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Shelter From the Storms

The festival of Sukkot, which begins Wednesday night, September 29, is known for the custom among observant Jews of building sukkahs, or booths, in their backyards and on their rooftops. The booths, open to the sky and the elements, are meant to symbolize the fragile, transient quality of the Hebrews’ journey through the wilderness on their way to freedom. Scholars point to another, older symbolism in the huts in which the farmers of ancient Israel lived during the frantic rush to bring in the fall harvest before the winter rains begin. Anyone who has spent an autumn on a farm in Israel knows the grim, unforgiving reality of this seasonal cycle.

Nowhere is the seasonal sense of fragility more palpable this year than in the storm-prone stretch of the Caribbean and America’s Gulf Coast known as Hurricane Alley. With three monster storms battering the region in the space of four weeks and a fourth killer on the loose, this is turning out to be one of the worst seasons on record, capping a steady, two-decade increase in hurricane frequency and intensity. And scientists say it’s going to get worse.

Some experts argue that what we’re seeing is the first, catastrophic fallout from global warming — the incremental change in the earth’s environment resulting from human activity, particularly burning fossil fuels. But the theory has touched off a lively scientific debate. No one doubts that warmer air and oceans will worsen hurricanes by causing higher winds and increased rainfall. There’s almost no one — outside the more extreme fringes of the fundamentalist right, the oil companies and the Bush administration — who doubts that human activity is warming the air and oceans. The question is whether global warming has advanced far enough and fast enough to account for this year’s storms, or whether longer-range cycles are at work right now and the worst is yet to come.

What’s called for is a mixture of urgency and open-mindedness. British Prime Minister Tony Blair struck the right tone in a London speech last week in which he named global warming as a top priority for his upcoming term as president of the G-8 group of industrialized nations in 2005.

Without drawing final conclusions, Blair pointed to a series of extreme weather events across the globe in the last year, including a drought in southern Africa and the European heat wave that claimed 26,000 lives last summer, as well as this year’s Caribbean hurricanes, as evidence of the potential threat.

“If there were even a 50% chance that the scientific evidence is right, the bias in favor of action would be clear,” Blair said. “But of course it is far more than 50%.”

There’s already enough evidence, he said, to make clear that the danger of climate change is “so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence.”

“There is no doubt that the time to act is now,” he said. “It is now that timely action can avert disaster. It is now that, with foresight and will, such action can be taken without disturbing the essence of our way of life, by adjusting behavior, not altering it entirely.”

Blair said his agenda for the coming year would include reaching agreement within the G-8 on the nature of the threat, agreeing on scientific and technological responses, and persuading countries outside the G-8, including China and India, to join the fight.

Of those aims, the toughest is the first. Getting the G-8 to agree means, first of all, getting Washington to agree. That’s a tall order, as Blair acknowledged. The Bush administration angered much of the world community by pulling out of the Kyoto Accord on global warming in 2001, and the White House has repeatedly expressed skepticism about the science. But there’s bipartisan skepticism in Congress, too, about the fairness of radical changes demanded of America while the developing world continues to flout the rules.

Blair’s answer was straightforward: “It is the poorest countries in the world that will suffer most,” he said. “Yet it is they who have contributed least to the problem. That is why the world’s richest nations in the G-8 have a responsibility to lead the way.” The pathway out of this wilderness begins in Washington.

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