COVID-19 Reveals a Crisis of Public Spaces
By Stephen Lezak
Across the United States, local authorities have sealed off public parks and open spaces, blaming visitors who failed to maintain social distance.
What started with closed urban playgrounds spread like a contagion in its own right. In California the city of Santa Cruz banned surfing. In Colorado San Juan County issued an order threatening to tow vehicles belonging to backcountry skiers. "Socially distant" gradually became synonymous with "indoors."
It was only a few weeks ago that going for a hike was seen as a reasonable way to shelter in place. Then the sun came.
Beachgoers and picnickers turned out en masse, making headlines from San Francisco to London. Mayors and governors scolded the public on live television as they announced new restrictions.
A common refrain on social media lamenting the park closures has been, "Why can't we have nice things?" But blaming ourselves for crowded parks misses the underlying issue: In many parts of the country, there simply isn't enough public space to go around.
This problem is most pronounced in urban areas. An analysis of the country's 100 largest cities found that only half of residents live within a half-mile of a park. Access is especially limited for communities of color and low-income groups, where neighborhoods lack public spaces to exercise, relax, gather, or simply breathe clean air.
This lack of city parks puts further pressure on nearby rural areas. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (near San Francisco) and the Blue Ridge Parkway (near Washington, D.C.) had 15 million visitors apiece last year — more than triple the number at Yellowstone or Yosemite.
In the past decade, the National Park Service has seen a 15% increase in visits. But in that same decade, funding grew by less than .5% in real terms, leaving the agency unable to build new trailheads, expand parking lots or address a $12 billion repair backlog.
When recreation sites become overwhelmed, access becomes self-limiting. In much of the country, finding a parking spot at a trailhead is a summer adventure in its own right. We've overcrowded and underfunded ourselves into this situation.
This problem has a straightforward solution. Safeguarding access to public spaces requires protecting more land and improving infrastructure in existing parks. Doing so has the double-effect of creating more space for nature while distributing the impact of visitors. These should be easy wins to support an outdoor recreation economy valued at $500 billion by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
There are any number of ways Congress could address this issue. A simple first step: Mandate that taxes on oil and gas drilling allocated to the Land and Water Conservation Fund are not diverted to other projects or left unappropriated. According to Congress' in-house researchers, less than half of the $41 billion raised by the fund was spent to support public lands and recreation.
This lack of support is hardly accidental. "The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold," wrote William Perry Pendley in 2016. He is now the acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, overseeing a huge swath of federal public land.
Some officials are pushing a narrative in which landscapes are made whole through private development instead of public stewardship. Now, in the midst of a national emergency, we find ourselves unable to keep public spaces open at the time when we need them most — proof that this vision is gaining literal ground. With too little space to go around, staying home is the only way to stay safe.
The pandemic didn't create this crisis. But in the confines of our homes, we should ask whether we've taken our parks for granted. Our stewardship of public spaces must be continually reaffirmed, so that we can all go out in search of social distance — and perhaps even solitude.
Stephen Lezak is a geographer based at the University of Cambridge.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Tara Lohan
Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.
Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.
"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."
Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.
It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.
Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.
Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.
One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.
The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.
They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.
"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."
That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.
And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.
"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."
Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.
"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.
The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.
"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.
The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.
"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."
The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.
The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.
The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.
To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.
Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.
It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.
"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.
"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."
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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.
For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.
"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."
To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.
"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."
So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.