Facing the Reality of Climate Change: My Day With Al Gore

Al Gore at the Climate Reality Leadership Training In San Francisco (photo by Beth Pratt)Nature doesn’t do bailouts.”

The former Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore made this simple yet powerful statement to our group after showing us startling images of the devastating drought impacting almost a quarter of the United States, the chaotic flooding in the Philippines, and the horrific wildfires in Australia.  Need evidence of extreme weather and the possible link with climate change? “Just watch the evening news,” Gore offered, “it’s like taking a nature walk through Revelations each night.”

And the truth of his statement forcibly resonated with the over a thousand individuals listening to him speak last week, people from 58 countries across the globe concerned enough about climate change to spend three days of their time training with Gore and other experts in the field (and caring enough to stay inside during sunny, fogless weather in San Francisco, which as Californians know is a temptation very difficult to resist). As part of Gore’s non-profit, The Climate Reality Project, he personally trains a diverse leadership corps from a variety of backgrounds to work toward solving the climate crisis and we were the lucky class of 2012. Much to our delight, fellow classmates included the Divine Miss M—Bette Midler—and returning alumnus, country music star Kathy Mattea.

Country singer Kathy Mattea shared her story “My Coal Journey” and treated attendees to some of her music (photo by Beth Pratt)Gore related story after compelling story of people’s experiences with the new normal of ‘weather gone wild.’ In one video of the mudslides in Brazil, a frightened woman stood on a crumbling foundation grasping her little dog as a violent rush of mud and water sped by her. A neighbor on a nearby stable structure cast her a rope and somehow managed to pull the woman to safety through the torrid rapids. Those of us in the audience gasped and shuddered at her plight.

Climate change has become a reality in people’s lives worldwide. Yet even when faced with the knowledge of these tragic stories or the overwhelming scientific evidence, our leaders still fail to act.

To Gore’s point, what magical bailouts are we waiting for? America has a long-standing tradition of being ignorantly optimistic about happy endings, as evidenced by the popularity of any Bruce Willis or superhero movie today. But our government can’t pass a bailout package when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reaches 400 ppm to save us from the consequences. Bruce Willis isn’t going to miraculously blow up the atmospheric asteroid at the last minute to save us from rising temperatures. Even the Avengers can’t help us—the Hulk (the real life environmental crusader Mark Ruffalo)—can’t even save New York from fracking despite his valiant efforts.

We don’t get to suddenly holler “all-y all-y in come free” and receive a bailout check and a do over, even though nature certainly ranks higher than the banks in the “too big to fail category.”

Meeting Al Gore-and spending a day learning from him-was an honor.As an environmental leader climate change had always been on my radar, but two catalysts in 2006 jolted me out of my “it’s happening a long time from now and in a place far, far away” complacency. The first involved receiving a copy of the NRDC’s Losing Ground: Western Parks Endangered by Climate Disruption. National parks are my north star, both personally and professionally, and I have been fortunate enough to work in both Yellowstone and Yosemite. I read this startling report cover to cover and finished in shock. Climate change was not only a future threat to our beloved parks, but also already had displayed significant impacts. Why was no one talking about this? National Parks are as American as apple pie and baseball! Yet the issue received scant attention.

 The second catalyst that jolted me out of complacency? Watching An Inconvenient Truth. Al Gore’s courage and vigilance in bringing attention to climate change both inspired and transformed me. A year after viewing his film, I took a job in Yellowstone National Park working on sustainability and climate change programs. His message compelled me to act and dedicate my work solely to this cause.

His message is still a sobering reality check. As the great science fiction writer Philip K. Dick said, “Reality is that which when you stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away.” Despite the attempts of the fossil fuel industry to discredit the science, and of our political leaders to at best ignore the issue and at worst obfuscate it for personal gain, climate reality happens and all the magical thinking in the world won’t stop it. This is a reality we must all face

We must face the reality of photos of starving horses set loose to fend for themselves, a now common occurrence across the Midwest since people can’t afford the high cost of feed with the drought.  A reality where we just experienced the hottest month ever recorded this July, so far from our normal parameters that planes at Reagan National Airport had to be grounded because the runaways were melting. Or a reality of the catastrophic wildfires, fueled by the drier weather, that raced across Colorado and destroyed hundreds of homes and caused thousands to evacuate.  Or of the destructive flooding in Vermont that prompted its Governor, Peter Shumlin, to observe, “We didn’t used to get weather patterns like this in Vermont. We didn’t get tropical storms. Our storm patterns weren’t like Costa Rica; they were like Vermont.”

Let’s be clear: climate change isn’t going to end the world. But it might make a tropical Vermont and cause a new dust bowl in the Midwest. And changes like these transform each of our lives with the far-reaching impacts.Acknowledging the reality of climate change doesn’t need to cause us to despair. Instead it should ignite in all of us the moral courage to act. Because we can solve it. In his book Our Choice: How We Can Solve the Climate Crisis, Gore demonstrates that we already possess the solutions, we just need the collective will necessary to change.

