November 2, 2012

The Rising Tide

A few years back, I got interested in the topic of global warming and started doing my own research, a process I recommend to anyone who has questions about the reality of a changing climate induced by human activity. Just about all the sources agreed on two things: sea levels would inexorably rise and extreme weather events would occur more frequently. As a side note, the experts also predicted that sea levels would rise more rapidly along the East Coast of the United States as compared to the rest of the world.

The numbers have borne this out. Seth Borenstein, in an AP article published on June 15, 2012, for the Christian Science Monitor, reported that "sea levels have gone up globally about 2 inches (5 centimeters). But in Norfolk, Virginia, where officials are scrambling to fight more frequent flooding, sea level has jumped a total of 4.8 inches (12.19 centimeters), the research showed. For Philadelphia, levels went up 3.7 inches (9.4 centimeters), and in New York City, it was 2.8 inches (7.11 centimeters)."

What makes the rising tides so especially ominous is that people like to live near the oceans and seas and the river deltas that feed into them. Roughly 40 percent of the world's population lives within 100 meters (60 miles) of a coast. Fifteen of the world's 20 megacities (populations over 10 million) are sensitive to sea level rise and increased coastal storm surges. In the United States, 23 out of 25 of the most densely populated counties are along a coast.

Rising tides affect a growing proportion of the world's population. As that happens, the impact of extreme weather events is magnified. As once in a century storms roll through almost yearly, the cost in lives and money rises right along with the tides, and the measures needed to ward off the encroaching seas are measured in the billions of dollars.

We are facing some pretty ugly choices ahead. It's one thing to write off the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, but are we ready to do the same for lower Manhattan? Baltimore's Inner Harbor? Most of  lower Florida? (Let me get back to you on that one.)

As the political rhetoric about the debt heats up, think about how much the clean-up for this one storm will cost. A big share of that burden falls on the federal government, and, as we all know, shit rolls downhill, so guess who will be footing the collective bill for all this? Global warming may have received scant mention during the campaign, but you better believe it will become a major political issue.

By then, of course, it will be too little, too late. When it mattered most--when we really could have done something about this--the political process completely failed us. The science tells us that it would take a massive effort to limit (not prevent; that ship has sailed) the impact of global warming on the climate. Not only is such an effort not in sight, the talk is all about growing the economy, growth that will be based on burning even more fossil fuels.

For many of us, our gut instinct is telling us that this is not like it was a few decades ago. The science will confirm what you gut has been telling you. Climate change is not something to worry about twenty or thirty years from now. It is happening now, faster and with more intensity than was predicted even a few short years ago. Nature is adjusting on the fly, and unnatural disasters, like the temperatures and tides, are rising at an ever-accelerating rate. Like every other species, we are just along for the ride at this point.

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