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The zooplankton Calanus finmarchicus. Terje van der Meeren Institute of Marine Research

By Derrick Z. Jackson

Given the rate at which the waters in the Gulf of Maine are heating up, Mainers may need to swap out the lobsters on their license plates for squid. All of New England could issue new specialty plates featuring creatures threatened by the speed climate change is slamming the gulf: a critically endangered right whale, a cute puffin, or a vanishing cod.

By Derrick Z. Jackson

Given the rate at which the waters in the Gulf of Maine are heating up, Mainers may need to swap out the lobsters on their license plates for squid. All of New England could issue new specialty plates featuring creatures threatened by the speed climate change is slamming the gulf: a critically endangered right whale, a cute puffin, or a vanishing cod.

For all the escalating climate-related threats to iconic and commercially valuable marine life in the Gulf of Maine, though, scientists say there is one creature we should especially keep our eye on — a barely visible creature that helps those whales, puffins and cod survive: the zooplankton Calanus finmarchicus.

Often likened to a grain of rice, this “copepod” — or microscopic crustacean — is the keystone of the sub-polar food web that makes the Gulf of Maine one of Earth’s richest marine ecosystems. By munching on phytoplankton and microzooplankton invisible to the naked eye, Calanus pack themselves so densely with fatty acids that researchers call them “butterballs” of the sea. Species that directly eat Calanus at some point in their lives include herring, mackerel, cod, basking sharks, haddock, redfish, sand lance, shrimp, lobster and right whales. The tiny crustaceans fuel the vast North Atlantic food web, where bigger fish forage on smaller fish until the bigger fish end up in the bellies of seabirds, seals, tuna, other flesh-eating sharks and whales — or on our dinner plates.

Bigelow Laboratory zooplankton biologist David Fields has said that the ideal timing of the Calanus finmarchicus life cycle for fish larvae in the spring and whales in the late summer is one of the top examples of why the Gulf of Maine “is beautifully intertwined and synchronous. It is what has made the ecosystem so productive.”

That very synchronicity, Fields said, also makes Calanus highly vulnerable to the gulf’s warming. It makes these tiny creatures a giant symbol of climate change. These metaphoric grains of rice in the ocean are now, like grains in an hourglass, slowly draining away.

Dramatic Declines

The Gulf of Maine already marks the southern end of the range for Calanus finmarchicus on this side of the Atlantic. With record warmth in recent years, the species is in a decline that correlates with right whales bypassing the gulf in search of food hundreds of miles to the north in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There are also early correlations with a decline in baby lobsters. While scientists are often careful to say that correlations do not necessarily mean causation, the decline of Calanus populations coincides with current and projected declines for many fish populations in the gulf.

Last summer, a major summary paper on expected climate-driven changes to the Gulf of Maine by 2050 estimated that current global warming projections mean that populations of lobster, cod, haddock, pollock, herring, northern shrimp, Acadian redfish, and red hake will all be diminished further than they already are. That finding adds to a 2016 assessment by two dozen scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which found that more than half of more than 80 fish species on the Northeast US Continental Shelf have a high or very high probability of distribution shifts due to climate change.

This is despite valiant federal and state efforts to rebuild the stocks of several of those species, including haddock and redfish. Some of those shifts mean that as some species shrivel in prominence in the Gulf of Maine, other species historically more plentiful in the mid-Atlantic, such as longfin squid, butterfish and black sea bass, will likely be more present. Major effects are already being felt in New England’s fishing communities.

Core populations of lobster have moved northward more than 100 miles over the last half century, giving Maine a momentary boom while lobstering has crashed in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Long Island Sound. Last year was the most valuable in the history of Maine’s lobster industry, with 108 million pounds of crustaceans bringing in $725 million in value. But lobsters are moving so fast toward Canada that there are signs that Maine has already peaked in volume.

The 2021 catch was the third straight of about 100 million pounds, still down from the record range of 123 million pounds to 133 million-pounds from 2012 to 2016. Maine’s commissioner of natural resources, Patrick Keliher, said in a press release, “Last year was one for the books and it should be celebrated. But there are many challenges ahead.”

Compound Impacts

The bedeviling thing about the shifts, according to Andy Pershing, director of climate science at Climate Central, and one of the authors of the 2050 summary paper, is that warming is unleashing “compound events” that can spur species’ declines. As a human parallel, Pershing cited Hurricane Ida’s landfall last year in New Orleans. He noted that while some people died during the actual hurricane, far more succumbed to the heat wave that followed because of a lack of power and air conditioning.

