To help slow climate change, preserve desert habitats
Editor's note: This opinion piece by Fellow Dustin Mulvaney first appeared in The Mercury News.
Climate change is the keystone environmental problem of our times. While most proposed solutions emphasize reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion, measures that protect our remaining wildlands are also a means to combat and adapt to climate change.
The designation of Mojave Trails, Castle Mountains, and Sand to Snow National Monuments in the California desert is an important mechanism for the United States to help fulfill its promise as a global leader on climate change.
Recently, leaders from around the world wrapped up the 21st United Nations Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris. They made substantial commitments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Unfortunately, President Obama now likely finds himself hamstrung by a recalcitrant Congress which has proven intransigent toward making substantial commitments on this issue. Thus the president would be wise to consider all tools available to him, including the Antiquities Act, which provides him with the authority to permanently protect nationally significant cultural and scientific resources that also can help mitigate and adapt to climate changes.
An important mechanism of fighting climate change is to preserve the planet's capacity to reabsorb or sequester carbon dioxide pollution. Recent studies have conclusively demonstrated that the deserts of the American Southwest provide substantial carbon sequestration capabilities.
Desert plants are some of the longest-lived organisms on the planet and thereby provide very substantial capabilities to uptake carbon through photosynthesis. Permanently protecting large swaths of the California desert such as Mojave Trails National Monument will ensure that these landscapes continue doing the important work of sequestering carbon pollution.
Mitigating climate change is extremely important to avert this disastrous global threat as we have already seen a global temperature rise of over 1° Celsius. The effects of this can be seen on human communities around the globe, from tropical islands to the Arctic tundra. Thus, another pillar of global efforts on climate change is climate adaptation.
Research suggests that native flora and fauna in our wildlands will naturally migrate upward in elevation as their current ranges become warmer, in search of climate conditions similar to those in which they evolved. The preservation of large and varied landscapes such as the proposed Sand to Snow National Monument, which ranges in elevation from below 1,000' to over 11,000', will enable these plants and animals to adapt to changing conditions.
Finally, knowing that our desert environments are changing, it is important for us to preserve our most intact and robust natural communities. The proposed Castle Mountains National Monument is home to one of the most intact and spectacular populations of Joshua Trees in the California desert. The permanent protection of this landscape will help preserve this irreplaceable ecosystem, thus ensuring the long-term survival not just of local Joshua Trees but also the wildlife which thrives in the Castle Mountains including desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions and badgers.
President Obama made a commitment in Paris that the United States will be a global leader in combating climate change. Through his powers under the Antiquities Act, the president can take action which will both ameliorate the effects of increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and provide for the adaptation and preservation of natural communities in the California desert.
The designation of California desert national monuments will be a visible demonstration of our nation's commitment to fighting global climate change. I encourage the president to do this as a part of his administration's lasting conservation legacy.