July 2017 - LIVING ON EARTH
Adirondacks in the Bull’s Eye
By Steven Leibo Ph.D.
Back in 2009, as the world community was gathering in Copenhagen to address the growing destabilization of the Earth’s climate, a result of two centuries of humanity’s prolific burning of fossil fuels that has thickened the sweater like solar heat retaining greenhouse gasses within our atmosphere, ABC News produced its own complementary film Earth 2100.
The documentary consisted of a fascinating combination of interviews and a very creative animated speculation on the future. The effort was accomplished through the device of having a woman at the end of the 21st century recount her life as she had experienced the unfolding drama of a destabilized climate. Indeed, as the producers explained the entire concept was based on the premise that in order to address the future, humanity had to be able to imagine it.
Nevertheless, if back in 2009 it was harder for many in the American Northeast to appreciate the dangers of having destabilized the global hydrological cycle, in the years since, those of us who lived through hurricanes, Lee, Irene and Sandy don’t need reminding. Of course, the science of global warming has advanced considerably since 2009. And that includes a better understanding not only of how much faster temperatures are rising, even as the threat of encroaching coastal waters is increasingly appreciated. Not forgetting the extraordinary efforts like that of Jerry C. Jenkins’ in his magisterial Climate Change in the Adirondacks: The Path to Sustainability to focus more specifically on how climate change is likely to impact both the ecology and the economy of the Adirondacks.
No, if the Earth 2100 is a bit dated these days. It is the film’s last moments when the fictional narrator, whose story we have followed from her childhood in Florida, young adult years in San Diego and middle years in New York City, finally settles in upstate New York to a much more basic existence, exhausted by the drama of the century she has just experienced. Therein lies the core of the challenge to the Adirondacks, a threat that too few have yet to appreciate.
True, the impact of a warming atmosphere on the climate, human civilization evolved within over the last ten thousand years is global in its nature, but how it is playing out from Bangladesh to Siberia, from Alaska to New Jersey is of course quite different. Generally, the American Northeast is experiencing a significantly greater rise in temperatures than the rest of the U.S., while the damage caused by ever more common storm surges along the coast are becoming increasingly familiar. Not forgetting the reality that the reduction of lengthy ice freezes across the Northern Hemisphere is stirring infestations of insects from the mountain pine beetle to the hemlock woolly adelgid that are threatening trees, and making fires more common from Alaska and Colorado to upstate New York. While the progressive reduction of seasonal snow and ice has the potential to gut the Adirondack economy that has in long measure been organized around winter sporting activities.
Still, the greatest threat to the Adirondacks is likely to come from an entirely different quarter, from the nature of America’s population distribution along the Northeastern part of the United States; in short from the enormous pressure that the arrival of potentially millions fleeing coastal areas looking to relocate are likely to bring to bear on the Adirondacks.
The fact of the matter is, as anyone who has driven across the United States knows, much of the country is empty. Indeed, significant percentages of the population live along the coasts, people who will increasingly over the next few decades or so be forced to move inland away from rising sea levels. While others, from further south will be likely to wish to avoid rising temperatures and the greater threat of diseases carried by invasive tropical species as the tropics themselves expand from the equator.
Future human migrations of that sort, are perhaps as predictable as the chemistry and physics of methane and CO2 that drive global warming, and will almost certainly see the larger cities of our region, cities like Albany grow significantly. But, that is hardly likely to resolve the threat to the Adirondacks. Indeed, as the New York’s Capital Region grows toward the north an enormous pressure is likely to build toward expanding the regional residential areas and commercial complexes into the Adirondack region, a development that will no doubt be facilitated by the 21st century’s communication revolution that has made telecommuting so much easier. In short, as climate change makes living in the enormous coastal cities more difficult, the internet is making it less necessary to do so.
Some of course might argue that there are enough legal protections legislative and constitutional in place to protect the Adirondacks, but while the unthinkable, massive development in the Adirondacks might seem absurd in normal times, during times of crisis the unthinkable often seems like the altogether logical path. Indeed, the political pressure that could be brought to bear on the Adirondack Park’s protections from those in the especially threatened but also influential coastal zones is enormous. And that is without even mentioning their likely support from those within the Adirondacks who have long fought for greater development and would be even more anxious to do so as the more traditional tourist economy of the Adirondacks falters.
True, the argument will most certainly be made that tearing down a massive forest full of trees that preserve CO2 within themselves is a stupid way to address a crisis caused by too much CO2 in the atmosphere. But cold scientific facts rarely hold sway in normal times, let alone periods of mass anxiety of the sort that is likely to grow over the new few decades. And, of course, the environmental community is not likely to be all that helpful given how many are themselves likely to facing their own existential threat.
Then of course, there is the likely international dimensions of the challenge. More than likely, the flow of climate refugees will provoke the sort of protectionist nationalism we have already seen Syria’s refugees, themselves in part climate refugees, provoke from Europe to the United States. And in that context, even as population movements away from rising coastlines, and ever more common storm surges of water impact public opinion, we are likely to see more calls for Canadian border protections. Add that likely scenario to the fact that few Americans will want to leave the assumed protections their citizenship offers will make the Adirondacks one of the most northerly and inward areas of New York State a person, like that fictional character in Earth 2100 chose to seek safe haven within.
So what does all this mean for those of us who wish to preserve the Adirondacks for future generations? Well, like that for people everywhere attempting to reduce our carbon footprint is vitally important. Happily, there are an enormous range of organizations available to facilitate getting involved in the political struggle to get the situation under control, from the Citizens Climate Lobby and 350.org to the Climate Reality Project, as well a huge number of websites that offer advice on lowering personal carbon footprint such as ClimateCare’s “Fifty Ways to Shrink Your Footprint” being only one example.
Nevertheless, while we might be ultimately able to get the atmospheric damage under control and a foot-high sea rise is certainly better than three or more, the most critical points have already passed. In short, we are already in the era of what some have called the age of consequences, in this case, climatic. Thus, for those who cherish the Adirondacks, the time for decisions is at hand. And those decisions include not only dealing with the most immediate and predictable impacts, such as tree forest death and growing fires, but real consideration of how to address the arrival of climate refugees that are already disrupting life in Europe as we speak.
That requires the opening of a dialogue among both the residents and lovers of the Adirondacks, which needs to be done at every level of the admittedly much decentralized nature of the region’s institutions of civil society and government. After all, the first step in dealing with any problem, even one of these enormous dimensions, is recognizing that it exists.
Steven A Leibo is a Professor of Modern World Civilization at the Sage Colleges an International Affairs Commentator for WAMC Northeast Public Radio and an associate in research at Harvard. He blogs at “Leibo’s World Watch” - sagethoughts.wordpress.com.