Why Copenhagen matters to Yellowstone and all of our national parks

Success at Copenhagen is crucial to the survival of Yellowstone--and all of our national parks. (Photo by Beth Pratt)World leaders gathering in Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference negotiated over a draft climate agreement and methods for transferring green technologies to developing countries. Connie Hedegaard, President of the conference, reported “we have made considerable progress over the course of the first week.” Protesters disagreed, with tens of thousands flooding the streets of the city yesterday, holding banners with messages like “There is no Planet B” and demanding immediate action from the delegates.

Although to most people the bureaucratic meetings in a distant city seem to have little relevance to their own lives, what happens in Copenhagen doesn’t stay in Copenhagen. The inability to come to a consensus on a treaty has dire repercussions for the entire world. And here in the United States, progress—indeed, a solution to the climate crisis—is imperative to the survival of our cherished national parks.

Climate change is already threatening our national parks—some of the best-protected places on the planet. Jon Jarvis, the newly appointed Director of the National Park Service (NPS), deemed climate change “potentially the most far-reaching and consequential challenge to our mission than any previously encountered in the entire history of the NPS.” If we don’t develop a global solution to reduce the ever-increasing production of greenhouse gas emissions, the future of “America’s Best Idea” is at stake.

In Yellowstone National Park, a tiny insect has become a serious threat to the mighty grizzly bear. As a result of warming temperatures at higher elevations, the mountain pine beetle has gained a foothold in whitebark pine forests and is destroying an important part of the bear’s diet. Scientists now predict glaciers will disappear from Glacier National Park by 2030, and Joshua Tree National Park may lose its namesake tree within the next century. Climate change and other environmental ills have pushed a third of amphibians on the verge of extinction, including the mountain yellow-legged frog in Yosemite. And rising temperatures have diminished habitat for the cold-loving pika—a high elevation dweller than can perish from overheating--in Yosemite and other parks.

Recent reports by the Natural Resources Defense CouncilRocky Mountain Climate Organization, and the National Parks and Conservation Association warn of these threats and many others that climate change pose to our national parks.

Copenhagen must be successful at uniting the world to stop global warming. Using the strategies discussed this past week—many of them practical, feasible and workable—week two of the conference must yield comprehensive solutions. If our leaders fail to act, they not only fail the grizzly bears in Yellowstone and the yellow-legged frogs in Yosemite, they also fail to protect our country’s important heritage of national parks, what writer Wallace Stegner called “the best idea we ever had.”

View a photo slideshow of Ten National Parks in Peril.