The Politics of Earth Day

Earlier this month Jonathan Franzen wrote a controversial article pitting climate change against conservation.  His argument is that climate change, admittedly the cardinal environmental issue of our time, overwhelms our green agenda by obfuscating cause and effect relationships.  As a result, it's easy to make every environmental issue a climate change issue because the solutions are so abstract and the culprits so diffuse.  Climate change is everyone's fault, and therefore no one's:

[Climate change] deeply confuses the human brain, which evolved to focus on the present, not the far future, and on readily perceivable movements, not slow and probabilistic developments.  The great hope of the Enlightenment—that human rationality would enable us to transcend our evolutionary limitations—has taken a beating from wars and genocides, but only now, on the problem of climate change, has it foundered altogether.

The question, then, is not whether we should care that climate change is wreaking havoc on the planet.  Of course we should.  The question is whether climate change must be at the very top of every environmentalist's to-do list.  And the answer to that question is no.  I've written about this in the context of droughts, floods, and wildfires, arguing that while climate change is almost certainly exacerbating existing vulnerabilities, public discussion is so focused on the climate change element that not enough attention is being paid to the vulnerabilities that would exist with or without climate change.

 Photo: Eric Salard

Photo: Eric Salard

The dichotomy Franzen presents between climate change and conservation has been understandably criticized for being misleading, and it's true that climate change mitigation and adaptation often requires conservation of critical ecosystems and conservation efforts often require climate change adaptation.  But it's worth asking whether every conservation effort is best framed as a climate change issue.  

The question matters today because it's Earth Day, and that engenders abstract thinking about the environment.  It also matters because today President Obama is visiting the Everglades to make his case for climate change action.  That might be a riskier move than it initially appears.  The Everglades are the largest tropical wetland in the United States and one of the most unique ecosystems in the world.  Under constant threat from agriculture and urban development, the area has been the source of a surprising amount of bipartisan cooperation as politicians realize how crucial the Everglades are to South Florida (providing drinking water, tourism dollars, recreation opportunities, and cultural heritage).  Former Florida Governor (and potential presidential candidate) Jeb Bush partnered with former President Clinton in 2000 to create the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan to restore the ecological integrity of the wetlands.  Even Tea Party Republican and current Florida Governor Rick Scott has claimed President Obama is not doing enough to promote restoration.

The President's political angle here is that the iconic landscapes of the Everglades will help frame climate change as a critical domestic issue.  Saltwater intrusion from sea level rise threatens to contaminate our drinking water and invasive species erode biodiversity.  What better way to promote the President's Climate Action Plan (including a new energy grid, China treaty, and carbon pollution regulations) than a visit to our beloved Everglades?

The risk, though, is that by making the Everglades a climate change prop, it will no longer receive the bipartisan restoration support it needs to stay healthy.  Governor Scott infamously prohibited government employees from using the words "climate change" in official documents.  Florida's presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio will receive immense pressure to take a similar stance and oppose the President's climate agenda.  

The President is right to pursue a robust climate action plan, and he's right that the Everglades and climate change are intertwined.  But climate change isn't the only threat to the Everglades.  A dominant agricultural industry and burgeoning population are forces to be reckoned with, and the Everglades will need all the bipartisan support they can get.  Climate change and conservation may be a false dichotomy, but the politics of Earth Day show us that their interests are not always aligned.