The Tide Is Turning

Published December 29, 2006, issue of December 29, 2006.
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An Indian island in the Bay of Bengal was reported by researchers last week to be the first inhabited island on earth swept away by rising seas as a result of global warming. The island, Lohachara, near the mouth of the Ganges, had a population of 10,000. The residents have fled to a larger neighbor, Sagar. So has most of the population of nearby, fast-disappearing Ghoramara. But they can’t stay there. Sagar, too, is disappearing. Within a few years, say the scientists at Calcutta’s Jadavpur University, at least 70,000 people in the Sundarban atoll will be homeless, victims of climate change. It’s only the beginning, and it’s come much sooner than most scientists had expected.

This week, just days after the Calcutta study was released, India’s vast neighbor to the north, China, released its very first official report on global warming. The conclusion: Climate change threatens China’s very economic future. “Greenhouse gases released due to human activity are leading to ever more serious problems in terms of climate change,” said the report, prepared by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology in cooperation with 12 other ministries. Droughts, flooding and heat waves will threaten bridges and rail lines, destroy farm land and reduce grain production by as much as 10% by midcentury. “Global climate change has an impact on the nation’s ability to develop further,” the ministry said.

The Chinese and Indian reports, dramatic in their own rights, carry a special resonance in the worldwide climate debate. China and India are the giants of the developing world. They’ve been the leaders in the poorer nations’ resistance to environmental reform, arguing that they should be free to catch up with the rich nations and not be made to pay the price, in slower growth, for the ecological damage wrought by the industrialized world. Their resistance, in turn, is the main argument offered by Bush administration officials — the ones that believe in science, anyway — that it’s pointless for Americans to pay the price of environmental restraint, since the developing nations aren’t willing to do their share. What’s the point in making Americans rein in their appetites, the argument goes, when the Chinese and Indians are pouring carbons into the atmosphere like there’s no tomorrow?

Implicit in the administration’s arguments, of course, is the belief that global warming is not the looming catastrophe it’s made out to be. Harvard professors and French intellectuals may yell and scream, but right-thinking folks — Joe Lunchbucket, the business community, leaders of the emerging democracies in New Europe and the Pacific Rim — understand that it’s a load of bunk. Why should we worry about carbon emissions when the world’s two largest countries aren’t interested?

Well, now they’re interested. It’s too early to say how the dawning of environmental awareness will affect policy in Beijing and New Delhi, but it’s safe to say that the crisis has finally caught their attention. That’s more than we can say for our own leaders.

America’s official stance on global warming was laid out in painfully blunt terms just four weeks ago, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Massachusetts v. the Environmental Protection Agency. The Bay State, along with 12 other states plus several cities and not-for-profits, wants the federal government to enforce clean-air laws against carbon emissions that are destroying the planet. Massachusetts, the lead plaintiff, argues that it’s already lost miles of coastline as a result of rising sea levels. The complaint cites the worldwide scientific consensus that unchecked carbon emissions will lead to planetary disaster, and that America, as the world’s largest carbon emitter, must begin to act. The Bush administration’s lawyers, replying for the EPA, argue that carbon emissions weren’t among the pollutants singled out for the EPA to control when it was formed in 1970. They say that if the global crisis is as vast as the plaintiffs claim, then action by the EPA won’t be enough to save Cape Cod, much less the planet. And they claim — wrongly — that there is still “substantial scientific uncertainty” about global warming.

The justices have their work cut out for them. They should rule for Massachusetts, and for the obvious intent of the clean-air laws. Their ruling won’t rebuild homes in Provincetown — or Lohachara — but it can help save the rest of us.

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