aside, you are no more than a scoffer, and you are not part of the debate--you have picked your team based on the color of their uniforms.

If you want to seriously consider skepticism about climate change, rather than dismissing it summarily because of the color of its uniform, I can certainly recommend starting with Warren Meyer's blog, . He's serious, skeptical, and debates in good faith.

Richard: Check out this link for an answer:

According to Wikipedia, CO2 accounts for 9 to 26% of the "natural greenhouse effect". That's quite a range, indicating uncertainty.

I really wanted an answer to my question: What do the naysayers think happens to the planet when we put so much carbon into the atmosphere?

If there is a question as to what happens to all that carbon, perhaps the precautionary principle is the best way to treat the over abundance of carbon created by mans actions. Unless you don't care.

MRC, If you can't dispute their evidence, call them names. I'm surprised to see you fall into the ad hominem trap. In the interest of civil discourse, ad hominems, appeal to ridicule (calling skeptics "fools"), and other attacks should stop.

As for the "consensus", that's an argumentum ad populum (Latin: "appeal to the people"), which in logic, is a fallacious argument that concludes a proposition to be true because many or all people believe it; it alleges that "If many believe so, it is so." There was once a majority of people who thought the Earth was the center of the universe.

There is plenty of room for debate, and those shutting down the debate--by name calling or other means--are displaying characteristics of intellectual fundamentalism and censorship.

Anonymous wrote, "What we can do is introduce the idea that these matters are extremely complex, and that they should be skeptical of anyone who tries to sell them a policy proposal based on a 90-second thumbnail sketch of climate science, either for or against."

Well said, sir.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide