The Obama administration is promoting new rules on carbon pollution as a means of improving air quality and human health, somewhat downplaying the impact on climate change. Apparently we still have climate-change deniers in both our state and federal legislatures.
But that global warming is happening, and that we humans caused it, is irrefutable. We’ve all read about the effects of climate change on sea level rise, warming and acidification of the ocean, droughts, floods, wildfires and more severe and unpredictable storms (my daughter-in-law calls this “global weirding”). But wildlife biologists in the field are also detailing the effects on our wildlife resources.
The N.C. Wildlife Federation and National Wildlife Federation recently hosted a “Wildlife Habitat and Networking Roundtable” in Huntersville. The speakers pointed out that North Carolina wildlife, from freshwater fish like trout to migratory birds to coastal animals like sea turtles, are all under threat from climate change. One biologist said North Carolina is suffering from heat waves, drought and flooding brought on by heavy rainfall, threatening wildlife, their habitat and our sportsmen’s heritage. NWF has produced a series of booklets on the current and future effect of global warming on North American birds, fish and big game animals.
Much of the roundtable’s focus, however, was on steps to help wildlife survive and adapt to increasing temperatures. Erin McCombs, natural resources scientist and associate director of Southeast Conservation for American Rivers, said North Carolina’s rivers and the aquatic species that live in them are already suffering from climate change. The state of North Carolina and American Rivers are removing some dams to improve the resilience of species like trout and the otter. Removing dams gives aquatic fish and mammal species more flexibility to move to colder waters when temperatures rise.
These new EPA rules for existing coal-fired power plants are a major step toward reducing carbon pollution at the national level. They are not perfect, and both industry and some conservation groups have opposed them. Many industry representatives say the rules will cost jobs and increase the cost of electricity. Economic pundits say it’s hard to predict the economic costs and benefits of the new rules, but there will be a shift in energy economics and jobs as the country gradually moves from a carbon-based energy economy toward one powered by solar and wind power. Europe is way ahead of us in this shift, and even China is ahead in improving its transmission-line infrastructure to use multiple energy sources.
Some environmentalists complain that these rules are too late and too small. Yes, they are late, as some effects of climate change cannot now be reversed. But they are a major step forward, and at long last, they establish the United States as an international leader in taking steps to reduce carbon pollution. Other countries will eventually follow.
Biologists in the field report that our streams are warming; that floods, droughts, wildfires and severe storms are reducing wildlife habitat; that out-of-control pests like fleas, ticks and mosquitoes are affecting our wild mammals; and that bark beetles are destroying our forests. In North Carolina, global warming threatens our forests, our game animals, our nongame and endangered species, and our recreational industries in our mountains and in the Outer Banks.
In North Carolina, outdoor recreation generates $19.2 billion in consumer spending and $1.3 billion in taxes, and supports 192,000 jobs. More importantly, wildlife habitat is also our habitat. North Carolina is our home, and we share it with all of these wild fish, birds, mammals and reptiles. As they go, we go.
Though most Americans have not heard of it, the Public Trust Doctrine, established by our nation’s forefathers, set air, water and wildlife as public resources – meaning they belong to all of us, and therefore we are tasked with the stewardship of these resources.
The new EPA carbon rules will not stop global carbon pollution or the immediate effects of global warming. But they are a step in the right direction, and our state and federal legislators should take steps to embrace and accommodate these measures.
Robert D. Brown, Ph.D., former dean of the College of Natural Resources at N.C. State University and former president of The Wildlife Society, is a board member of the N.C. Wildlife Federation.