IF RHODE ISLAND really did cleave off and disintegrate beneath the sea, that might make the evening news. Brown University, Newport, the Pawtucket Red Sox, and cheap flights on Southwest would suddenly be artifacts in Atlantis.
The next great collapse would take out Harvard University, Cape Cod, Fenway Park, and turn the Big Dig's billions into the world's biggest pothole. Maybe you folks elsewhere in the country could do without some of our snooty institutions, but it would be easy to lay an equivalent template somewhere over your state and wipe out several places precious to you, like Broadway, Chinatown, and Yankee Stadium or Coke, UPS, and Delta in Atlanta or Boeing, Microsoft, and Starbucks in Seattle.
We have no idea how lucky we are that global warming has not yet come to that, washing away our coffee shops, stadiums, and property values. Whether we act before our luck runs out is another story.
Down in Antarctica, a giant ice shelf that was at least 12,000 years old and 70 stories thick fractured into ice cubes in the space of five weeks. That is shocking by geological standards. While no one could say for sure if the particular collapse of the shelf known as Larsen B was directly due to global warming, there is little doubt that this is the kind of thing that would happen on a warmer planet.
''What we're seeing is pretty profound,'' said Ted Scambos, glaciologist for the National Snow and Ice Data Center. ''The polar regions have a way in which they amplify change. We're a water planet, and when you have an area that is at the freezing point, you can get some pretty strong feedback when snow or ice forms or melts. It is another message from the world's cold regions that profound things are happening.''
Scambos was quick to say over the telephone that not all of Antarctica is melting as fast as the wicked witch of the west. Some parts of the frozen continent show signs of thickening. Global warming theories include conflicting patterns of heat and cold across the planet. The inescapable overall fact is that the temperature at the earth's poles has risen 4.5 degrees in the last half-century, five times faster than the temperature of the rest of the planet.
Eighty percent of the world's ice is located in Antarctica. If it all melted, the world's sea level would rise more than 200 feet, destroying the coastal homes of the rich and famous and endangering hundreds of millions of the world's poor who have nowhere to move their shacks.
Many nations understand the facts. British Environment Minister Michael Meacher reacted to the collapse of Larsen B by calling it a ''wake-up call to the whole world.'' Meacher said, ''It's an indication of global warming which is extremely stark.''
The nation that produces the most greenhouse gases, the United States, is still sleeping behind the wheel of sport utility vehicles and frets more about anthrax from Osama than asthma from air-polluting companies. A stark example of how the United States stands stupidly apart from the rest of the world came last month when Eric Schaeffer resigned as director of the Environmental Protection Agency's office of regulatory enforcement. Schaeffer, a 12-year veteran who started at the EPA when President Bush's father was president, was in charge of monitoring power companies for pollution that he said kills 10,000 people a year, more than double the death toll in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
Schaeffer said he could no longer do his job when the White House and industry lobbyists were ''working furiously to weaken the laws we are trying to enforce.'' Schaeffer said his agency's momentum in settling pollution cases ''has effectively stopped.'' In recent days, by the White House's own admission and inside documents leaked to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group critical of the Bush administration, the EPA is doing its best to let companies delay or avoid modernizing pollution controls and self-regulate their pollution levels.
Schaeffer said, ''We need to choose between children with asthma and influence peddlers who don't seem to care.''
The choice is also between a planet and a president who does not care. With Bush so invested in oil drilling, coal burning, and gaz guzzling, it will take a chunk of ice much bigger than the size of Rhode Island to fall off Antarctica. Bush's native Texas comes readily to mind, but then again, it did not matter to him that Houston had the worst air quality in the nation. Maybe when that city is drowned by the rising sea and the waters rush to the doorstep of Bush's ranch in Crawford, our president might look up to the sky and say, ''Houston, we have a problem.''
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company