In the oceans, the climate-driven warming temperatures set catastrophe in motion. One example is Maine’s northern shrimp, which was a sweet, crawfish-sized regional winter delight. The shrimp fishery has been closed since a crash of the species following the hottest waters on record in 2012. A study last year found that the crash was not directly due to the heat. It was more likely that shrimp were gobbled up by longfin squid attracted by the warmer waters. The study’s authors said their findings “provide further evidence that changing species interactions will have major impacts as ecosystems face disruptions due to climate change.”

Catastrophic Effects on Seabirds

Last summer, I personally saw how “compound events” create chaos for seabirds at one end of the Calanus food web. I spent several nights on three islands managed by National Audubon’s Seabird Institute and the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. I had visited there many times since 1986, but had never previously seen so many carcasses of tern and puffin chicks strewn across the landscape. Nor had I experienced what I realized was a funereal quietude from the absence of terns screeching to help protect their chicks.   

The die-off was the result of a relentless double whammy of heat waves and record rain events. Some chicks starved because the heat drove traditional puffin and tern prey — such as haddock, hake and herring — too far away or too deep for parents to catch. Others died of hypothermia because they could never dry out from the rain. Steve Kress, the retired founder of the 49-year-old Project Puffin, told me that Eastern Egg Rock, the first island he repopulated with that bird, endured 54 days of rain events. The prior record was 32.

Islands throughout New England reported record chick failures of puffins and various species of terns. Many puffin chicks that survived the onslaught were so underweight and undersized that researchers called them “micro puffins.” On Eastern Egg Rock, research assistants led to me to a spot where an adult tern and its chick appeared to die next to each other. They speculated that the chick died of hunger while the adult died in the vain effort to find enough food. “You hear of humans dying of heartbreak,” research assistant Jasmine Eason told me. “This looked like it.”

An adult tern and its chick lie dead on Eastern Egg Rock, Maine, possibly due to overexertion for the adult from trying to find food for the starving chick. Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson.

I heard heartbreak too from seabird researchers like I have never heard it. Longtime Canadian ecologist and seabird expert Tony Diamond, commenting on what he’s seen on Machias Seal Island, the island in the gulf with the most puffins, said, “Sometimes I’m shocked by the meals the birds are bringing in compared to what we used to see. Thirty years ago, it was big, fat juvenile herring. Today, so many times, they’re bringing in tiny little fish in their beaks. It’s not nearly enough to sustain them if this keeps up.”

Fellow Canadian researcher Heather Major, Project Puffin ecologist Keenan Yakola, and Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) scientist Kathy Mills all worry about how the warming creates “mismatches” in when prey bloom and spawn and when predators come and go. The timing is crucial for migratory animals. Puffins, for instance, come to Maine’s islands for only about four months of late spring and mid-summer to breed. Right whales fatten up in New England and Canada for their winter calving waters off the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Climate change is threatening puffin populations by driving traditional prey — such as haddock, hake and herring — too far away or too deep for parents to catch. Here, an adult puffin settles for butterfish, a more southerly species too oval for its young to swallow. Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson

“A species like the Arctic tern will leave for South America in the fall, but its survival the next year and the survival of its chicks may depend on everything that’s happening in Maine while it is away,” Yakola said.

Record Heat

What a tern, whale or puffin will return to after their winter migrations depends increasingly on whether humans act to curb the warming. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) recently announced that last fall was the warmest on record in the gulf. Average sea surface temperatures in early October that used to hover around 60 degrees Fahrenheit were nearly five degrees warmer. Even in November, a month where temperatures historically descended into the high 40s, they stayed in the low 50s.

The data shows that sea surface temperatures last summer were the second warmest ever recorded in the gulf, four degrees Fahrenheit higher than the historical average. The six warmest summers ever recorded for sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Maine have all been logged since 2010. In 2020, the gulf hit a single-day sea-surface record temperature of nearly 70 degrees. The primary reason is that the warm Gulf Stream is expanding its presence as cold currents coming down from Labrador are losing their power.

“We’re getting to levels that are really exceptional,” Mills said. “We’re already running ahead of climate models. There’s always going to be some year-to-year variability, but the warming has become a persistent pattern where variability doesn’t get us back to ‘normal,’” she added.

For cold-water sea animals, such a four-to-six-degree difference in sea temperatures is akin to stepping out of an air-conditioned home into punishing Arizona summer heat. The big question is can humans keep nature’s “air conditioner” running in New England.

Don Lyons, director of conservation at National Audubon’s Seabird Institute, home of Project Puffin, said he remains hopeful that the Gulf of Maine can inspire action on climate change because there’s been so much investment in preserving so many species of animals and so much habitat. These waters are concentrated with historic conservation victories, from the restoration of puffins to the rebounding of fish stocks, and from the 1972 creation of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge to the 2016 creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument.

So far, the overall investment and vigilance in preserving the gifts of the gulf continues to pay dividends. Over the last decade, there have been enough cooler summers interspersed with the record heat to keep puffin populations at record levels, with at least one bird being 32 years old. Some cousins of the puffin, razorbills and murres, are increasing their population. “We’re not going to avoid all impacts,” Lyons said. “But I think it’s possible for us to bend the curve.”

In a sign of a conservation victory, here a healthy, banded puffin in Maine returns to its young with a plentiful haddock catch. Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson

Bending the curve of course ultimately means curbing the fossil fuels driving the heat-trapping gases of climate change. It means that we cannot just “ooh and ahh” at whales and puffins; we need to look out for the health of creatures like Calanus finmarchicus. In the paper on the gulf at 2050, Pershing, Mills, Diamond and 10 other co-authors said this zooplankton is the “signature invertebrate animal of the North Atlantic subpolar ecosystem.”

Without it, there’s no telling how many more whales we will see blowing at the surface, how many puffin will be bringing fat juvenile haddock for their chicks, or whether there will be a fat Maine lobster on your plate. It was only in 2016 that a campaign by schoolchildren resulted in officially designating the lobster as the state crustacean of Maine. Perhaps now there should be a campaign to make to Calanus finmarchicus the official plankton of New England, before they — and the lobsters they help sustain — are gone. 

Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. Formerly of the Boston Globe and Newsday, Jackson is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a 10-time award winner from the National Association of Black Journalists, a 2-time winner from the Education Writers Association, a commentary winner from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and co-winner of Columbia University’s Meyer Berger Award

Reposted with permission from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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Derrick Z. Jackson

By Derrick Z. Jackson

Walls of red, walls of gold. Stratified hillsides exposing 270 million years of Earth formation with ribbons of cocoa, caramel, burned orange, and white. Hoodoo rock formations playing tricks on our minds as massive boulders appear to teeter atop eroded, pencil-thin spires. We walked under natural arches that gloriously framed the desertscape. Petrified wood shimmered like quartz.

By Derrick Z. Jackson

Walls of red, walls of gold. Stratified hillsides exposing 270 million years of Earth formation with ribbons of cocoa, caramel, burned orange, and white. Hoodoo rock formations playing tricks on our minds as massive boulders appear to teeter atop eroded, pencil-thin spires. We walked under natural arches that gloriously framed the desertscape. Petrified wood shimmered like quartz.

Most dramatic of all was a walk into a slot canyon just a quarter mile from the road. Brilliant sunshine dimmed into filtered strands and made the walls glow crimson and magenta. My wife, Michelle Holmes, and our dog Nila went ahead while I stayed behind to photograph them as tiny dots putting the scale of towering walls into perspective. For a few precious moments on this day in September, it was just us in the canyon, bathing in the silence and the saturated redness, with a crown of orange at the top as the sunlight snaked in far above.

Derrick Z. Jackson

Three weeks after this visit, at the urging of Indigenous tribes and conservation groups, the Biden administration restored the original boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments.

Back in our car, driving between towering red cliffs on both sides of us, we reflected on how sights like these could cease to be accessible with the stroke of a presidential pen.

national monument

Derrick Z. Jackson

We were visiting Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It was established 25 years ago by President Clinton. In his official proclamation, Clinton said its 2,900 square miles in southern Utah bordering Bryce Canyon National Park, contained the last region to be mapped in the continental United States.

Unlike a national park, which must be created by Congress, areas every bit as beautiful or valuable for their geology or troves attesting to ancient human movement can be protected by US presidents under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Hailing Grand Staircase-Escalante’s Indigenous cultural sites and art, dinosaur fossils, bizarrely spectacular natural architecture, and some of the richest flora in the arid West between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, Clinton said the area was important enough to protect from widescale mining.

“Mining is important to our national economy and to our national security,” Clinton said. “But we can’t have mines everywhere, and we shouldn’t have mines that threaten our national treasures.”

Twenty years, later, President Obama, citing 2,100 square miles of similar abutting wonders needing protection, created Bears Ears National Monument which shares part of its border with Canyonlands National Park.

national monument

Derrick Z. Jackson

national monument

Derrick Z. Jackson

Jettisoned for Unwanted Coal

Then along came a president who promised mines and wells everywhere for coal, oil, and gas. In a wholesale assault on federal water and air regulations and wilderness and wildlife protections, and thumbing his nose at climate science saying the planet must drastically cut fossil fuel burning to avoid catastrophic planetary warming, President Trump slashed the area of Bears Ears by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by nearly half in December of 2017. Internal emails obtained by the New York Times connected the decision on Grand Staircase-Escalante to estimates of billions of tons of coal under the rocks—despite strong words from some mining analysts that the monument was no place to pin the hopes of the fossil fuel industry.

Donovan Symonds, a former president of the Coal Preparation Society of America and a retired mining consultant, called coal mining in Grand Staircase-Escalante “economic folly” in a 2017 op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune. Citing the remote distance of the monument from railways and ports, the sharp decline in coal for domestic power plants and cheaper coal for the export market being mined in Australia, Indonesia and South Africa, Symonds wrote: “Utah coal cannot compete in this market to any meaningful degree and certainly not enough to invest in expensive infrastructure and new mine facilities.”

Under the Trump administration’s policy of deliberately ignoring the incidental “co-benefits” of pollution controls to human health and the landscape, the White House never factored in the monument’s economic value as an undisturbed treasure. According to an analysis by Headwaters Economics, an independent, non-profit land-management research group, recreational dollars are hugely responsible for a major rise in jobs and personal income in the Grand Staircase-Escalante region. Before the near-halving of the monument, the number of visitors had risen from 613,000 in 2005 to 982,993 by 2017.

Between 2008 and 2015 alone, the percentage of jobs in the region tied to travel and tourism had risen from 37 percent to 44 percent. A study last year in the journal Science Advances found that national monuments in the Mountain West were a net economic positive in local economies, “creating a new set of economic forces oriented around the historic, cultural, and scenic amenities these public lands provide.”

Almost as if there were a collective effort to appreciate the treasure, visitations to Grand Staircase-Escalante spiked 18 percent, to nearly 1.2 million visitors in 2018 after the Trump cuts. Three years later, my wife and I were out in Utah as part of that wave, amplified by people getting back outdoors after the worst of the COVID pandemic.

Even though school was back in session across the nation, in our travels we found we had to get into Arches National Park by 7:30 am or so, or risk being locked out for hours. Visitor centers at Capitol Reef National Park and Canyonlands National Park were similarly mobbed. Short trails near parking lots were as full as a downtown sidewalk. While that of course raises important questions of the impact of feet, hands, vandalism, car emissions, and trash, those problems are preferable to hillsides scarred and gouged forever by coal mining.

As beautiful as those parks are, the far more primitive Grand Staircase Escalante was the gem for us. Perhaps precisely because it is not officially a national park, there were virtually no services once you leave the main road. We had a hike around the hoodoos where we were the only people visible for many minutes at a time. I could hear the skitter of a lizard at my feet. We could see through the arches to the horizons. We drove roads where for many moments, the only movements were those of hawks patrolling the scrublands.

national monument

Derrick Z. Jackson

Three weeks after our visit, the Biden administration, at the urging of Indigenous tribes and conservation groups, restored the original boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears. The welcome decision offers a happy ending for now.

The next step is to ensure that the renewed protections for these lands can be made as permanent as the 270 million years of Earth’s history embedded within them. Many national monuments established since Teddy Roosevelt began using presidential powers to create them in 1906 have become national parks established by Congress, including Death Valley, Olympic, Zion, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Joshua Tree and Acadia.

national monument

Derrick Z. Jackson

Should Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears join this spectacular club? If they did, southern Utah could be a 300-mile-long majesty of permanently protected land with few gaps, from Zion up to Arches.

But as anyone who has tried to get into Arches this year can attest, something might be lost by being elevated to park status. National monuments such as these, similar to national wildlife refuges, can offer opportunities to appreciate nature and the landscape at its grandest without hordes of people, expensive hotels and t-shirt shops.

What would be best of all is that these lands become so treasured by the public that they no longer teeter like a boulder atop a hoodoo, too easily felled by a president in the name of greed.

national monument

Derrick Z. Jackson

Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. Formerly of the Boston Globe and Newsday, Jackson is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a 10-time award winner from the National Association of Black Journalists, a 2-time winner from the Education Writers Association, a commentary winner from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and co-winner of Columbia University’s Meyer Berger Award.

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Flagstaff Lake along the A.T. in Maine. Derrick Z. Jackson

By Derrick Z. Jackson

I am the very accidental Black nature lover.

By Derrick Z. Jackson

I am the very accidental Black nature lover.

I was a typical urban boy in Milwaukee and a rabid sports fan in the 1960s. The most significant eagles to me played football in Philadelphia. The first cardinal I ever paid attention to was Bob Gibson throwing fastballs for St. Louis. My first confirmed sighting of an oriole was Frank Robinson blasting home runs for Baltimore. Bears and lions were fauna native to Chicago and Detroit and invasive species in Green Bay.

A dismal failure at actual sports, I did the next-best thing. I became a sportswriter and photographer. In college, I covered high school sports for the Milwaukee Journal. I shot for the Associated Press at Green Bay Packers games and the 1974 National Basketball Association (NBA) finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics. By 1979, at the age of 23, I was covering the New York Knicks and the NBA finals for Newsday.

That was my idea of climbing a summit, clueless of other ranges to scale.

That same year, I met a Black woman named Michelle Holmes. She was a medical student at Harvard University. In our first fall of dating, she said, “Let’s go see the foliage.”

I responded, “What’s foliage?”

A stunned Michelle said, “You know, foliage…foliage? You’re kidding. You don’t know what foliage is?”

bald eagle.

Bald Eagle – just north of the A.T. near Umbagog Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire. Derrick Z. Jackson

Suddenly, I flashed back to the drives in the fall from Milwaukee to Green Bay for Packers games, with farm fields rimmed by yellow, orange, and red trees. “Oh, do you mean the changing of the leaves?” Michelle nodded affirmatively and then moved on to proclaiming that we would go see the leaves on a four-day holiday weekend.

Puzzled by the notion that this would take up a whole weekend, I asked:

“How long can you look at a red leaf?”

That weekend, Michelle chose a mountain to climb. She chose no slouch. It was Mt. Tecumseh, listed as one of the White Mountain’s 4,000 footers (there is an ongoing debate as to whether it is just 3,995 feet). As we ascended, a fog so dense enveloped the mountain that my attempt to shout died inches from my lips. At the summit, Michelle despaired that I would never go hiking again because our view was the equivalent of being shrouded under a white bedsheet.

Then, hot and sweaty, I saw beads of dew glistening from a pine tree. I shook the tree to give myself a shower. The cooling effect, combined with the seductive scent of the pine, sent me into an ecstasy that shocked me. “This feels and smells sooooo good!” I told her.

At that moment, I was hooked on nature. Over the next decade, all our vacations, eventually with two little boys, involved camping in the outdoors. We camped in national parks from Acadia to Death Valley, from the Virgin Islands to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and from the Everglades to Kings Canyon/Sequoia and Yosemite. We camped in national forests from New Hampshire to New Mexico. In 1988, we quit our old jobs at the same time and drove from Boston to Alaska, car-camping for six weeks among glaciers, eagles, moose, otters, bears, and puffins and dazzled by fields of lupines and vistas of towering peaks across from spits.

Soon after I took up my new job as a metro columnist at the Boston Globe, I was asked to give a talk at predominantly Black Roxbury Community College. In the question-and-answer period after my set speech, a young Black man asked me about my hobbies.

“Birdwatching,” I responded.

That started a giggle that rolled like a tsunami into rollicking laughter in a room of 200 people. I asked the young man, “Why do you think everyone is laughing?” He said, “You know.”

I knew where he was going, but I played dumb and said, “No, I don’t know, so tell me.”

He said, “You know what I mean.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “You know, birdwatching … that’s a White thing.”

A fresh wave of laughter swept through the room. After it subsided, I said:

“I figured that’s what you’d say. Here’s what I think.” I rattled off the names of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and all the world of marchers and protestors who agitated for civil rights, then said:

“They didn’t talk about it this way, but I look at what they were fighting for, and I don’t think it was just about voting rights, lunch counters, bus seats, and school desegregation. In an unspoken way, I think they also risked their lives and shed blood for our right to enjoy and take ownership of this whole nation. For me, that means my right to enjoy national parks, to care about the birds, and to feel my presence is equal to anyone else’s.”

