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Losing Bet
Global Warming's Thaws

Nenana, Alaska, is a cold, remote river community of 460 trappers, miners and homesteaders some 56 miles west of Fairbanks. A summer pit stop on Alaskas Parks Highway, it is more 19 th century than 21 st, a place where tourists in winter are scantier than sunshine.

It was nine below zero on Halloween day, 87 degrees colder than in Daytona Beach. The Alaskan frontier town and Florida seem to have nothing but IRS obligations in common. Yet what happens once a year in Nenana could be the clue to what will happen permanently on Florida’s coastline in coming years: As Nenana’s ice melts away, so could Florida’s shores. Nenana is home to an 84-year-old local gambling tradition that has gradually turned into one of the world’s most reliable bellwethers of global warming. The tradition began in 1917, when bored railway engineers in Nenana built a big wooden tripod on the frozen Tenana River and placed bets on the exact moment when the spring thaw would collapse the tripod. The Nenana Ice Classic is now an annual, $300,000 sweepstake. This year, eight bettors predicted correctly that the tripod would fall at 1 p.m. on May 8. They pocketed $38,500 each. The Nenana Ice Classic is a scientifically accurate barometer of global warming, says the British journal Nature, because it measures the same thing every year with extreme precision. Over the years, the tripod collapses, on average, five days earlier than it did in 1917 (this year the collapse was eight days late). An adventurous and observant crow flying the 3,752 miles from Nenana to, say, Flagler Beach would notice many similar changes along the way—oat and hay crop yields in Alaska unheard of 30 years ago because the growing season in the Alaskan north has lengthened by 20 percent; thinner polar bears, whose seal-hunting season has been shortened; receding glaciers; a North American treeline inching further north and staying green longer; rising seawater already damaging Gulf coastlines in Louisiana.

Once that crow finally settles down on a Flagler Beach dune, it raises this wonder: How much longer will the dunes, or the two-lane highway behind them, or the row of houses staring down the ocean along the beach be there?

In relative terms, they won’t be there much longer, according to two studies released last week. The studies predict a rise in regional temperatures of 3 to 7 degrees over the next century, and a sea-level rise of 8 to 20 inches along the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic shore.

Higher sea levels lapping at an already-flat state would submerge many coastal regions, from Miami and Tampa Bay neighborhoods to Flagler and Volusia county beaches and beachside residential areas.

Barrier islands would be gone, opening the way to more deadly storm surges. Many of the slivers of land that demarcate the Atlantic Ocean from the Intracoastal Waterway could be drowned. Saltwater intrusion in the aquifer would further erode Florida’s ability to quench the population’s thirst for fresh water (the state’s population, now at 16 million, is projected to rise to 24 million by 2030).

Rising sea levels also would batter the state’s economy. Thanks to the tourism they attract, Florida’s beaches were a $46.7 billion industry in 1999, but no beaches mean no beach tourism. Increased flooding, droughts and rising temperatures could radically alter the state’s $1.6 billion citrus industry and its $475 million sugar cane industry.

Global warming is still a theory. There’s nothing incontrovertible about it. In some corners of the scientific community, it is considered one of the age’s great superstitions. It could prove no different than the 19 th century’s rain-follows- the-plough superstition that fueled, then thwarted, the optimism of Great Plains homesteaders. Nineteenth century pioneers believed that plowing land in arid regions would inevitably bring rain. It only brought them arid heartbreaks.

Only four years ago The Wall Street Journal ran a lengthy oped headlined, “Science Has Spoken: Global Warming Is A Myth.” It was written by two scientists from the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine—Zachary and Arthur Robinson—who argued that the oceans may be as much to blame as humans for rising greenhouse gases, and that relative to a 3,000-year average, temperatures are not rising but possibly cooling.

“So we needn’t worry about human use of hydrocarbons warming the Earth,” Robinson and Robinson wrote. “We also needn’t worry about environmental calamities, even if the current, natural warming trend continues: After all, the Earth has been much warmer during the past 3,000 years without ill effects.”

The authors neglect to mention that the planet was populated by a few billion souls fewer then and that droughts and brutally cold winters did, indeed, have “ill effects” through the centuries, collapsing dynasties, ending civilizations and triggering mass migrations (not the least of which is the migration that peopled the Americas 12,000 years ago).

Nor is making 3,000-year comparisons anymore relevant than 6,000-year comparisons, or 160 million-year comparisons. Antarctica was once the balmiest Club Med spot on the planet and the Pacific washed up all the way to Wyoming. So what? What matters is how the mercury will change the lives of the next three or four generations far more radically than it has the last 30. That big a change appears to be the forecast.

Last October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate and Change, considered the world’s largest congregation of climate scientists and an authority on global warming, concluded that its 1990 and 1995 estimates about climate change were understatements. The panel said that global warming is real, that it is human-made, and that it is no longer reversible. It is only manageable.

In concrete terms, that means the waves lapping higher and higher at local beaches can’t be stopped, but higher sea walls can be built. Certain crops won’t grow anymore, but the region can be adapted for other crops that can grow even better.