NWF President and CEO presenting at the Climate Reality Project training (photo by Beth Pratt)As someone who is passionate about solving the climate crisis, as someone who Al Gore inspired and motivated with his tireless campaigning, as someone who cherishes all life on earth and works to preserve our legacy of wilderness and wildlife for future generations, I am honored to be a part of this remarkable group of people. I applaud my classmates from around the world for their commitment. I am proud of my organization, National Wildlife Federation, and our leader, Larry Schweiger, as NWF works diligently on the climate change issue. Larry also presented during the sessions and as he showed photos of his grandchildren, his voice hitched with emotion, “I don’t know a single parent who wouldn’t do anything to keep their child safe. We should all be engaged for the sake of our children.”

There is a moral dimension to the climate crisis that must compel us to act immediately. At the end of the training, Mr. Gore encouraged our new class of climate leaders, “The next generation has hope in their hearts and they are not going to surrender. And they have every right to expect that those of us who are older will fight for them.” I hope you will join us in facing the reality of climate change, armed with the reality of facts and truth, not despair, and make the choice to act for the future of the people of this planet.

It’s Not Easy Being Green, or Yellow, or Red: The Plight of California’s Frogs

During my first thru hike on the John Muir Trail fifteen years ago, on the ascent up to Seldon Pass I encountered a young man energetically trotting down the trail without a backpack. Before even saying hello he asked excitedly, “have you seen any frogs?”  The question was a strange greeting, but this researcher had luckily encountered a fellow frog enthusiast. Subsequently he revealed that he was studying frog populations in the Sierra Nevada. I wish I could recall his name, but his passion for frogs I remember well.

California red-legged frog (Courtesy of Save the Frogs)During that hike, I encountered hundreds of the mountain yellow-legged frog, a cool little critter that has a raspy croak and loves to swim in alpine waters. When Joseph Grinnell conducted his famous biological inventories in Yosemite and the Sierra in the early 1900s, he remarked that his survey team could hardly move without stepping on these frogs. Today, less than 200 populations of Rana muscosa exist in the Sierra Nevada with an estimated 5,000 adults–they have disappeared from over 90% of their historic range. Sadly, these frogs are headed for extinction soon.So it seems appropriate that on February 2, the California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to grant this frog protection under the California Endangered Species Act.

Another of the Golden State’s frogs, the California red-legged, is struggling as well. This species was once considered one of the most abundant amphibians in California (and gained famed as being the frog featured in Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”), but now they are listed as federally threatened. The National Wildlife Federation and Save the Frogs named the California red-legged—the largest native frog in the western states—one of America’s top ten most threatened frogs.  Save the Frogs is currently trying to convince Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco to turn over Sharp Park Wetlands—home to red-legged frogs and other creatures—to the National Park Service to ensure protection. The wetland site is currently a golf course. Show your support for California’s red-legged frog by sending Mayor Lee an email today.

California frogs are not alone in their plight. Over a third of all amphibian species are on the verge of extinction, the result of ongoing habitat destruction, infectious disease, pollution and pesticides, climate change, invasive species and other factors.  The National Wildlife Federation and Save the Frogs are partnering with the National Park Service and other Yosemite organizations to host a Save the Frogs Day event on April 28 in Yosemite National Park to celebrate and help protect these remarkable creatures. Stay tuned for details!


Happy Feet Two: How a Gen-Xer Found Joy in Penguins and Elephant Seals Dancing to David Bowie

The Joy of Dancing Penguins (Photo by Beth Pratt)This past Sunday, I attended the premiere of Happy Feet Two in Los Angeles. The National Wildlife Federation teamed up with the movie to encourage people of all ages to take the steps necessary to protect amazing wildlife species such as penguins and wild places such as Antarctica.

I helped staff a booth for our organization at the premiere festivities in front of the Mann’s Chinese Theater, and had a delightful time helping children create finger puppet penguins while watching some of the stars who provided voices for the film—Hank Azaria, Robin Williams, Pink, and Sofia Vegara—parade down the red carpet.

One of the penquin finger puppets made by children at the NWF booth at the Happy Feet Two Premiere (Photo by Beth Pratt)The movie had a wonderful message of working together for the good of all in a changing world, as well as the coolest song and dance finale I have ever seen with penguins and elephant seals doing a rendition of David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” Not having kids, I think the last cartoon movie I saw was Beauty and the Beast, and the last 3D movie I attended was U23D, but I had splendid time. Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as Will and Bill- the Krill brought some fun adult humor to the film as well, with their witty banter reminiscent of the Oceans films.