More than 30 years later, ownership, stewardship, and my assertion that birdwatching, the outdoors, and the environment is everyone’s thing has become urgent to the point of emergency. On the more pleasant and personal side, Michelle’s love of the outdoors led her to section-hike the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) over thirteen years, finishing in 2019. I probably did about 700 miles of the Trail supporting her, including glorious traverses of the Smokies and much of the White Mountains.

Michelle’s getting me to love nature led me to become the coauthor and photographer of two books on the restoration of Atlantic puffins to islands off the coast of Maine, where they had been hunted into local extinction for nearly a century. For two decades, we together have escorted a diverse set of urban Scouts into the wilds, from canoe camping in Maine to ten nights of backpacking at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Our troop’s commitment to diversity led to one of our girls being in the 2021 inaugural class of female Eagle Scouts.

On the less pleasant side, climate change now bears down on us with unbearable temperatures, rising seas, and devastating storms. Black and Latinx families are disproportionately suffering from the impacts in heat islands in redlined neighborhoods and displacement by hurricanes such as Katrina in New Orleans and Harvey in Houston. That is on top of the decades of systemic environmental injustice of Black and Brown families living in injurious, disproportionate, asthmatic proximity to refining and burning of fossil fuels in industry and transportation. The chronic illnesses due to that proximity are considered a major factor in why the COVID-19 Black and Brown death rate remains double that of White victims.

family outdoors hiking

Derrick Z. Jackson with his son, Tano Holmes, and wife, Michelle Holmes, at Chimney Pond in Baxter State Park, Maine. Derrick Z. Jackson

Belying the laughter of that Roxbury Community College audience over my birdwatching, people of color have for several years now actually felt more strongly than White people that climate change must be dealt with immediately. A 2015 New York Times poll found that 79 percent of Latinx respondents considered climate change to be an important problem, compared to 63 percent of White respondents. By a two to one margin, Latinx respondents considered climate change a global problem worthy of U.S. aid to low-income countries for climate mitigation.

In 2020 New York Times election battleground state polls, 84 percent of Black respondents nationally said they worry about their community being harmed by climate change, compared to 55 percent of White respondents. In Florida, two of three Black respondents and three of four Latinx respondents worry about their lives being impacted by rising seas. In Arizona, three of four Latinx respondents worry about being impacted by rising temperatures. Only half of White respondents worry about climate impacts in Florida and Arizona.

This racial divide in climate change concern is critically germane to those who envision an outdoors recreation scene where Black and Brown people backpack along trails such as the A.T. in proportion to their share of the nation’s population. According to the very latest analysis by the Brookings Institution, the White population in the U.S., once close to 90 percent for the first half of the 20th century, will likely slip under 60 percent in the 2020 census. That means that four of every ten hikers over all and every other hiker under the age of 25 should be of color to mirror the demographics of this country.

As an outdoor enthusiast, bird author, and journalist, I straddle a knife’s edge between the enjoyment and conservation of natural beauty and the ugliness of environmental injustice and the very public racial turmoil that has engulfed many old-line environmental organizations as staff people of color demand much more than token inclusiveness from White executives. I’m appreciative of the increasing number of books and essays by Black people chronicling their individual journeys into nature and digging for a more truthful history of the Black experience in outdoor spaces, which includes helping to build and protect national parks, only to endure segregated facilities during Jim Crow.

As someone who — again inspired by Michelle’s vision — ritually camped with Black friends on Memorial Day weekend from our mid-20s to our mid-40s, I smile when I read of new hiking groups, outdoor collaboratives, and environmental journalist networks led by people of color. I wrote in celebration over the 2020 presidential election and the Georgia Senate runoffs for how environmental justice voters showed up big, so big that President Biden’s cabinet has an unprecedented number of officials with a track record of fighting against unjust pollution and poisoning of communities of color.

Of course, all this represents just the beginning of a new day. How bright that day becomes will significantly depend on how the predominately White environmental and conservation world responds to all of this. Last year, amid the upheaval over police brutality that ignited sweeping reexaminations of systemic racism, legacy environmental groups claimed to understand they had a role in the reckoning.

woman hiking

Michelle Holmes traversing the Bigelow Mountains on the A.T. in Maine. Derrick Z. Jackson

Websites are full of acknowledgement that the land we all hike on was stolen from Indigenous peoples. Several organizations offered confessionals on the past racist beliefs of founders and decades of White supremacy culture that alienated potential talent of color. Many groups have made environmental justice part of their portfolio and forging partnerships with communities to assist in their fights against pollution and systemically poor infrastructure.

