Climate Changed: A warming world will shape wilderness and our future

In a new graphic novel titled Climate Changed, Philippe Squarzoni has written a compelling account of his personal journey through climate change science, explaining in simple terms the significance of a changing climate and its effects on humans and the environment.

Step by step, Squarzoni takes readers through the science, connecting it to global events so his audience can understand why the earth’s atmosphere is warming and how the changes will affect everyone.

As wilderness enthusiasts celebrate this year’s 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act, and look ahead to the next 50 years, we must recognize that climate change and its effects are part of a suite of issues that will shape wilderness in the future.

Climate change was unknown when the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, but today we must take it into account as agencies manage wilderness, and as advocates strive to designate additional wilderness. The values of wildlands will likely only increase as we continue to experience the effects of climate change.

The founders of The Wilderness Society were the architects and advocates of the Wilderness Act, which has been used to establish 757 wilderness areas totaling nearly 110 million acres in 44 states. In Alaska there are 48 wilderness areas encompassing approximately 57.4 million acres, representing 52 percent of the nation’s designated wilderness.

Wilderness provides large, intact landscapes that encompass important habitat for wildlife and plants, and many other values for people. Wilderness provides clean air and water, baseline data for scientific research, carbon sequestration, and essential sanctuaries for plants and animals that often play vital economic roles, such as salmon in Alaska.

Wilderness advocates know that protected wildlands will play a vital role in climate change adaptation. As I point out in the introduction I wrote for Squarzoni’s book, wilderness can also help limit industrial-level carbon emissions, the leading cause of climate change, by keeping oil and gas deposits in the ground, for example.

The Wilderness Society in Alaska is focused primarily on protecting lands and waters north of the Arctic Circle that are wild, ecologically significant, and important for Alaska Native communities and all Americans.

Specifically, we are working to permanently protect the coastal plain and other portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and special areas in the western Arctic. These areas contain some of America’s most important onshore denning habitat for polar bears; the calving grounds for Alaska’s largest caribou herd; and the largest wetlands complex in all of the circumpolar Arctic, which hosts some of the greatest densities of nesting shorebirds and molting waterfowl in this region of the world.

In addition to curbing carbon emissions, protecting these critical wildlands will be an important step in establishing refugia for a variety of species to adapt to climate change, including polar bears, whales, walrus, seals, birds and several of America’s largest caribou herds.

We also work to prevent oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean because of the effects industrial development would have on this sensitive marine environment, nearby special areas onshore, and primary food sources for coastal villages. If developed, the oil and gas reserves in this relatively untouched seascape would add significantly to global carbon emissions. Government estimates for recoverable oil and gas in the Arctic Ocean are approximately 15.8 billion tons of carbon. If extracted and burned, the carbon produced would be equivalent to more than nine years of emissions from all U.S. transportation modes, calculated at 2011 levels.

Keeping this carbon in the ground is one of the most significant actions our nation can take to curb emissions and slow worldwide temperature increases so that they don’t exceed 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century—the internationally accepted goal for limiting global temperature increase.

Protecting wildlands and waters is only one part of the complex task of addressing climate change, but wilderness areas will likely play a significant role by providing the space and time that species will need to adapt, and by keeping large carbon sources undeveloped and in the ground.

For these and other benefits of wilderness, wilderness enthusiasts can celebrate as we look to the next 50 years.