Despite scientific evidence about the realities of climate change, we are still faced with persistent and confusing myths in the media. To allow the National Park Service to manage for climate change, we have dissected and examined these myths and found the realities of potential climate forecasts sobering. Not only will climate change impact the natural, cultural and historic resources we protect, but also how we serve the National Park Service mission and maintain a high-quality visitor experience.
The climate change story is more than dire predictions of the future. There are compelling reasons for federal agencies, as well as individuals, to act quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The future is not written yet. The actions we take today will determine the future Earth we leave our children and grandchildren. Will they be proud that we embraced the challenges of climate change? Or will they be dismayed at our excuses to avoid controversy and challenge? We find hope in the fact that we still have time to create a better, more livable planet.
As the National Park Service moves forward in a world where climate change is a reality, we find common ground where all Americans can stand. First, we are charged with preserving some of the most amazing resources in this country, resources that American livelihoods are based on, and these special places provide a connection with nature and offer personal inspiration. Second, the actions we can take to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions ultimately create a better world through energy efficiency, healthy ecosystems, energy independence and improved human health. These are all desirable outcomes that benefit everyone, regardless of climate change.
Myth 1: The current warming trend is a natural process, the Earth has done this before and nature is capable of coping.
Photo by NPS.
The Earth's temperature fluctuates naturally over what humans view as very long periods of time; tens of thousands to millions of years. The temperature increase attributed to a sharp rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide occurred over a few decades. So while life on this planet copes with gradual change in a dynamic environment, the current warm up, and the speed at which it happens, is unprecedented over the last 1,300 years.
Myth 2: Scientists are in disagreement.
Photo by NPS.
A recent survey of climatologists reveals that 97% of those scientists think that global climate change is occurring presently and that human activity is the primary cause. The myth that scientists disagree about the existence of climate change persists because the scientific method is pitted against an apparent societal need for absolute certainty portrayed in the media.
When faced with a question, scientists first develop a "hypothesis" and then subject their hypothesis to rigorous experimentation and observation. Multiple proven hypotheses may be collected into a "theory," which summarizes several experiments and observations. Theories are lines of thinking that scientist accept as true, but scientists always make room for an exception, or for science to come along with new discoveries that can disprove previously accepted hypotheses and theories. A theory need not have 100% agreement to be valid, and theories seldom achieve unanimous approval. Scientists may disagree about certain aspects of climate change, but this is part of the scientific process, not a sign that a theory is inaccurate. As new facts come to light, science adjusts its theory. A "law" is a predicted set of observations with no significant exceptions. Theories do not "grow up" to be laws once they are proven. In fact, scientists are still refining Newton's laws of gravity.
Let's be clear. Climate change is happening all around us, and human activities are accelerating it. The evidence is overwhelming, and the theory of global warming is sound. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which conducted the survey above, consists of thousands of scientists from all over the world who specialize in difference aspects of climate science. A separate study by the National Academy of the Sciences drew the same conclusions.
As a scientific agency, the National Park Service has learned to adapt our management practices to new evidence as it becomes available. For example, we used to manage forest fires by putting them out as quickly as possible. We now realize that fire is a natural process, and this process must remain active in fire-dependent ecosystems to promote healthy forests, and healthy forests release less carbon into the atmosphere in the long run.
We acknowledge that uncertainty remains over how fast and how much the temperature will increase. Nor are we certain about rainfall levels and the number or severity of storms. Some scientists think that the outcomes will slowly increase like turning a dial; while other scientists think it will be more like flipping a switch. Despite the uncertainty, we believe it far riskier to do nothing. We will move forward with the best science we have today. Our mission demands that we do so.
Myth 3: Global climate change is not human caused we can't possibly affect something as big as the planet.
Photo by NASA.
Our history is alive with examples of human impacts on global systems, from something as large-scale as damming mighty rivers to a myriad of small actions like shooting the last passenger pigeon. We all have the ability to add and take away in small amounts to a global system. We find evidence of how humans have affected natural and cultural resources in our national parks. Petrified Forest National Park was once covered with pieces of petrified wood—not today. The park is facing the possibility that it may lose the singular thing that defines it—because some visitors have taken just one piece of petrified wood. When it comes to climate change, it is not just individual impacts but the collective impact that changes the global system.