Near the end of the movie, when penguins of all nations united with elephant seals and tiny krill to save a group of penguins trapped by melting ice and calving glaciers, I teared up a bit, but not from sadness–it’s not a sad movie in the least and despite my fears of a few scenes turning into Planet Earth unpleasant predator-prey moments, nary a critter meets their demise. Instead, the tears came from sheer joy over impossibly cute penguins and the hopeful message of togetherness. I tried to secretly wipe my tears away without notice so as not to embarrass myself in front of my coworker, but we had a laugh together as she admitted to getting a bit watery-eyed as well.

Robin Williams and Hank Azaria at the Happy Feet Two Premiere in LA (Photo by Beth Pratt)

Last week the environmental movement scored a victory with Obama’s decision to delay the controversial Keystone pipeline and call for further environmental review. As NWF’s President and CEO Larry Schweiger observed, blocking this project was the result of a diverse group of Americans—from environmentalists in California to football players in Nebraska–gathering together for a common cause.  “Over the last several months, a groundswell of opposition sunk this project. Not since the first Earth Day have I seen so much energy directed toward conserving the environment for our children. This is a great moment for the thousands of Americans who have stood up to this project, from town halls to the White House.”

Pink and husband Carey Hart at the Happy Feet Two premiere in LA (Photo by Beth Pratt)

Climate change is transforming our world, but by working together, whether we are tap dancing penguins and singing elephant seals, or left coast environmentalists and Cornhusker football players, we can unite to protect people, wildlife and the special places on this earth.

Happy Feet Two opens this Friday, November 18. Children will love the film, but adults, I dare you not to be charmed and inspired by those animated 3D penguins fighting the impacts of climate change and oil spills as they happily dance and sing to Queen and David Bowie songs.

Musings about trips to the Mobil Station, the Sierra snowpack and climate change

With Chef Tioga (Matt) Toomey at the Whoa Nellie DeliOne of my favorite non-wilderness destinations in the Sierra is the Whoa Nellie Deli at the Mobil Station in Lee Vining. Aside from the allure of the scrumptious fish tacos and mango margaritas, I love talking baseball with Chef Tioga Toomey as even with his (misguided) affinity for the Kansas City Royals, he still appreciates my hometown Red Sox.

After gorging myself on the great food, I usually stop and take a photo of one of my favorite views of Yosemite right outside the Mobil Station entrance. If my topo map reading skills are correct (not always a safe bet) the view features the side of the Dana Plateau (my favorite place on earth) and Mt Gibbs. Being sort of a weather geek, I like to snap this view at the same time every year to compare the snowpack. I missed it only in 2008 and 2009 when I was working in Yellowstone.

View from the Mobil Station on June 23, 2007 (Photo by Beth Pratt)The Sierra Nevada has experienced a phenomenal snow year—certainly one of the strangest I have experienced in my twenty years in the state—with the snowpack registering at over 200% of normal (and higher depending on the location). Yet as noted in a recent article by Peter Fimrite in the San Francisco Chronicle, the unusual pattern isn’t due to the amount of snow that fell (which was still a bunch), but the timing of the snowfall.

“The issue, experts say, is how the cold weather has lingered…preserving the ice pack long after it normally would have melted. Mike Pechner, a longtime Bay Area weatherman who runs Golden West Meteorology, said monitoring in nearby Soda Springs shows that it is the deepest snow at this date in the high elevations since records were begun in 1868 by the folks who built the Transcontinental Railroad.”

View from the Mobil Station on June 24, 2011 (Photo by Beth Pratt)As every Californian knows, once summer arrives, it begins to get hot. Very hot. Temperatures rise quickly and a snowpack that is still preserved in June is apt to become liquid very fast. And for the same reason that Yosemite’s visitors are delighting in the late season waterfalls this year, residents downstream in the foothills and the Central Valley have been on flood alert. The Central Valley historically served as a major floodplain that absorbed water from snowmelt, but the region today is one of the largest hydrologically altered areas on the planet and human development has largely replaced natural river flow.

Yet even with this above average snowfall and late season precipitation, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and the West is declining—on average the snowpack in the western states has declined 30% in the past fifty years. Why is this significant? Because 70% of our water in the west comes from snow. The repercussions of climate change on our water supply are frightening even if the best-case scenarios prove to be the worst.

The inevitable response to this unusual snow year for the Sierra Nevada has been to debunk climate change. The accurate counter to this false claim is that anomalies in a single year do not disprove the overall trend, which in this case is a long-term decline. A recent blog post by Alyson Kenward on Climate Centralexplores this issue and also offers the interesting graphic illustration below of snowpack levels as of June 1 from 2004 to 2011.

So I’ll continue to snap photos of my favorite view in Yosemite after my fish taco feasts and baseball chats at the Whoa Nellie Deli. And I’ll enjoy the abundance of snow decorating the granite cliffs this year (and lament how late hiking season will come in Tuolumne), but my hunch is I’ll see less and less white on my favorite peaks in the Sierra for years to come.