Friday, May 8, 2009

Want a global emergency? Observe the ice

Someone in Texas has died from a scary-sounding flu. Have we closed the state yet?

I mean, really. What are those people doing in the streets of Maypearl and the tractors of Hartley County when they could be duct-taping their windows?

Really. When has such emotional and informational energy been exerted to less informational benefit?

Information: There is influenza in the world. Flus cannot be contained by borders. People travel. They breathe and use their hands as instruments. Advisory: Wash hands. Continue to breathe.

I don't meant to dismiss a real public health concern. But, really: Are we so aching for a global crisis that we'll take a cough and make it whooping cough?

If you're aching for a global crisis, here are two stories that fit the term. Really.

* A 270-square-mile section of ice — about the size of New York City — broke off from the Antarctic ice shield last month.

Well, it's just ice. It has nothing to do with people. But, wait . . .

* Drought-stricken India has been rocked by a grisly and climbing toll: deep-in-debt farmers committing suicide. First reported byThe New York Times three years ago, the toll has reached the thousands.

The story behind that story, believe it or not, is ice. Really. Himalayan glaciers are the key source of India's irrigation and drinking water. Those glaciers are shrinking in a steady and scary fashion.

I know that some readers are poised to attach "hoax" to the assertion that man's pollution is the key variable in this true global crisis. They sound absolutely certain. They might be able to cite a scientist who doubts the claim. Finding one doubter is good enough for them, for two doubters make a movement.

Congress, fortunately, and now with the prodding of a dead-serious president, finally appears on the verge of putting this country back in the leadership role on global climate change that it has punted away.

Real actions to curb carbon emissions are needed sooner, not later. Dr. Rajendra Pachuari, who chairs the International Panel on Climate Change, said if the United States doesn't set the pace with its own substantive reductions before 2012, "that will be too late."

Pachuari — sounds like one of those exotic, hate-America nags we must endure on the BBC. Actually, he's a George W. Bush appointee.

On the table right now in Congress is legislation that is downright ambitious. We'll see to what extent money and industrial interests sap Congress of its will.

What climate-change groups are urging, and what is possible in this Congress, is a cap-and-trade system under which industries would be required to buy permits for carbon emissions. That means they can decide for themselves whether it is cheaper to pollute or to spend the money to reduce pollution.

Under the measure supported by climate-change groups, cumulative carbon emissions nationwide would be cut between 25 percent and 40 percent through 2012. This would be in tune with targets adopted by international climate negotiators in 2007.

Critics call this a back-door carbon tax. Call it whatever you wish. You see, when you put a cost on pollution, you give someone an incentive not to do it.

This country needs to face two realities: (1) the health ramifications of overdependence on fossil fuels, of which global warming is just one consideration; (2) the increasing scarcity of such fuels and the need to make alternatives cost-effective.

You may believe global warming to be a hoax, but let's all acknowledge that when we address carbon emissions, we address all of the above issues, to our benefit.

These concerns make something as fleeting as a flu outbreak almost laughably inconsequential.

Maybe if we gave climate change an exotic, infectious-sounding name, it would draw attention. Dodo influenza. How does that sound? It could work. The difference is that global warming doesn't just affect those who don't wash their hands.

John Young writes for the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald.

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