Michael Lanza is the author of Before They're Gone: A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks. In honor of Earth Day, we asked him "What is today's most pressing environmental issue?"
It's hard to argue that there's anything more urgent and potentially catastrophic than climate change. In reading countless journal articles and conducting numerous interviews for my book, Before They're Gone—A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks, it was hard to maintain optimism in the face of forecasts that the steady diminishing of mountain snows means that Yosemite’s famous waterfalls will peter out earlier in the year; that every glacier in Glacier National Park is doomed to melt away; that Joshua Tree National Park will one day no longer support its namesake tree, and much of the Everglades is fated to sink beneath the sea. The issue became powerfully immediate to me in realizing that much of this fallout will occur within the lifetimes of my children.
Many scientists now believe that a rise of 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in average temperatures worldwide is unavoidable in this century, which could erase 40 percent of all species on the planet. It was really disturbing to interview one leading scientist after another and hear every one of them express fear that we’re facing the greatest disaster in the history of human civilization.
It's frightening to contemplate what this will mean for people all over the world. Many scientists I interviewed echoed the comments of USGS research ecologist Nathan Stephenson, who told me, “Sometimes people say, ‘If this has happened in the past, why should we be worried?’ The simple answer is: you would not have wanted to be alive then. Civilizations have fallen on slight changes in climate.”
As I wrote in my book: Our conversation about climate has not achieved the degree of honesty we would use when talking with our own kids. We would not encourage them to make choices fraught with such a high degree of risk. Yet we as a people have embraced just that kind of choice time and again.
Still, I feel optimistic—partly because optimism offers the only hope for the world our kids will inherit. I think we’re at the brink of a tectonic shift in public perception and understanding of climate change, one that could, hopefully, drive public policy in the right direction. Record high temperatures are being constantly recorded all over the world. A recent poll showed a large majority of Americans believe that extreme weather events of recent years are connected to climate change. Major corporations are calculating the impacts of rising temperatures on their business. The Pentagon is preparing for a world growing more politically unstable as crop failures increase and societies grapple with simply feeding their people.
We have to hope—especially for our children and grandchildren—this positive shift in public awareness and action will happen fast enough and isn’t coming too late. We have no reasonable option but to do much better than we are now.