Commentary

Climate change threatens most iconic U.S. landscapes

Joshua trees are disappearing, glaciers are melting, wetlands are flooding. Can the threat to our parks — and the wonder they inspire — lead to action?

August 2, 2022 4:13 am

High water area and some of the washed out road way along the Gardner River in Yellowstone National Park on June 13, 2022 (Photo courtesy of Yellowstone National Park via Flickr).

During the past decade, I’ve traveled countless times to the desert regions east of San Bernardino in Southern California. In the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park, I’ve been captivated by the desert’s complex and diverse ecosystems — at once beautiful, perilous fragile, and resilient.

I see constellations at night instead of smog. I’ve summited rock formations that left me breathless and humbled with sweeping views, reminding me to tread lightly on the sacred and ancestral lands of the Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, Serrano, and Mojave peoples.

Millions have also shared memorable experiences like these at our long-treasured national parks. But as climate change caused by human activities brings more heat, drought, and fire, it now threatens natural wonders across the country.

While visiting the Mojave National Preserve last year, I was dismayed to discover the aftermath of a wildfire. There I stood between life and death, between a postcard scene of whimsical, furry-limbed Joshua trees, and a scorched sea of trees and cacti skeletons sprouting from the blackened earth like spent matchsticks. 

In August 2020, the Dome wildfire destroyed more than 43,000 acres of dense Joshua tree forests, killing some 1.3 million Joshua trees.

“The fire spread was assisted by the unusually dry vegetation resulting from a warming climate and frequent drought,” ecologist James Cornett told the Palm Springs Desert Sun.

Nearby at Joshua Tree National Park, climate change-induced fires and drought are pushing its namesake western Joshua tree to extinction. A 2019 scientific study found that without a reduction in carbon emissions, only .02 percent of the species’ national park habitat would remain viable by the end of the century.

Other iconic national parks are facing climate threats as well. A devastating, rapidly expanding fire burns outside Yosemite. Unprecedented rainfall caused flooding and mudslides that shut down Yellowstone earlier this year. The glaciers are vanishing in Glacier National Park.

In Florida’s Everglades, flooding caused by rising ocean levels threatens wildlife that are incapable of surviving in salt water. In West Virginia, changing temperatures and more frequent and intense flooding endanger the forests of New River Gorge National Park.

By not acting urgently to address the climate emergency, the government is also failing to protect these iconic parks.

At the state level, the California Fish and Game Commission deadlocked in June on whether to grant the western Joshua trees permanent protection under California’s Endangered Species Act, delaying a final decision.

At the federal level, the Supreme Court recently restricted the government’s ability to curb emissions from power plants. And West Virginia’s own senator, coal baron Joe Manchin, torpedoed President Biden’s legislative climate agenda.

Biden has responded to these setbacks with executive actions that would provide $2.3 billion in federal funding for U.S. cities and states to respond to climate hazards, government support for cooling centers and air conditioning, and new wind energy leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

These initiatives, while helpful, fall well short of a direct confrontation with the fossil fuel industry most responsible for the climate disaster. And they’re short of Biden declaring a national climate emergency, which would allow him to take bolder measures like reinstating a ban on crude oil exports and stopping offshore drilling.

Climate change is a compounding crisis that affects every life, job, and environment on this planet. And it now challenges the National Park Service’s founding mission, requiring us to re-think what stewardship of our revered public lands entails.

With a limited window to reverse climate change’s catastrophic impacts, it demands a tectonic shift for our survival — and as the California deserts have shown me, for our country’s most awe-inspiring, irreplaceable landscapes.

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Farrah Hassen
Farrah Hassen

Farrah Hassen, J.D., is a writer, policy analyst, and adjunct professor in the Department of Political Science at Cal Poly Pomona.

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