February 17, 2006 - 11:55am ET
Diane Sawyer, anchoring ABC's " World News Tonight," simply repeated the most stark statistic from her network's report yesterday on the increasing melt rate of the Greenland ice sheet. "Twenty-one feet," she said. Twenty-one feet. That's how much the world's sea levels will rise when Greenland's ice fully melts.
Catastrophic melting will do more than just inundate the nation's coastal cities. California's Imperial Valley will flood, as levees are overcome by the rising waters. That will mean the devastation of one of America's great agricultural breadbaskets and the loss of Southern California's main source of freshwater. California may both drown and dry up before the big earthquake ever hits.
Melting will also change the world's weather patterns, especially in the northern hemisphere. Massive amounts of cold freshwater will likely shut down the Atlantic Ocean currents that bring the warm waters from the tropics up to heat Europe. Ironically, Northern Europe will get colder as a result of global warming, increasing its energy needs and devastating its agricultural cycles. For some powerful renderings of what that world will look like, go here.
But until now, politicians in Washington have preferred to ignore or reject the real threats posed by global warming. The reason is simple. The solutions to this problem are too disruptive to vested interests. Our communities must be redesigned to use far less energy. Our markets must value labor over resources. Our transportation patterns must increase mobility while decreasing vehicle miles traveled. Automakers, homebuilders, utilities, oil companies and many of the unions that provide the labor for these core components of the S&P 500 are resisting the calls for a major economic adaptation.
Instead, these same groups have realized that it is much easier to build a consensus around a different energy-related threat: economic independence and gas prices. When addressed without consideration of global warming, the solutions to our energy security situation are much more palatable. Without the need to reduce carbon emissions drastically in terms of volume and timetable, solutions like more efficient cars and a shift to nuclear power are all that is needed. We can preserve the suburban American dream, trust us.
But it's not only "21 feet" that puts the lie to that rear-guard action. It's also China. China's economy is growing at 9.9 percent, increasing demand for every major industrial resource—especially energy. And that demand growth is happening with only 200 million people in its modern economy. More than 1 billion Chinese are still waiting to get their own bite of the apple. Oh, and then there are 3.4 billion people in the rest of the developing world also waiting in line. We'd need many more planet Earths to satisfy them all.
The big challenge in Washington, therefore, is to figure out how to make this stark economic reality politically advantageous. Two-thirds of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. They're exactly right. The question is whether they will ever get a plan for the right direction before we lose cities, valleys and all the good options.
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