ONE OF THE MORE PERPLEXING LONG-TERM ISSUES facing parks and recreation is how to deal with the issue of climate change. Clearly, public opinion is changing--a recent national poll by the Washington Post and Stanford University showed that global warming is no longer the top environmental concern for even half the population. Global warming, although still regarded as an important environmental threat, has fallen to third place in the minds of Americans behind concerns about air and water pollution.
Are climate change conditions affecting parks and recreation? Many say yes, right now, and with much more to come--and we better be taking preventative steps or the consequences will be profound. Others say not so fast--even if it is happening, it's not as big of a problem as some are making it out to be. The scientific community is mostly united on the issue--see the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)--but the opinions of the public, elected officials, and even the media are far less conclusive.
So what's the big deal? How are parks and recreation being affected right now?
Anyone who lived through the extreme heat in the mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Southwest, and West this summer will tell you that they are seeing increasing signs of dramatic changes in the weather affecting how they manage their parks and facilities and how the public recreates in their parks and programs. Whether climate change is happening due to manmade causes or from long-term climate cycles, it is happening and it's happening right now. In the long run, we will experience more frequent extreme weather events as a consequence of global warming because the atmosphere is becoming more loaded with heat-trapping gases, however they are being caused.
A quick look at the big picture: High temperature records are being broken with increasing regularity. The decade 2000-2010 was the hottest decade since records started being kept in the late 1800s. The first six months of 2012 have been the hottest period on record and over 40,000 high temperature records were set in U.S. cities in July alone. However, it's not just high temperature records that are being set with increasing regularity in this decade. It is also that a proliferation of extended heat waves and droughts are now affecting very large areas of the United States. The long cycles of daytime temperatures exceeding 95 or 100 degrees for weeks at a time, with little cooling at night, exacerbate drought conditions and wildfires in the West and Southwest. Extreme heat waves, previously experienced about once every 20 years, could become as frequent as every other year.
As a result of these conditions, there is less resilience in our natural and manmade infrastructure. Paradoxically, the trend toward more extreme weather means that there will be both drought and floods more frequently. Take, for example, how some major park systems have been affected by drought. As many as 6 million trees died in Houston in the past year, most on park land, and some estimates say that the total number eventually could be up to 10 times that many. The mass tree death has significantly impacted the Houston Department of Parks and Recreation, busting maintenance budgets, causing ecological damage, and creating fears for public safety. Other agencies have suffered damages from extreme weather events, especially the impacts of extremely heavy rains, flooding, and high winds from storms that cause large-scale landscape and infrastructure damage. …