History, History Column

Conservation as a National Duty

by Sarah Becker © 2016

Conservation as a National Duty

History-President Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent, 1903     “The fame of President Theodore Roosevelt has grown in lustre and stature as the years have passed,” President Herbert Hoover said in December 1932. “His accomplishments…bulk large in the pages of history.” The occasion: acceptance of the 1931 deed to Theodore Roosevelt Island. The Island, designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick L. Olmsted, Jr., commemorates Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation. A footbridge connects the National Park Service’s 88.5 acre Theodore Roosevelt Island to northern Virginia’s George Washington Memorial Parkway.

The National Park Service now celebrates its 100th anniversary, especially April through August 25th. Activities are planned, the Cherry Blossom Festival continues, and Roosevelt’s ecofriendly accomplishments remain. Or do they?

Theodore Roosevelt, a progressive Republican born during the steam-powered Second Industrial Revolution, served as President from 1901 until 1909. In 1901 Wall Street was no longer promoting agriculture, textiles and railroads. It favored emerging industries like steel, chemical, petroleum and automobiles.

“The conservation of natural resources is a fundamental problem,” Roosevelt told the Deep Waterway Convention in 1907. “Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others. To solve it, the whole Nation must undertake the task through their organizations and associations, through the men whom they have made specially responsible for the welfare of the several States, and finally through Congress and the Executive.”

“We have become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources,” President Roosevelt told State Governors in 1908. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation.”   The December 2015 COP-21 Climate Conference in Paris ended with a legal agreement covering 195 countries.

How would Theodore Roosevelt respond to news of global warming and today’s climate change debate? Historian Douglas Brinkley suggests Teddy “would have been on the side of science.” Climate research focuses primarily on climate change, climate and energy policy, and low carbon growth.

“Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, human-activated concentrations of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide have risen substantially,” the National Academy of Sciences’ Koshland Science Museum explained. “Historically over half of all global carbon dioxide emissions have been generated by just ten countries. In 1971 the United States was number one in carbon dioxide emissions, followed by Russia and Germany. In 2007, China was number one followed by the United States, Russia, India, Japan and Germany.”

“For many sportsmen, the impacts of climate change are already becoming evident,” The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership reported. “From changes in seasonal distribution of waterfowl, to diminished stream habitat for cold water fish such as trout and salmon.”

TR died in 1919, his conservation work unfinished. Five Presidencies later Herbert Hoover, a geologist and fisherman, appreciated his predecessor’s concerns. The Hoovers 164-acre Presidential Retreat—Rapidan Camp—is now part of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.

History-President Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir at Glacier Point Yosemite Valley in 1906 Photo courtesy of LofCGeologists understand the significance of global warming. In 1883 Yosemite’s largest glacier, the Lyell measured 1.2 million square meters in total volume. In 2015 Lyell Glacier had receded to 270,426 square meters. The neighboring Maclure Glacier, named for William Maclure the father of American geology, suffered a similar fate. Glaciers hold most of the earth’s freshwater yet both will soon disappear.

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity,” President Barack Obama said in his Second Inaugural Address. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” The President released an Executive Order—Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change—on November 1, 2013.

“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, crippling drought, and more powerful storms,” Obama continued. “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But Americans cannot resist this transition.” On March 11, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine claimed “it is now possible to estimate the influence of climate change on some types of extreme events such as heat waves, drought and heavy precipitation.”

In 2014 the United States and China “jointly announced targets to reduce carbon emissions in the post-2020 period.” Last year the Obama Administration moved to protect more than 28,000 miles of Virginia’s streams, including those feeding the James and Potomac Rivers. To what extent will future Presidents continue to lead, especially given the more than 540 Political Action Committees now invested in U.S. election politics?

According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA, calendar year 2015 was the Earth’s warmest since record-keeping began in 1880. The cause retold: greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide (84%), methane (10%), nitrous oxide (4%) and fluorinated gases (2%). Carbon dioxide molecules once emitted remain in the atmosphere for maybe a century.

Temperature change is, as former Vice President Al Gore claims An Inconvenient Truth. The earth is getting hot, Washington’s politics hotter. Do Americans adapt or does the Federal government mitigate? The U.S. Supreme Court, in February, voted 5-4 to temporarily halt the EPA’s 2015 coal-related emissions regulation—the power plant rule—pending disposition of the applicants petition for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia. The stay is without precedent.

“We must look back at history to understand our energy problem, the transition from wood to coal to oil and natural gas,” President Jimmy Carter said in 1977.

The COP21 Climate Conference agreement “aims to limit global temperature rises to ‘well below 2 degrees Celsius.’” Unfortunately the Parties mitigation pledges now fall short of goal. Major emitting countries like the United States will need persistent Presidential leadership to make good its pledge.

Regrettably many have forgotten the so-called 1992 Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro; the U.S. proposals on oceans and the climate convention’s Forests for the Future initiative. “The United States fully intends to be the world’s preeminent leader in protecting the global environment,” President George H.W. Bush proclaimed on June 13, 1992.

“Will Congress, will President George W. Bush get in place a large architecture that sends a signal to the economy?” The Washington Post asked in 2007. Last month ClearPath founder and benefactor Jay Faison, a conservative Republican, challenged the Republican Party to make clean energy a 2016 election issue. Many of America’s largest businesses, including Apple, Berkshire Hathaway Energy and Walmart, already have signed the Obama Administration’s American Business Act on Climate Pledge.

London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House, in its November 2015 report Changing Climate, Changing Diets now calls for a global reduction in meat consumption. The livestock sector; animal respiration is responsible for just under 15% of greenhouse gas emissions, a total equivalent to tailpipe emissions from all the world’s vehicles. Worldwide adoption of a healthy diet would “generate over a quarter of the emissions reductions needed by 2050.”

History-Yosemite's Lyell Glacier as of 1883 and 2015Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy is more than a nearby Island; hiking trails through the District’s Rock Creek Park, or his 60-foot granite face carved on South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore National Memorial. President Roosevelt provided protection for approximately 230 million acres of public land, 18 national monuments, 5 national parks, 150 national forests, 51 Federal bird reservations, and 4 national game reserves. He also established the U. S. Forest Service.

Said President Roosevelt: “Let us remember that the conservation of our natural resources, though the gravest problem of today, is yet but part of another and greater problem to which this Nation is not yet awake, but to which it will awake in time, and with which it must hereafter grapple if it is to live.” Governments, the National Park Service now grapple.

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