Myth 4: If climate change were true we would be seeing the impacts already.
Photo by NPS.
We ARE seeing the impacts in many places around the world. The most obvious impacts are currently visible in more northern latitudes, along the coasts, and in high-elevation habitats. The glaciers in Glacier National Park, for example, are shrinking—the park once had 150 glaciers larger than 25 acres in size, and now only 25 are left, and they are predicted to be completely gone by 2020. Plants like Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park or sugar maples in many eastern parks need a particular temperature zone to survive. They have already begun a shift across the landscape to reach the right growing conditions. Fire seasons in the West appear to start earlier and last longer into the fall. Park facilities and homes in Alaska are sinking due to thawing permafrost. Once gone, these fragile ecosystems and cultural resources are gone forever.
Myth 5: Cold weather disproves global warming.
Photo by NPS.
While we may say "climate" when we mean "weather," and vice versa, they are two very different things. As Mark Twain put it, "Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get." Weather is what we get on a day-to-day basis, whereas climate is the average weather conditions over long periods of time. With the 2010 heavy snowstorms in the Washington DC area, some declared that climate change was over. But climate scientists tell us that with climate change we can expect more flooding, more drought, extended heat waves, and more severe storms. Furthermore, one cold winter does not by itself change the long term average (the climate) much. Both the overall climate and the extremes of weather are a concern for national parks. In 2006, huge floods damaged many of the main roads in Mount Rainier National Park in the Washington state. The park was closed to visitors for many months to repair damaged roads and make it safe for visitors to reenter the park. Those storms may not be directly attributable to climate change, but the increased frequency of such storms will certainly impacts parks.
Myth 6: Climate change is being caused by the sun?
Photo by NASA.
Recent records of the sun's activity show that solar radiation reaching the Earth varies by about 0.1%. That change is too small to explain documented warming over the past 50 years, and scientists haven't found any long-term trend in solar output that would explain it. Two factors control how much energy the Earth receives from the sun. First, subtle wobbles in our planet's orbit around the sun vary the amount of solar radiation received and changes the seasonal cycles. These "Milankovitch Cycles" affect the Earth on timescales of thousands of years and their impact on climate change is well understood. Second, the sun's energy output changes following the 11-year sunspot cycle, but also may vary gradually over longer periods of time.
Myth 7: Alternative energy is too expensive and cannot solve our energy needs.
Photo by NPS.
We need to compare short-term and long-term costs to settle this myth. In the short-term, today's alternative energy producers are often more expensive than traditional energy sources. However, when long-term costs such as pollution, global warming, and quality of life are factored into the economics of energy, alternative energy shines. When faced with the need to change, America produces innovative solutions that lead the world. Many of these changes were very expensive and limited at the beginning. America's national parks were another innovative idea, sometimes called "America's best idea." They were expensive and controversial 100 years ago. Now they are priceless gems that reconnect us with nature, our heritage, and the larger world around us.
Myth 8: There is plenty of time to react to climate change.
Photo by NPS.
Changes in the Earth's climate, because of the increased level of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, already affect our national parks and visitors' experience in the parks. Let's say we could stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere today. The amount we have already released would linger for decades and continue to raise the temperature at the surface of the Earth where we already see the effects of climate change. In the Rocky Mountains, for example, pine trees have already been infested by the mountain pine bark beetle, a blight brought on by the stresses of climate. Acres of dead trees have increased the threat of more severe fire activity, changed the visitor experience and created a hazard for campers in some national parks. By the time we realize such climatic effects, it is often too late to do something about it; a planned response to climate change is much better than a hasty reaction.
Myth 9: There's nothing I can do to change this, so why should I care?
Photo by NPS.
One individual CAN make a difference, a difference that is compounded when others join in. We need your help to make changes so we can fulfill the mission of the National Park Service: to conserve our natural, cultural and historic resources for the enjoyment of this and future generations. We need your help to ensure generations to come experience the tallgrass prairie, see spectacular waterfalls, mountains and hear the call of the pika among wildflowers in the alpine tundra. Please join us.
Climate change effects
and NPS Response
delve deeper into how the climate change is affecting our parks and resources and what we are doing to face this challenge.