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Living Under Water

There’s an old joke about the British secret service learning that the polar ice cap is melting, threatening to drown the world within six months. The queen asks the clergy to go on television and prepare the public for the End. The archbishop of Canterbury goes first, urging his flock to receive sacraments and get ready to meet their Maker. Then the chief rabbi gets on the air. “Nu,” he says, “we have six months to learn how to live underwater.”

This week, life became a Jewish joke. According to the daily London Observer, Queen Elizabeth II raised the issue of global warming with Prime Minister Tony Blair the other day, asking him to pressure the Bush administration for a change in policy. The queen, a well-placed source said, “has become worried like the rest of us.”

She has good reason. Scientific evidence has been accumulating rapidly in recent years that the global climate is changing with unexpected speed as a result of human activity, primarily the use of fossil fuels. There’s worldwide consensus over the steps needed to stave off calamity. The United States stands virtually alone among industrialized nations in refusing to acknowledge threat or accept the needed solutions. During its first term the Bush administration commissioned and then rejected no fewer than two scientific reports on the threat, refusing to accept what everyone else knows is true.

This week the stage was set for a third confrontation between the administration and science. A scientific report by a consortium of eight nations bordering the Arctic Circle confirmed that the polar ice cap is melting nearly twice as fast as the rest of the world, threatening to raise sea levels and ravage the fragile Arctic environment. By century’s end, the ice cap will be melting entirely each summer. The Arctic nations, which produce 30% of the world’s greenhouse emissions, are to meet in Iceland on November 24 to discuss steps to save the region, but American officials are expected to oppose the scientists’ recommendations.

As the rabbi said, it’s time to learn to live underwater.

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