It has finally dawned on environmental leaders, at least rhetorically, that a movement symbolized so long by melting ice and polar bears must meld into a more holistic vision. It is hard to invite people to put on some hiking boots to meditate on the carpets of trillium and tunnels of rhododendron along the A.T. in the South or marvel at scarlet tanagers zipping through the canopy or ravens soaring around the barren peaks of the New Hampshire White Mountains if they can’t open their windows in the city during a heat wave because of blowing industrial soot. At some point, environmentalism and environmental justice must stop being two separate words.

The polls say people of color in the U.S. understand that more clearly than White residents. The former are ready to get cracking on getting rid of pollution and being full players and leaders in the green economy, while the latter remains hesitant. In a survey last fall commissioned by West Harlem Environmental Action (WEACT) and the Environmental Defense Fund, 60 percent of Black adults say they are very concerned about air pollution in their community, compared to only 32 percent of White adults. Black and Latinx respondents score higher than White respondents on saying “Clean energy jobs are for people like me.”

The reality is that old-line environmental groups face an unspoken challenge equal to any effort to create safe spaces for people of color in the outdoors or in their offices.

They must work toward unity among White people about the urgency of climate change, its interplay with environmental injustice, long-term threats to our economy, and the unavoidable need to part with tax dollars both domestically and abroad for clean-ups and clean energy. The hardest part will be to convince White people of their collective systemic privileges to delay, avoid, or recover from the worst impacts of a boiling planet.

The advantages are endless. In hot places, it could be the affordability of air conditioning and living in naturally cooler areas because of tree canopies and parks. In coastal areas, it could be sturdier homes, car ownership to evacuate to higher ground, or quicker access to federal emergency funds if homes are damaged or destroyed after floods and hurricanes. Just about everywhere, it is the relative lack of living with — and choking on — fossil soot. Groundbreaking studies have shown that, while White people account for most of the pollution in consumer activity, Black and Latinx communities disproportionately breathe it in.

Environmental groups must get White people to account for these advantages in an equitable climate strategy on the daily home-front to have any long-term credibility on inviting people of color into the outdoors on the weekend. As of now, White people collectively refuse to account for them. A 2019 Pew survey found that, while 68 percent of Black respondents thought White people benefit “a great deal” from advantages Black people don’t have, only 23 percent of White respondents said they benefit a great deal from their advantages. A 2020 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 23 percent of White respondents said they receive “too many special advantages.”

White denial of advantage cannot be soft-pedaled by environmental leaders after the surge of White supremacy during and after the two terms of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president. The last decade has seen the tragedies in Charlottesville, Virginia, Charleston, South Carolina, the police and vigilante murders of Black people, and the insurrection of January 6, 2021. They cannot be soft-pedaled as forces are on a relentless march to roll back or stymie environmental protections that would degrade daily life and the outdoors for all of us. Denial of advantage is its own fatal disadvantage. Take COVID-19. Black and Brown people remain twice as likely to die from infections, yet 350,000 White people have died. Try to find the advantage there.

In imagining equality in the United States, Martin Luther King, Jr., invoked the imagery of the outdoors in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. He said:

“Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

“But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

Now that we are reimagining the outdoors for all, on every mountainside, we must come to grips that this quest is no longer just about my wife getting me to look at a red leaf or old-line environmental groups hiring “outreach” staff to get people of color out into pristine wilderness.

Environmentalism also must ring down from the mountains to ring out soot in our cities, fight for clean water, and protect people from the rising seas. If we can replace environmental injustice with a true commitment toward pristine environs where people live every day, I can guarantee that a whole lot of people will feel a lot more welcome to climb an actual summit and shake down some dew from a tree.

Derrick Z. Jackson is the 2021 Scripps Howard winner for Excellence in Opinion Writing and the 2021 winner in both Social Justice and Sports commentary from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He is co-author of “The Puffin Plan,” winner in Teen Nonfiction from the Independent Book Publishers Association. Published in 2020 by Tumblehome Books.

Reposted with permission from AT Journeys (the magazine of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy).

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