The climate is changing, but is it humankind’s fault? Daniel B. Botkin, professor Emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at University of California Santa Barbara, doesn’t believe so. In the following column, he dissects the conclusions reached by the Union of Concerned Scientists in its report, National Landmarks at Risk, How Rising Seas, Floods, and Wildfires Are Threatening the United States’ Most Cherished Historic Sites.
For those of us who love our national parks and are confronted daily with media, politicians, and pundits warning us of a coming global-warming disaster, it’s only natural to ask what that warming will mean for our national parks. This is exactly what the well-known Union of Concerned Scientists discuss in their recent report, National Landmarks at Risk: How Rising Seas, Floods, and Wildfires Are Threatening the United States’ Most Cherished Historic Sites.
I’ve done research since 1968 on the possibility of human-caused global warming and its possible ecological effects, and have published widely on this topic, discussing possible effects on biodiversity and on specific endangered species as well as on forests, cities, and historical evidence of Arctic sea ice change. I’ve also been involved in the development of some aspects of some climate models, and having developed a computer model of forests that is one of the principal methods used to forecast global warming effects on vegetation, I sought out the UCS report with great interest.
The approach the Union has taken is to have the report written by four staff members: Debra Holtz, a journalist; Kate Cell, a fund-raiser for the organization; Adam Markham, with a B.S. in zoology, who was the founder of Clean Air-Cool Planet, a nonprofit organization “to promote innovative community-based solutions to climate change in the Northeast”; and Brenda Ekwurzel, the Union’s Senior Climate Scientist. She is the only author with research experience on the subject, has a Ph.D. in isotope geochemistry from the Department of Earth Sciences at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and has been on the faculty of the University of Arizona Department of Hydrology and Water Resources.
These four authors took the standard reports from such organizations as the United National Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, treating them as accurate and true, and then discussed the implications for 16 American historic sites. As shown in the accompanying table, they write that 11 of the sites are threatened by rising sea levels and their consequences (coastal erosion and flooding); two by inland flooding; two by wildfires; and one by “extreme heat and drought” (table 1).
The report opens with a bold assertion: “Many of the United States’ iconic landmarks and heritage sites are at risk as never before. Sea level rise, coastal erosion, increased flooding, heavy rains, and more frequent large wildfires are damaging archaeological resources, historic buildings, and cultural landscapes across the nation.” The report later goes on to add, “All of the case studies in this report draw on observations of impacts that are either consistent with, or attributable to, human-induced climate change based on multiple lines of scientific evidence.” To which the authors add, “This report sounds a wake-up call: as the impacts of climate change continue, we must protect these sites and reduce the risks."
The point of the report, its opening theme and its major conclusion, is that these historic places are in trouble and it’s our fault, we have been the bad guys interfering with nature and therefore damaging places we value. This is consistent with the IPCC 2014 report and the 2014 White House Climate Change Assessment, for both of which I acted as an expert reviewer and testified before the House and Senate about.
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