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Deadly toll of climate change
The crisis they won't do anything about

September 2, 2005 | Page 4

NICOLE COLSON reports on the crisis of the environment--and why it's taking place.

FIVE YEARS into his presidency, George W. Bush recently acknowledged the reality of global warming for the first time. "I recognize that the surface of the Earth is warmer and that an increase in greenhouse gases caused by humans is contributing to the problem," Bush said.

No one is sure what finally convinced Bush: The melting icebergs in the Arctic? Rapid extinction of entire species of animals and plants? Increasingly drastic changes in weather patterns.

It sounds like the plot of a "doomsday" science fiction movie, but this is what is happening around the globe today--as environmental destruction and major climate changes driven by the phenomenon of global warming continue at unprecedented rates.

In Greenland, for example, the massive Ilulissat glacier, which has been relatively stable in size for more than 40 years, has shrunk by over 10 kilometers in just a few years. This "recent and rapid decrease in size is one of the most striking examples of climate change in the Arctic," scientist Robert Corell told Reuters.

Another is what scientists call an "unprecedented thaw" in a vast area of permafrost in Western Siberia--for the first time since it formed 11,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age.

In Alaska, the climate change is so severe that people "are starting to freak out," Dan Lashof, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently told Britain's Independent. "The retreat of the sea ice allows the oceans to pound the coast more, and villages there are suffering from the effects of that erosion. There is permafrost melting, roads are buckling, there are forests that have been infested with beetles because of a rise in temperatures. I think residents there feel it's visible more and more, more than any other place in the country."

Seemingly minor temperature changes are having drastic impacts on delicate ecosystems and the animal species that are part of them.

Last year, for example, a study in the scientific journal Nature reported that nearly one-third of the world's animal and plant species could be wiped out over the next 50 years as regional habitats are destroyed by global warming. Already, some scientists predict that polar bears and certain species of foxes and penguins are on their way to extinction.

A study by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change last year examined 150 species of animals, insects and wild plants in the U.S.--and concluded that fully half had already been negatively impacted by global warming.

This summer, along the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada, for example, thousands of seabirds starved to death. The cause? Unusual rainfall patterns along parts of the coast in May and June, possibly connected to global warming, led to a lack of "upwelling"--a process through which the marine food chain is activated and nutrients are brought to the surface of the ocean. Unable to find food, seabirds have been starving to death in numbers between five and 10 times the normal rate.

There are also increasing numbers of human victims of global warming. Before it hit land, Hurricane Katrina was judged to be one of the strongest hurricanes ever to be seen in the Gulf of Mexico--and the scale of the damage along the Gulf Coast was still unknown as Socialist Worker went to press.

While hurricanes are a natural phenomenon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology climatologist Kerry Emanuel recently found that major storms in both the Atlantic and the Pacific have increased in duration and intensity by about 50 percent since the 1970s--a trend linked to the increases in average ocean surface temperatures and global atmospheric temperatures during the same period.

The British charity Christian Aid recently estimated that without significant cuts in greenhouse gases, there could be as many as 245 climate-related disasters over the next 20 years--compared, for example, to the 1960s when there were just 16 climate-related disasters.

Today, the nightmare of a potential future filled with man-made environmental "natural disasters" is on full display.

Particularly in underdeveloped nations, where there is a higher concentration of poor people living in slums than ever before, severe weather is predicted to lead to increased outbreaks of infectious diseases--like cholera, for example, which a recent study linked to periods of extreme rainfall, drought and high temperatures. In other words, the extreme weather patterns that global warming is expected to bring about.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists put it, "There's a serious risk the climate will change in ways that will seriously disrupt our lives. Among the severest impacts: a rise in sea level, more heat waves and droughts; more extreme weather events, producing floods and property destruction; and tropical diseases spreading to areas where they've never been known before. If we don't take action, global warming will threaten our health, our cities, our farms, and our forests, wetlands and other natural habitats."

As left-wing author Michael Parenti points out, while environmental destruction may affect us all, it doesn't affect us all evenly.

"[P]ollution pays, while ecology costs," Parenti wrote. "Every dollar a company spends on environmental protections is one less dollar in earnings...Moving away from fossil fuels and toward solar, wind and tidal energy could help avert ecological disaster, but six of the world's ten top industrial corporations are involved primarily in the production of oil, gasoline and motor vehicles. Fossil fuel pollution means billions in profits. Ecologically sustainable forms of production directly threaten those profits."

We can't rely on a system based on exploitation--not just of people, but of the environment--to provide a solution to the crisis it created.

Who's to blame for global warming?

SKYROCKETING GAS prices are taking a huge bite out of working class families' budgets. And the situation looks as if it will only get worse, especially with analysts predicting that Hurricane Katrina will be an excuse for oil companies to hike prices by at least 5 or 6 cents, and maybe much more.

Across the U.S., there was anger directed at the corporate gougers who run the oil industry--and the former Texas oil man in the White House, whose disastrous policies have contributed to the price hikes.

But at least some environmentalists consider rising gas prices to be a mixed blessing. They believe that this will force drivers of SUVs or other gas guzzlers to cut back on their "conspicuous consumption"--and the U.S. will finally begin to do something about the fact that it is responsible for a full 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

Last November, author Tom Engelhardt wrote about Americans' "wall of energy denial" for TomDispatch. "Those fortifications of denial start with oil and wend their way across a rather impressive terrain of future troubles, well patrolled by an army of Hummers and SUVs," he wrote. "[W]e remain as a nation in almost full-scale, oil-gulping denial of our own future and, far more important, that of our children and grandchildren. Imagine if we had been in whatever the opposite of denial might be; if, even a decade ago, we had put Moon-reaching, Iraq war-making levels of money and a little good old American quick-fix know-how into a program to develop sustainable energy resources and another way of life on this planet."

Ask most Americans, and there's no doubt that a majority, given the choice, would vote to put the money spent on the Iraq occupation toward more fuel-efficient cars, alternative energy sources and environmental protection--not to mention health care, Social Security or other social programs.

The problem, of course, is that ordinary people never get an opportunity to decide such things. At most, we are faced every four years with the prospect of voting for one of two mainstream parties committed to protecting the profits of Corporate America, even at the expense of lasting environmental degradation. And the Big Three U.S. car companies--whose boardroom decisions determine what kind of cars will be sold--aren't even that accountable.

There's no doubt that massive Hummers and other luxury super-SUVs are obnoxious, pollution-causing status symbols that serve no purpose except to flaunt wealth. But even banning every SUV in America would still leave more than 200 million carbon dioxide-emitting automobiles on the road. And that doesn't include the real driving force behind pollution--the factories of modern industry.

As gas prices climb, ordinary working people are paying a big price--for living in a society in which owning a car is most often a daily necessity, not a choice. Instead of forcing people to drive less, high gas prices simply force most people to spend more money that they don't have--because we live in a society that ignores the need for public transportation and alternative energy technology.

A real solution to the greenhouse emissions produced by modern society would have to involve not "Americans driving less," but more fundamental changes in our system of production and transportation. Lecturing working people about the evils of buying SUVs won't solve the problem.

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