Melting Away

July 30, 2010 at 1:44 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I’ve been kind of zonked lately and so haven’t written a lot. Much of what goes on in our country is so hard to take in. Seriously, is there anybody in charge out there, anybody with even a few cells in his or her skull?

Part of the problem is that I’ve been studying climate change. First I went to see those photographs at the Asia Society that show the Himalayan glaciers three hundred vertical feet shorter than they were in the early 20th century. Then I went to hear a talk by Gwynne Dyer about his new book, Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats in which he projects, among other horrors, a nuclear war between India and Pakistan over the droughts that will be caused by the melting of those very Himalayan glaciers.  This might seem like irresponsible speculation written for profit except that  a few days later, the New York Times reported a dispute over India’s proposed construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Kishenganga River on the India-Pakistani border, one of the rivers sourced by–you guessed it–the Himalayan glaciers. The conflict between Pakistan’s desperate need for water and India’s desire for more hydroelectric power is, we learn, increasing tensions between these two nuclear powers who have already fought three previous wars.  The same day that article was published the Senate Democrats announced that they were abandoning the effort to pass an energy and climate bill that would, it had been hoped, begin to reduce or at least level off greenhouse gas emissions.

And, of course, you’ve probably heard that we here on the East Coast are experiencing what looks to be the hottest July on record. I ought to be ashamed to complain about this. A film I saw recently about the world water crisis included shots of the region on the Gulf Coast in Mexico that used to be irrigated by the Colorado River but has become a desert. Why? Because the (US) Hoover Dam has siphoned off so much of the Colorado’s water to irrigate California’s Imperial Valley that the river no longer reaches the Gulf. That’s the same Imperial Valley that grows a huge percentage of the food we eat. 

So I shouldn’t be complaining. There is, however, something about having one’s underwear dripping with sweat day in and day out that takes the starch out of a person, so to speak. The temptation to turn on the air conditioning, thus emitting even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, is very strong.  We’re really in a mess.

But the US Senate isn’t going to do anything about this. Fact is, the minority party wouldn’t vote for such a bill if their lives depended on it (which they very well may, though people in power tend to expect they’ll avoid such things).  In part, this is because there’s an election coming, and the electorate includes a lot of climate change skeptics. A Gallup poll in March showed that 48% of Americans now believe threats of global warming to be exaggerated, up from 30% in 2006. Belief in climate change is also dropping in Europe, but not the way it is here. In Britain, the decrease was  to 78%, from 91% five years ago; fewer Brits than Americans have lost their minds.  But ninety-seven per cent of climate change scientists are convinced that climate change poses a serious threat.

For an illustration of  why so few climate scientists are among the skeptics, take a look at the  drawing of a projected 1.4 meter sea level rise on the California coast–the rise expected under a medium-to-medium-high greenhouse-gas emissions scenario–as determined in a 2009 study conducted by Peter Gleick’s Pacific Institute. The study shows that such a sea-level rise will put  “480,000 people at risk of a 100-year flood event… if no adaptation actions are taken. A wide range of critical infrastructure and nearly $100 billion (in year 2000 dollars) worth of existing property, measured as the current replacement value of buildings and contents, are also at risk.” And, of course, people of color and the poor are those who will be at the greatest risk.  But seriously, why would the United States invest money in preventing this kind of thing if  the risk is not absolutely certain? We have our priorities, after all.

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