We need a shoe to drop on climate change

by Auden Schendler

In 1999, Hurricane Mitch, which had lost most of its kick by the time it reached Honduras, still killed more than 10,000 people as a result of intense flooding, making it the biggest storm-related disaster in Central American history.

A year later, 25,000 people died in Venezuelan rainstorms, the greatest such disaster in South America, ever. Similar historic flooding has occurred recently in Bangladesh, China, India and North Korea.

These catastrophes, along with the Western United States’ six-year drought and intense fires, are the type of extreme weather events predicted by climate change models. And yet America, in an almost pathological resistance to predictions of doom, is doing nothing to address the problem.

Americans have a long history of complacency. While we are one of the most innovative and optimistic societies on the planet -- and perhaps because we are -- we abhor, and often ignore, advance warnings, putting our faith instead in our unique ability to problem-solve at the last minute.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it turns out, was not much of a surprise. Nor, ultimately, was the space shuttle Challenger explosion: engineers had warned about the faulty O ring the very morning of the disaster. Before Sept. 11, this country was well aware of Al Qaeda's threat.

But we needed these disasters to spark us into action. It took Ohio's Cuyahoga River catching fire to spark the Clean Water Act. It took Love Canal to create federal Superfund legislation.

Jeffrey Goldberg, in the Feb. 10 New Yorker, cites national-security expert Thomas Schelling's post-Pearl Harbor theory that America suffers from a "poverty of expectations. There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable," Schelling said. "The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously."

The Bush administration argues that it must confront the danger posed by Saddam Hussein, though its critics say the United States presents a "sky is falling" scenario. This insistence on taking action against a threat that is not universally accepted makes it even more surprising that the administration remains passive about climate change.

Beyond dropping out of the Kyoto protocol, the government continues to insist on the need for more research on climate change, even though scientific consensus has been achieved. Instead of targeting the problem as precisely as if it were an Iraqi bio-weapons lab, the administration has proposed "environmental" programs, such as the call for fuel-cell cars, that will postpone needed changes in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards conveniently beyond the current administration. Confidence in hydrogen as a panacea reflects American ironclad confidence in its ingenuity, and technology's ability to come to the rescue at the eleventh hour.

We haven't always turned a blind eye to doom-and-gloom warnings, but ironically, the last time we did act only increased complacency. Y2K was a good example. Our response to that predicted crisis included concerted action and investment by businesses and government well in advance of the problem-prevented disaster. That nothing happened when the calendar turned to the year 2,000 reinforced the American sense that "things will be OK -- just relax."

Other recent successes in response to predicted catastrophic events have reinforced our willingness to wait for crisis before acting. A good example is the U.S.-- and world's-response to what was arguably the first Sept. 11 of the environment -- the discovery of a gaping ozone hole over the Antarctic.

Concern about the damaging effects of chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) had been around since the early 1970s, but it took the shock of the ozone hole to spark the Montreal Protocol of 1987, one of the great environmental achievements of our time. The protocol united the globe in a ban on CFCs, and effectively solved a potentially catastrophic problem.

Climate change, unfortunately, will not be so easily remedied. Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere would continue to increase. By the time there is an American crisis, it may well be too late.

So what will it take? At $5 billion, 2001's tropical storm Allison was the costliest in United States history. But it only caused 22 deaths. Imagine 25,000 dead from flooding damage, in say, California or Texas, instead of Venezuela. Will this be what it takes to rouse America to action? Perhaps. But surely that sort of thing couldn't happen here.

Auden Schendler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He directs environmental affairs for the Aspen Skiing Co.

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