Home to both crocodiles and alligators, herons and hundreds of other animal and plant species, the Everglades National Park in Florida hosted a U.S. president on Wednesday.
President Barack Obama traveled to the 1.5 million-acre park in the southern United States with a message to the American people that climate change can no longer be denied.
“2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Fourteen of the 15 hottest years on record have all fallen on the first 15 years of this century,” said Obama. “Around the world, in the aggregate, it was the warmest winter ever recorded. This is not a problem for another generation, not anymore. This is a problem now. It has serious implications for the way we live right now.”
Obama has not minced words about climate change, calling the issue the greatest threat to the planet. The president used his Earth Day trip to the ecologically-sensitive Everglades to highlight the real impact climate change is making on the environment, people’s health, their livelihoods and the local economy.
“As sea levels rise, salty water from ocean flows inward. This harms freshwater wildlife which endangers a fragile ecosystem," he said. "The saltwater flows into aquifers which threatens the drinking water of more than 7 million Floridians.”
Christy Guldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, calls the park “ground zero” and says the president wanted to see firsthand the implications of climate change and how local residents are being affected.
“They are changing their lives, they are adapting the way they manage Everglades National Park, they are dealing with the flooding around the coast continuously,” Guldfuss said.
The park is also a major component of Florida’s $82 billion tourism economy.
The president’s trip comes as the U.S. leader has advanced plans to cut carbon emissions by nearly a third by 2025 as part of a joint pledge with China. China has set a goal of leveling its rising emissions in 2030, perhaps before. The two countries are the world’s largest polluters.
At home, facing a Republican-majority Congress that is fighting his plans, Obama has gone it alone, using executive authority, for example, to require U.S. federal agencies to factor in environmental sustainability when they design new international development programs.
On Wednesday, the Obama administration announced new measures aimed at calculating the risk and impact of climate change, including a mapping tool to determine how local populations along the U.S. East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico would be affected under various flood scenarios.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also announcing new measures to work with farmers, ranchers and land owners in order to reduce net greenhouse emissions by at least 26 percent by the year 2025.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the president's goal is to foster a public dialogue on climate change.
“We do need to acknowledge that climate change is a reality and there is a responsibility that we have to confront it. And failing to do so is doing a great disservice to the next generation that will inherit this planet, but it’s also a failure of leadership,” Earnest said.
'We can solve it'
During his speech at the Everglades, Obama hit back at Republican critics who say measures to fight climate change hurt the U.S. economy.
“This is not some impossible problem that we cannot solve," he said. “We can solve it if we have some political will, and we can solve it in a way that creates jobs. We can solve it in a way that doesn’t disrupt our economy, but enhances our economy. And it’s a bipartisan issue.”
Obama noted that former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt established the U.S. National Park System, former President Richard Nixon started the Environmental Protection Agency and former President George H.W. Bush was the first such global leader to acknowledge the impact of climate change. All three presidents were Republican.
Sam Adams, former mayor of Portland, Oregon, and now a director of the U.S. Climate Initiative at the Washington-based World Resources Institute says climate change should not be a political issue.
“There is no Republican sea-level rise and Democratic sea-level rise. There is just sea-level rise. Same with the drought, it’s not a partisan drought - it’s a drought. Same with the anemic snow pack in the Pacific Northwest,” Adams said. “Regardless of the reasons for why people might think that’s happening, the Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, and liberals should come together to address those issues and what causes them in the first place.”
US must lead
Adams said globally, the United States must not only lead on climate change but has a responsibility to help developing countries deal with the effect of climate change.
“Let’s be clear, the United States is number two in terms of carbon emissions I believe it’s not only within our wherewith all to become a prosperous low carbon economy, I think it’s also our responsibility to help less fortunate, less developed countries do the same," Adams said. "And it’s within our ability to do so. And it’s in our interest to do so.”
At the Everglades on Wednesday, Obama gestured to the swampland behind him as he spoke, noting the importance of protecting the planet for future generations.
“I want [daughters] Malia and Sasha not only to be able to enjoy this amazing view; I want my grandchildren - a way, way long time from now- to enjoy this amazing view," he said. "And their children, and their children after that. That’s what we do as Americans, take responsibility and leave behind for our children something special.”