The easiest approach for the time being is to pretend it's not happening. It's better for the nerves in the short run to remain riveted by the Clinton follies or the latest shenanigans on "Temptation Island" than to acknowledge that the majestic ice cap atop Mount Kilimanjaro, which seemed for so long to be an almost permanent feature of the planet, will vanish in less than 15 years.
It's February and it's cold in New York, which can help us maintain the fiction that the planet is not warming at a scary rate. But the snows are disappearing from Kilimanjaro, and a few years ago scientists were astonished when a mammoth fragment of the Larsen Ice Shelf at the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula collapsed like a window shattered by a rock. The fragment had measured 48 miles by 22 miles and was hundreds of feet thick. It eventually disappeared.
Many strange things are happening. The seasons are changing, rainstorms are becoming more intense, sea levels are rising, mighty glaciers are receding, the permafrost (by definition, the permanently frozen subsoil in the polar regions) is thawing, trees are flowering earlier, insects are emerging sooner, and so on.
Global warming is not coming, it's here.
There are likely to be some beneficial results in some areas from the warming, such as longer growing seasons and increased crop yields in certain mid-latitude regions, and a decline in deaths related to extreme cold. But over all, the effects of this sharp and accelerating and largely artificial warming of the planet — including the consequences of such extreme events as droughts, floods, heat waves, avalanches and tropical storms — are potentially catastrophic.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in a report released Tuesday in Geneva, said, "More people are projected to be harmed than benefited by climate change, even for global mean temperature increases of less than a few degrees centigrade."
The report also discussed an issue that has profound policy and ethical implications. The worst effects of global warming will probably not be felt by those most responsible for the pollution of the atmosphere by heat- trapping greenhouse gases. The great industrial societies, which have benefited so long from the rapacious devouring of resources and the indiscriminate release of pollutants, are also the societies best positioned to cope with the treacherous forces of global warming.
As the panel noted in its report, "The ability of human systems to adapt to and cope with climate change depends on such factors as wealth, technology, education, information, skills, infrastructure, access to resources, and management capabilities."
Developing countries, deficient in those areas, are doomed to suffer disproportionately from the warming of the planet. "The effects of climate change," the panel said, "are expected to be greatest in developing countries in terms of loss of life and relative effects on investment and the economy."
Despite the powerful and increasing evidence of the role of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the warming of the earth, the concentrations of those gases in the atmosphere are expected to increase, not decrease, over the next several decades. Government leaders are not responding to the problem with the sense of urgency that is called for.
Carbon dioxide doesn't just float away in a day or two. It remains in the atmosphere for more than 100 years. The consequences of our failure to act will last for centuries.
Americans have a special responsibility here. The United States is the mightiest nation on the planet and the greatest contributor to the industrial component of global warming. The nation is wealthy and at peace. A mature approach would require certain sacrifices designed to provide a better environment for future generations of Americans and a more equitable relationship with neighbors around the world.
But that's only one approach. Another is to just ignore the problem and continue to feast like gluttons at the table of the world's resources. That will work for awhile. Why not? All you have to do is convince yourself that damaging the planet is somebody else's problem.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company