Rising Seas, Rising Awareness

Climate change threatens to drown Maryland's coasts and islands, but it's not too late to act

Here's an idea: Why don't the residents of Smith Island - at the fragile center of the Chesapeake Bay - rent a few scuba-diving suits and hold a town hall meeting under water?

Scientists say a huge part of the Chesapeake region could be below water in a few decades due to rapid global warming. So why not practice up? Just grab a few wetsuits and goggles and rehearse for the aquatic life to come.

A similar rehearsal took place last week in another island area: the archipelago nation of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Sitting at underwater tables, atop underwater chairs with fish darting about, the country's president and Cabinet ministers held a "global warming summit" to ask the world to stop the rising seas that could eventually submerge their entire country.

But as TV networks broadcast this bizarre meeting back to the U.S., you could almost hear the "tsk, tsk." We comfortable Americans tend to view really big catastrophes - things like famines and tsunamis - as far-away matters involving people usually too poor or under-educated to plan better.

This mindset helped blind us to the pre-Hurricane Katrina dangers of New Orleans. And it's blinding us today to the shared threat of climate change in places like Smith Island, not to mention Manhattan Island and most of south Florida.

Smith Island - just 80 miles east of the White House in the main stem of the Chesapeake - is home to 300 fishermen, artists, boat-builders, shopkeepers and retirees. The island covers four square miles and is, on average, less than 2 feet above sea level.

If, thanks to global warming pollution, the Greenland ice sheet continues its satellite-verified meltdown, then Smith Island will almost certainly disappear even faster than the Maldives and faster than several much-publicized South Pacific island nations. The whole eastern third of Maryland, in fact, is in big trouble, from Ocean City to Solomons Island to Annapolis. James Hansen, the top climate scientist at NASA, says we'll be measuring sea-level rise in meters by 2100 if current trends continue.

That's a lot to take in, for sure, and skepticism might be the natural response to such climate predictions. So don't take it from Greenpeace or Al Gore or even James Hansen. Listen instead to Allstate Insurance Co.

In 2006, Allstate announced it was no longer issuing new homeowners' policies in states up and down the East Coast. In Maryland, the company shut its doors to new customers across 11 eastern counties, including parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties. Why? First, the company said, sea levels are definitely rising worldwide based on irrefutable science. Second, Atlantic hurricanes are getting bigger and more intense as the planet warms. Hence, Smith Island and much of the rest of eastern Maryland just aren't good insurance risks anymore, Allstate acknowledged. The potential for catastrophe is too great.

Allstate is not a Republican corporation. It's not a Democratic corporation. This is rational private capital talking. The idea of an underwater town hall meeting near Smith Island seems less alarmist when a major insurance company is abandoning customers just a stone's throw from our nation's capital.

Thankfully, the Maryland General Assembly has done its part on global warming. It passed a statute last spring mandating a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 2020. But like the tiny nation of the Maldives, Maryland can't solve global warming by itself. The U.S. Senate must pass an even stronger federal carbon cap by mid-December, ahead of international climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. With a congressional bill in hand, President Barack Obama must then go to Copenhagen and push China and the rest of the world for a strong global treaty to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol.

The good news is that this Saturday, for the first time ever, activists from Maryland and the Maldives - as well as Greenland, Australia and myriad places in between - will be speaking with one voice on global warming. The much-heralded "International Day of Climate Action" involves more than 4,000 events in more than 170 countries, including a "human circle of hope" outside the White House. (Learn more at www.350.org/dc).

And while there's no word yet about an aquatic town hall meeting at Smith Island, there are rumors of wetsuits and goggles available for loan from the president of the Maldives. It's time to follow in his wake.

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