Those in the doubters’ school hopped a novel track. Some scientists who no longer dispute global warming’s reality now dispute its ill effects. When a federal study called “Climate Change in America” was released in 2000, such meteorologists as Peter Sousounis of the University of Michigan wanted the report’s positive effects of warming pointed out, such as warmer winters in the Midwest, lower costs of energy and snow removal, fewer winter ailments and longer growing seasons.

In other words, Florida’s beaches could be condemned, and Florida’s elderly residents could no longer live here due to breathing hazards caused by oppressive temperatures. But the beaches of the Great Lakes would have longer tourist seasons and Florida’s retirees could start migrating to the balmy Midwest.

As rationalizations go, this one has the appeal of a half-full glass. It concedes that global warming is happening and that it is human-made. But instead of finding ways to slow it down and eventually reverse it, it embraces it as an advantage. Why argue against warmer Midwestern winters? Pragmatism like this built America.

Pragmatism like this could also choke the world, because embracing global warming only delays the inevitable while encouraging the destructive practices that cooked the planet in the first place. It is like fighting higher gas prices by drilling for more oil instead of exploring alternatives to energy consumption. The eventual energy crush when the extra oil fields do run dry will only be harsher since the country would not have developed alternatives.

Similarly, global warming’s cataclysmic consequences over the course of the next century won’t be worth the extra tanning days on Lake Superior and the extra bushels of wheat from Montana farm lands.

The two studies describing Florida’s warmer future are microcosms of economic shocks and demographic dislocations the world over. America is rich. It can absorb huge disruptions and afford huge innovations. Much of the world can’t. But the Bush administration is steering the country toward an environmental isolationism that would adapt the United States to global warming, rather than adopt policies that counter it. Meanwhile, the rest of the world would be left to fend for itself.

There’s a useful parallel to be drawn with the federal government’s apathy toward global warming.

Before the 20 th century, American farmers had excellent, limitless land. The abundance encouraged the worst farming practices then known. Historian Daniel Boorstin calls it “backwoods farming”—the habit of farming land to exhaustion then moving on, heedless of good stewardship, because “in these early years the most obvious labor-saving device hap pened to be wasteful use of land.”

It’s not that farmers didn’t know better. The scientific journals and newspapers of the times were full of proven advice about how to manage land for greater profit. But farmers had no incentives to do so. And agriculture at the time was left entirely to private enterprise. The federal government stood aloof, uninterested in encouraging better practices.

Then the frontier closed. Land was no longer cheap. It had to be managed. The science of better agriculture started migrating from colleges and journals into homesteaders’ soil. Heedless waste and carelessness on the plains was replaced by an ethic of conservation and good stewardship. The Morrill Act of 1862, which had created land grant colleges to teach agriculture, turned from a legislative pet project into one of Congress’ most visionary initiatives of the century.

The farming techniques fostered by these colleges helped revolutionize American agriculture, making it the world’s best by the turn of the century. It showed how the government could—and should—get involved in protecting the nation’s most important resources.

What careless farmers did to America’s farmlands in the 19 th century, careless industries and consumers have been doing to America’s (and the world’s) air in the 20 th and 21 st centuries. As with farm land, the illusion of a limitless abundance of clean air encourages the heedless pollution. Every country does it. But the United States does it more than most, making it the slovenly polluter of the planet: Total U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide since 1950 add up to 186 billion tons, compared with 127 billion tons for the entire European Union, 68 billion tons for Russia and 57 billion tons for China.

The government that was aloof to agriculture before the Morrill Act is apathetic toward industrial pollution today. With only 6 percent of the world’s population, the United States produces a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases—with the government’s blessing. The Clean Air Act has slowed emissions and scrubbed them of their nastier toxins. It hasn’t reduced them.

The government is also colossally irresponsible, considering the scientific community’s growing consensus not only about the urgency of global warming, but about pollution’s damage to health. Dirty air, scientists note, will contribute to the death of 8 million people by 2020. Those many studies about global warming’s effect on the world in general or on Florida in particular are similar to those 19 th century articles in scientific journals exhorting farmers to prudence. They’re not based on superstitions but on observations.

Scientific studies, of course, are at best footnotes to ideological debates that prefer superstitions to facts. At worst they’re ignored. The two studies about global warming’s effect on Florida describe a century-long process that can’t be perceived from year to year. If it weren’t for the fear of terrorism and a globally cooling economy, Florida’s beaches and theme parks and agriculture would be cashing in on the usual profits.

Visionary leadership ought to be countering the apathy. But where is the visionary equivalent of an environmental Morrill Act? The Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels in order to slow down global warming, had the making of just such a vision. But the Bush administration opposes Kyoto, with some justification. Kyoto bashes American industry as much as it seeks a global, cooperative solution. Nevertheless, the administration failed to negotiate a compromise and instead offered an empty promise to find an alternative. It is holding out, it seems, for absolute fact instead of theory. But global warming is a scientific paradox in that it doesn’t become the provable, beyond-reasonable- doubt fact until it is too late to do much about it.

As the Nenana Ice Classic shows, betting on global warming is increasingly a matter of thinning ice.

Confronting Climate Change in the Gulf Coast Region is available at www.ucsusa.org/ environment/gulf.html. Feeling the Heat in Florida is available at www.nrdc.org.

 

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