Looking North, Seeing Our Future

Global warming's far-reaching consequences will be the defining events of this century

  • Larry J. Schweiger
  • Apr 01, 2005

ON A RECENT TRIP to Alaska, I saw the future for the rest of our nation. In fact, the Arctic region reveals a rapidly changing climate and portends changes for the entire world.

Global warming is adversely affecting the Arctic at a rate “more rapidly and persistently than at any time since the beginning of civilization,” observes Robert W. Corell, chair of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a four-year comprehensive scientific analysis. I witnessed some of these dramatic changes firsthand.

Near Fairbanks, I dug through tundra soils with scientists who are carefully documenting the unprecedented thawing of permafrost. I learned that there are many consequences of this meltdown, including the loss of wetlands and the collapse of beaches and riverbanks. In the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I observed the shrinkage of glaciers, the receding of ice caps in the Brooks Range and the shifts in the range of black spruce as the trees overtake tundra. I learned that along the state’s northern coastline, several villages are being washed away by erosion caused by ocean waves that are increasingly rougher and more prolonged as sea ice vanishes. Eskimo whalers, forced to change their hunting and fishing habits to fit a warmer world, have verified these changes in ice and ocean.

I listened to Gwich’in elders deeply troubled by the later freezing and earlier breakup of ice and by the higher-than-normal spring runoff that has swept thousands of migrating caribou calves to their death as they attempted to cross swollen rivers that historical records indicate should be ice covered during migration. They also confirmed several findings by scientists regarding declines of plant and animal populations and earlier emergence of insects and arrival of egg-laying birds. These days, a new songbird even visits their village: the American robin, for which the Gwich’in language lacks a name because the species never before appeared in Gwich’in territory.

The changes observed in the Arctic echo across the globe. Wildlife are first to respond to ecological changes. As an example, opossums have been on Earth since the time of the dinosaurs. Born without hair, opossums retain naked ears, tails and feet throughout life. To avoid frostbite, the animals expanded their historic range during the planet’s warm periods and contracted during glacial advances.

During the U.S. Civil War, “possum” was a familiar meal at Confederate campfires but not generally found at Yankee tables. The reason: At the time, the opossum’s range extended only as far north as southern Pennsylvania. Since then, it has moved through much of New England and deep into Canada.


The opossum responds quickly to a warming climate. Other wildlife and plants are not that adaptable and they will be in trouble as the climate shifts. A recent peer-reviewed study by 19 distinguished ecological scientists published in Nature concluded that as many as one-third of all wildlife species in six eco-regions studied by the scientists could be headed for extinction within the next 50 years unless we curb global warming pollution. Without swift action, global warming could translate to a million extinctions worldwide.

Climate change is real. Its far-reaching consequences will be the defining events of this century.

Without carbon emissions controls, public health officials predict certain diseases will spread at an alarming rate in decades to come. Coastal communities will be swamped by rising tides and tropical storms will become more intense as oceans warm. Yet the message concerning these dire, long-term consequences is not getting to the American public—nor are our political leaders dealing with the reality of the mounting evidence. Global warming may be the greatest story never told.

Nature is speaking to us: We are on the wrong energy course. Are we listening?

As a lifelong advocate for wildlife I am compelled to the chilling conclusion that global warming threatens to overwhelm generations of conservation accomplishments by damaging our most beloved wildlife habitats and to harm the future of our children’s world. The most important chapter in the history of wildlife conservation is about to be written on our watch. Either we will move quickly to evolve our energy future to avoid calamity or we will sit by as ecosystems and the wildlife they harbor suffer the consequences of inaction.

To date, the administration’s energy plan has been a complete failure. It is a slave to never-ending dependence on largely imported fossil fuels, military intervention and old energy technologies. Without forward-looking policies creating a marketplace for emissions curbs, we will continue to emit more and more greenhouse pollutants.

Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman believe America can do a better job of meeting our energy needs without destroying the environment. They have introduced a bill to advance energy conservation and increase U.S. job opportunities as this nation moves from carbon fuels to clean energy technologies.

Working together, we can do it. We just need rational federal policy to promote needed changes through market-based solutions that seize the opportunities to advance energy efficiencies and new technologies.

This issue of U.S. emissions is coming into sharper focus now that the Kyoto Treaty on global warming is being implemented by more than 130 nations that have chosen action over procrastination. When Americans discover that the science regarding global warming has been deliberately obfuscated and ignored, they will feel betrayed. I also predict there will be a revival of environmental action not seen since the first Earth Day.

There is still time. You can help us tackle global warming and help NWF bring on this revival. Together, we can give hope to wildlife’s future for the benefit of our children’s world.



Larry J. Schweiger (above) is NWF president and chief executive officer.

NWF Priority 
Resolving Global Warming

Last fall, NWF submitted a detailed report to the National Commission on Energy Policy, outlining key steps the United States should take to protect the environment and its economy. The report, Fueling Environmental Progress, outlines a national energy strategy to promote wildlife conservation and combat global warming, including:

Enacting the Climate Stewardship Act, which would require power plants and factories to reduce their emissions to 2000 levels by 2010.
Raising fuel efficiency for automobiles, which account for a third of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Investing in energy-efficient technologies and renewable energies, and eliminating subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.
The report is one of several climate change studies that NWF has produced in recent years. To learn more about our global warming projects and programs across the country, see our Global Warming site or “Action Report” in the magazine archives. 

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