President Obama is spending Earth Day in the Everglades. His aides say the national park represents the impacts that climate change is already having on ecosystems across the United States. I think the Everglades stands for something even bigger than that: the way climate change has become the issue that encompasses all other environmental issues. For decades environmentalists have fought a multifront war—against habitat destruction, particulate matter, invasive species, industrial water pollution, soil erosion, and dozens of other problems that threaten the health of the planet (and us). We now know that if we fail to stop climate change, that work could go to waste. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the Florida Everglades.
These wetlands once covered more than 4,000 square miles from Lake Okeechobee to the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. The vast area was diverse, hosting reptiles, amphibians, large mammalian predators, and landscapes that varied from marshes to tree islands to mangrove swamps. Underpinning the ecosystem was the so-called “river of grass,” a shallow layer of freshwater, flowing southward beneath the saw grass toward the Florida Bay.
Beginning in the late 19th century, humans massively interrupted that water flow. After a 1903 flood destroyed South Florida’s farms, flood control became the primary issue in the following gubernatorial campaign. The winner, the aptly named Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, promised to “drain that abominable, pestilence-ridden swamp.” Engineers rerouted the water east and west, toward the Atlantic, to dry out the state’s ruined farms. When the floods continued to come, the Army Corps of Engineers tried to pen in the waters of Lake Okeechobee with levees and canals in the 1920s. Hurricanes overwhelmed those defenses in the 1940s, birthing a new system of levees, canals, and pumps. They were sometimes successful—too successful, in fact, since the area saw drought and fires in the 1960s. Serious floods also continued to plague the region’s farmers, and an algal bloom suffocated the life in Lake Okeechobee’s stagnant waters.
Even the space program—the pride of the nation in the 1960s—played a role in disrupting the Everglades ecosystem. The rocket engines designed to send men to the moon were too big for the state’s highways, so the government built a 50-foot-wide canal across Miami-Dade County to move them to the launch site. The canal is still in place, diverting freshwater away from the southern portion of the Everglades.
Construction added to the problems. Development has eaten up more than 90 percent of the original wildlife habitat, and the Everglades watershed shrank to half its 19th-century size. Only 1 in 10 of the area’s famous wading birds remains, and 71 species have become endangered. The Everglades has become a hot spot for invasive species, from lionfish to Brazilian pepper to Burmese pythons.
State and federal government officials eventually realized that human micromanagement was making matters worse rather than better. The federal government adopted the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000, hoping to bring back the abominable swamp that Napoleon Bonaparte Broward and his successors worked so hard to destroy. The government invested more than $13 billion in the project, which is intended to restore the “river of grass” by the mid 2030s.
Because it’s a government project, CERP has seen setbacks due to interrupted funding, and there has been failures to consider complicating factors such as invasive species. It’s far from perfect. Nevertheless, CERP is making progress. Water flows on the edges of the Everglades have been renewed, and restoration has begun to move inland. The government recently accelerated a plan to restore water flows from the central Everglades to Everglades National Park.
Enter climate change. As the president will point out in his Earth Day address today, the Everglades is a very low-lying area. As the sea level rises in response to warming temperatures and melting ice, saltwater is creeping farther and farther into the areas previously awash with freshwater.
The freshwater marsh and lakes in Cape Sable, at the state’s southwestern tip, have disappeared almost entirely, and saltwater mangroves have replaced freshwater plants. Canal building may have started this process, but rising seas have made matters far worse.
The National Research Council last year urged planners to incorporate climate change projections into their strategy to restore the Everglades. There are two problems with that advice. First, the state government is an important partner in the CERP. Florida Governor Rick Scott, however, pretends that climate change doesn’t exist, and has allegedly barred state employees from even mentioning it. The governor denies that such a prohibition exists, but this amusing video is suggestive, at least.
More importantly from a scientific perspective, the elevation of a large portion of the Everglades is within a few feet of sea level. According to data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea level rise could inundate much of the area over the next century or two. If that prediction comes to pass, the planners will have limited options to save the Everglades. They could try a system of dykes, levees, pumps, and canals…wait, no.
That doesn’t mean we should abandon the Everglades restoration, of course.
“In the face of climate change, you can either redouble your efforts to preserve natural systems and biodiversity, or you can give up,” says Brad Sewell, a senior attorney in NRDC’s oceans program (disclosure). “We need to do the former, to enhance the Everglades’ ability to withstand and adapt to the future changes.”
The story of the Everglades is the story of the environmental movement over the past three decades. From a broad movement interested in a wide variety of issues, conservation has funneled down to a single issue: climate change. The president’s presence in the Everglades on Earth Day emphasizes that issues like endangered species, invasives, and habitat preservation have been reduced to skirmishes in the war against global warming. If we don’t cut carbon emissions, climate change will become conservationists’ Waterloo.
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Fluorescent green dye released into parts of Florida’s most famous wetland ecosystem—flowing freely for the first time since the 1960s—will help inform decisions about the Everglades’ future restoration.