Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Keeping one's head above water

Several weeks ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issue its latest landmark report and the evidence for human-induced global warming appears ever more robust. As the journal Nature says: "The debate is no longer about whether we can believe the numbers, but what we should do about them."

Now the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest scientific society, has issued its own consensus statement on global warming and concludes: "The evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now and is a growing threat to society."

The issue is of particular concern to low-lying island nations like the Bahamas. A sea-level rise of several feet would put much of this country underwater and make the rest vulnerable to hurricane surges. There is only a single speck of land in the entire nation as high as Disney World's Space Mountain.

The squabbles between climatologists and politicians are of little comfort to people who live in a nation that barely rise above the waves. When Hurricane Lily blew across this island a decade ago, lots of folks found fish on their front porches. If the most drastic predictions about global warming transpire, the fish will be swimming in the front door.

Ironically, these islands wouldn't be here at all if it weren't for ups and downs of the sea caused by the Ice Ages. During the last interglacial period, sea level was about 15 feet higher than now, and the Bahamas were reduced to a few ridge tops. During glacial periods, when the sea was hundreds of feet lower, most of the broad Bahama Bank was high and dry, and winds blew up the dunes that provide the backbones of the present islands.

Bahamians learn this geological history in school, so they know what sea-level change is all about. The Bahamian government mouths an official policy of prudential planning, but immediate economic gain, rather than prudence, appears to guide action in such things as shore development.

And who will blame them? As long as the US government continues to oppose most actions or incentives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions, why should a poor nation like the Bahamas make economic sacrifices? If global warming is real, as the IPCC and the AAAS insist, it is not Bahamians who have caused the problem. They will, of course, be among the first to suffer the consequences.