OF the areas devastated by the South Asian tsunami that killed at least
160,000 people are among those scientists say are the most endangered by
In 1997, the United Nations panel on climate change said, "Especially at risk are large delta regions of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand and the low-lying areas of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia. . . . international studies have projected the displacement of several millions of people from the region's coastal zone assuming a 1-meter rise in sea level. The costs of response measures to reduce the impact of sea-level rise in the region could be immense."
The impact of the Asian tsunami sparked a global relief effort. But even for the most obvious of disasters, the United States left itself wide open for criticism. In normal times the United States offers less aid per capita than any wealthy nation in the world. The first week of the disaster showed us to be no different. Sweden jumped up and pledged the equivalent of $8.40 per person in disaster relief. Denmark pledged $2.90 per person. The United States pledged 12 cents per person.
If we were so stingy for this level of destruction, it is no surprise that the United States is also the worst of the wealthy countries in acknowledging the slow-motion tidal wave of global warming fueled by greenhouse gas emissions. The United States and Australia are the only two industrialized nations that have not signed the Kyoto agreement to cut emissions.
President Bush avoided any serious discussion of the topic in his first term while he let Vice President Dick Cheney pack his secretive energy task force with fossil fuel industry leaders. Bush's public disdain for science and his pullout from Kyoto in 2001 played a role in the eventual resignation of his Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman. She recently, if belatedly, complained in new book about "antiregulatory lobbyists and extreme antigovernment ideologues" who have too much influence over the Republican Party.
Most environmentalists know there are long-term problems with the Kyoto agreement. It would only partially cut global emissions, and it does not adequately address the future contribution to global warming of emerging industrial powers China and India, the world's two most populous nations. But the United States, having only 4 percent of the world's population, currently billows out 25 percent of all greenhouse gases. For us to turn our backs on talks, however flawed, is a unilateral war on common sense.
Just last month the United States went to the latest round of Kyoto talks in Buenos Aires only to declare in environmental terms that the earth is flat. Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary for global affairs, says, "Science tells us that we cannot say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming." Harlan Watson, the senior US climate "negotiator," if such a word can be used with a straight face, said, "The bulk of the scientific opinion is we just don't know enough to be able to predict impact."
Everyone else -- environmentalists, economists, and insurance adjusters -- knows enough to predict the impact. The World Bank, hardly a member of the loony left, warns about major rises in diseases that already kill millions of children in the developing world such as the waterborne or mosquito-transmitted diseases of malaria, diarrhea, and dengue fever. Insurance giant Swiss Re says that global warming threatens to drive up the cost of natural disasters from last year's $70 billion to $150 billion a year within a decade. Different studies estimate that a 3-foot rise in sea level could create up to 150 million refugees in low-lying countries.
The Maldives, 10 feet high at its highest, might go completely under. Amazingly, the island was spared the worst of the tsunam; the water never compressed, crested, and crashed against a resistant land mass. Government spokesman Mohamed Shareef said his nation is "so flat and small and low that the tsunami may not have even noticed us in its path."
With global warming, the Maldives might lose their wall of daily protection from normal storms, its prized coral reefs. Without the reefs, the Maldives might be mauled into an eviscerating evacuation. It is an unnecessary exodus. This is a tsunami with more than a decade's warning. If Americans sat up instead of turning over and reaching for the sun tan oil -- or just the oil period -- they might see a scary wave coming. Even if it is only 3 feet tall.
© 2005 Boston Globe