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Are We Too Dismissive on Global Warming?
Published on Monday, July 10, 2006 by the Philadelphia Inquirer
Are We Too Dismissive on Global Warming?
by Leonard Pitts Jr.
 

Observations from the heart of a recent deluge:

It rained. Lordy, how it rained. Rained for days and days. Rained cats and dogs, mice and frogs and, yes, the kitchen sink.

The Eastern Seaboard got a big wet kiss from Mom Nature, and your humble correspondent, who spends half his life in airports, got an impromptu tour of the results. Went from Miami, where water topped the sidewalks, to Baltimore, where the news was full of flooding and evacuations, to Philadelphia, where they were tracking airport delays on calendars, not clocks.

And I'm saying to myself: Tell me again, skeptics, how greenhouse gases are not screwing up the planet.

I am not saying global warming caused the recent unlikely weather. I'm not sure anyone could make a link with that degree of specificity. What I am saying is that day after day of watching water sluice down from the heavens in biblical torrents has a deleterious effect on one's ability to remain sanguine about doomsday pronouncements. It makes you think.

About Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and its dramatic before and after photos of Mount Kilimanjaro, where the famed snows are melting away.

About a recent story in Vanity Fair, with computer-generated images of a future where the oceans have risen and great cities are submerged.

About last month's report from the National Academy of Sciences that Earth is hotter than it's been for at least 400 years and maybe for 2,000.

About a note I once received from a reader taking me to task for not writing about the environment. The most memorable passage said essentially this: "You are an intelligent man, yet you are not terrified. Therefore, you must not know." The writer went on to sketch out a vision of doomsday not unlike that in Vanity Fair. It stayed with me: "You are an intelligent man, yet you are not terrified."

I'd be the first to admit that the doomsday images feel absurdly alarmist. The ice caps melting? New York underwater? Get real. That's not going to happen, right?

But then it occurs to me that I am - we are? - missing the lesson of the signature American disasters of the millennium. We often talk about Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 in terms of failures: failures of intelligence, failures of planning, failures of communication.

But these catastrophes were first and foremost failures of imagination. Did we know that a major hurricane could destroy New Orleans? Yes: It was even part of the tour guides' spiel. Did we know terrorists wanted to bring down the World Trade Center towers? Yes: They made a credible attempt in 1993.

And what did we do with what we knew? Nothing?

Some disasters, I think, are so big and so awful they are beyond our power to conceive. So we dismiss them, retreat to the "knowledge" that a thing can't happen because, well, it just can't.

If the last five years have taught us nothing else, they've taught us there's no such thing as can't. Twice now, that which had seemed impossible, the province of novelists and movie makers, has intruded into real life. Anyone want to go for a third?

As I write, it is sunny, 79 degrees, and easy to be sanguine. Except, sanguinity has come to feel a little like New Orleans before Katrina, or New York on Sept. 10. For me, at least, the word can't washed away in the deluge of a day when the rain would not stop.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a Miami Herald columnist.

© 2006 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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