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Global warming is in the spotlight
Scripps Howard News Service


April 02, 2007

Global warming is hot. Here's a sampling from last week:

The April 2007 "Atlantic Monthly" carries two adjacent articles on global warming. The cover story "Hot Prospects," by Gregg Easterbrook, accepts the idea that global warming is both real and inevitable, whether anthropogenic or not. Easterbrook suggests that it's time for some careful thinking about who will be the winners and the losers in a warmer world.

After all, environmental warmth is a good thing and civilization has tended to flourish during the world's warmer periods. As a more temperate climate moves toward the globe's higher latitudes, the current equatorial hot band around the earth will become insufferable. In compensation, currently frigid regions will blossom, and the primary beneficiaries will be in the Northern Hemisphere: Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Russia, and Scandinavia.

In fact, Easterbrook reports that Canada has increased its greenhouse-gas output more than most other nations in recent years, implying facetiously, I think, that those "wily Canadians" have a master plan to develop the kind of prosperity previously enjoyed by countries in the lower latitudes.

But this kind of prosperity-shift doesn't come without cost and chaos. In the article following Easterbrook's, Stephan Faris examines "The Real Roots of Darfur." Ordinarily we think of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur in ethnic terms, Arabs against black Africans. But Faris argues credibly that the real competition is over good land, which is in diminishing supply because of a drought caused by a disruption in the African monsoons that, in turn, resulted from an increase in sea-surface temperature worldwide. Or so climate scientists contend.

If they're right, Darfur represents an example of the chaos that Easterbrook's model of global warming predicts: an already difficult habitat becomes an impossible place to live and descends into genocide and misery. At the same time, Greenland's growing season has increased by two weeks since the 1970s.

Elizabeth Kolbert has a new book out, "Field Notes from a Catastrophe." Kolbert reports on places where global warming has already begun to have a concrete impact on how people live. Alaskan villages, for example, are having to relocate because the sea ice that used to protect them from ocean swells has melted.

Kolbert is interested in butterflies, as well. Some very localized species reside exclusively at particular altitudes on English mountainsides. As the world warms, the butterflies gradually move up the side of the mountain until they reach the peak. Kolbert produces the memorable image of a whole species streaming from a mountain's peak into extinction, like a cloud.

Finally, last week Rush Limbaugh addressed global warming on the radio. After watching the first episodes of the Discovery Channel's new series "Planet Earth," he rhapsodized about the magnificent grandeur, the immense scale and complexity of all creation. Only liberals, he blustered, could imagine that puny mankind could possibly have any impact on the complicated mechanism of our globe or the momentum of the life force that drives the living world. And so on.

But Limbaugh looks at the world through the wrong end of the telescope. In "Planet Earth" our globe's magnificence is on brilliant display, and it's not hard to find places and beasts that fill us with awe. On television, at least, we can still find the grand spectacle of, say, the blue whale.

But can blue whales find each other? Some whale species are threatened simply because their numbers are so reduced that they can't locate each other in the vast expanse of the ocean, which leads to a spiral into extinction. While we're marveling over the world's wonders on television they may slip away because of factors that aren't as easily portrayed visually.

A longer view of the earth is called for, say, from the surface of Mars or Venus. At that distance our magnificent world begins to fade into the background of an unimaginably vast, empty, and cold universe. For all we know, all life in our universe, and certainly all human life, resides in an extremely thin film wrapped around our rocky globe. Humanity isn't inevitable; we'll have nowhere else to go, if we make the mistake of squeezing ourselves off an overheated globe like butterflies off the peak of a mountain.


John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.
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