HONOLULU, Aug 31 (Reuters) - Preserving natural places will help the world adapt to warming temperatures, U.S. President Barack Obama said on Wednesday as he began a 10-day trip to stress the urgency of curbing climate change and attend a G20 meeting in China.
"No nation, not even one as powerful as the United States, is immune from a changing climate," Obama said after landing in Hawaii, the Pacific island state where he grew up.
Obama, who is racing to cement his legacy on climate change before his presidency ends on Jan. 20, will make a rare visit to Midway Atoll on Thursday, deep inside the Papahnaumokukea Marine National Monument where he expanded protections last week.
The tour leads up to a meeting in China on Saturday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is hosting the G20 group of leading economies.
Obama and Xi worked together in Paris last year to secure a global deal to cut carbon emissions and are expected to take the next steps soon to help bring that agreement into force.
Native Hawaiian student Narrissa Spies said she hoped Obama's trip to Midway would inspire him. Spies, 34, went there in 2010 on a "life-changing" marine studies visit.
RELATED: 7 landmarks to visit before climate change ruins them
7 landmarks to visit before climate change ruins them (takepart only do not use)
7 landmarks to visit before climate change ruins them (takepart only do not use)
Statue of Liberty National Monument, New York
Photo credit: Roberto Machado Noa // Getty
The Statue of Liberty and Liberty Island, the 14-acre spot of land on which she stands, are dangerously exposed to the elements. In October 2012, Lady Liberty was left largely unscathed by Hurricane Sandy's storm surge, but 75 percent of the island was flooded. "It was total destruction: windows blown out, doors blown out,” said David Luchsinger, superintendent of the statue. Even if the Big Apple dodges another Sandy-size hurricane before 2100, a report published last month in the journal Environmental Research Letters concluded that 750 UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the French statue, could be swamped by climate-change-induced sea level rise unless action on flood defense is taken. "It's relatively safe to say that we will see the first impacts at these sites in the 21st century," lead author Ben Marzeion told The Guardian.
Glacier National Park, Montana
Photo credit: kanonsky // Getty
When Congress established Glacier National Park in May 1910, the on-the-nose name was appropriate. At the time, the park was home to more than 150 glaciers. Today just 25 glaciers remain, and those left are fragments of their former icy selves. With temperatures rising because of climate change, scientists predict the park may be glacier-free by 2030. When that sad, seemingly inevitable day arrives, will Congress vote to change the park’s name? Even if it doesn’t, what will our children and grandchildren think of us, the generation that allowed Not-So-Glacier National Park to become a reality?
Photo credit: Salvator Barki // Getty
Once described to me by a tour guide as “the one place on the planet everyone must see to disbelieve,” Venice, Italy, a city of 118 islands connected by 409 bridges, now floods more than 100 times every year. The reason? A combination of climate change–induced sea rise and the incremental sinking of the city. Since 1727, the marshlands on which the City of Water rests have descended two feet.
But city officials haven’t taken the bleak prognosis sitting down. MOSES, a $7.3 billion water barrier system, passed its first public test in October 2013 when four of the system’s floodgates were raised and successfully deflected the incoming high tide. When the massive engineering project is completed in 2016, a total of 78 mobile barriers will safeguard the city from acqua alta (Italian for “high water”) for the next hundred years.
Joshua Tree National Park
Photo credit: Carol Polich Photo Workshops // Getty
The clock is ticking on just how long California’s Joshua Tree National Park will be home to its namesake yucca. A 2011 study published in the journal Ecological Applications used climate models to forecast that the desert tree could see its historical range dramatically reduced by 2100. “The established ones may persist for 150 years,” said Ken Cole, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the paper’s lead author. “But within 90 percent of its current range, they will be unable to survive,” he added. The reason for the die-off is straightforward: Neither the Joshua Tree nor the yucca moth can survive without each other. “The moth’s larvae depend on the seeds of the yucca plant for food, and the yucca plant can only be pollinated by the yucca moth,” reports Nature Conservancy. And, because climate change will make it too hot for the moth to survive in the desert southwest of the twenty-second century, the pollinator will be forced to migrate north to find a cooler home.
Harriet Tubman underground railroad national monument, Maryland
Photo credit: Twitter
To preserve the Chesapeake Bay swamplands that abolitionist Harriet Tubman once shepherded slaves through en route to the North and to freedom, President Obama designated the area a national monument in March 2013. But, as a local CBS affiliate pointed out at the time, “not even a presidential proclamation” can stop Mother Nature. Though rising sea levels caused by climate change are a global issue, the problem is compounded in the Chesapeake region because its marshlands are simultaneously sinking. A recent study found that water levels in the bay, which is the largest estuary in the U.S., rose by more than a foot in the 1900s and could rise by up to four feet by 2100. “The sea is coming—I think we can win a few years, but not a substantial amount of time,” said a local historian.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Photo Credit: Pete Niesen // Getty
Massive enough to be seen from space, the Great Barrier Reef is home to more than 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands and spans more than 1,600 miles along the northeast coast of Australia. Since 1985 three different threats have eradicated half the coral at this UNESCO World Heritage site: Increased levels of ocean acidification; the crown-of-thorns starfish, which kills coral with a deadly neurotoxin; and warming ocean temperatures, which cause coral bleaching. (Coral can survive a bleaching event, but it’s under more stress than usual and is therefore subject to mortality.) David Curnick, a marine expert with the Zoological Society of London, told The Guardian last year that the future of the reef “lies with the global response to reducing carbon dioxide emissions.”
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, North Carolina
Photo credit: Stephen Saks // Getty
Between 1870 and 1999, the shoreline of North Carolina’s Outer Banks eroded nearly 1,400 feet, forcing the National Park Service to relocate the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse inland in 1999. In an event dubbed the “Move of the Millennium,” engineers mounted the lighthouse on a tailor-made steel foundation to inch the then-129-year-old structure away from the sea. It took hydraulic machinery 45 seconds to push the lighthouse just five feet, and the entire 2,900-foot move lasted 23 days. Today the lighthouse sits more than a mile from the ocean, a distance that should be safe—for now. If climate change caused all the ice on Earth to melt, as recently visualized in a National Geographic interactive, the entire North Carolina coast would be underwater.
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"I saw what my ancestors must have seen on the main Hawaiian Islands 200 years ago," said Spies, a PhD candidate now studying coral resistant to stresses like warming water.
Earlier on Wednesday, Obama stopped in to a summit about the health of Lake Tahoe, the deep alpine lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains on the Nevada-California border whose average surface temperature reached an all-time recorded high last year.
"The challenges of conservation and combating climate change are connected, they're linked," said Obama, who was interrupted by protesters yelling: "Keep it in the ground," a campaign to limit fossil fuel production.
Green groups have urged Obama not to rest on his laurels. The U.S. Supreme Court put his plan to slash carbon emissions from power plants on hold earlier this year.
"We're hoping that he will actually withdraw the Arctic from his five-year plan on offshore drilling, like he did with the Atlantic, because it's an even worse place to drill," said marine biologist Jackie Savitz of the Oceana conservation group. (Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner, David Morgan and Jeff Mason; Editing by Peter Cooney and Paul Tait)