The Larger Greenhouse Responsibility

Over the years in SF, various writers have postulated assorted “doomsday” environmental scenarios, where the entire planet gets too hot, or water turns to the equivalent of clear jello, or the northern hemisphere becomes encased in solid ice in an improbably short period of time. Yet, in a way, these are “simple” catastrophes, and I say simple because they are of such magnitude that we poor humans can do nothing.

What about catastrophes with which we could deal… and won’t?

For example, it appeared for a time as though there were two schools of thought on greenhouse gas effects, those who believed in global warming and that it was caused or greatly exacerbated by human activity and those who denied any such warming was taking place. Recently, it appears as though the majority of what one might call “informed” opinion, i.e., those with data and some understanding of it, has changed into those who believe in global warming as created by human activities and those who believe in global warming as caused by “natural” effects.

Too many of those in the second group, at least from what I can see, don’t seem to understand that the situation is no less critical for being “natural” [if indeed it is]. But such warming, whether anthropogenic or “natural,” will still lead to ocean levels far higher than they are now. Picture a United States with much of Florida underwater, New Orleans submerged, parts of Houston, New York, San Diego, and other coastal cities under water.

Current estimates for the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina run at over $100 billion, and the majority of that centered on the city of New Orleans and the surrounding area. Something like a 30 foot rise in sea-levels would create a loss of property and equipment thousands of times that amount. How about a $10 TRILLION loss?

And that well might be conservative.

There’s been a great controversy raised by the current administration about the need to reform Social Security because of the possible cost burden required to maintain current benefit levels. Yet rising sea levels pose an even greater threat to the next generation than mere financial burdens — but the financial losses involved would be huge, as noted above. Curiously, I’ve seen no real attempts at a hard dollar assessment just of the losses of productive lands, cities, and like that would be caused by rising sea levels. While one might justify building dikes around New York City, it’s clearly neither possible nor practical to build dikes along the entire U.S. coast.

And what of the political firestorm that would be created by “writing off” real estate and investment in low-lying areas? Yet, if global warming is “natural,” it could well fall under the “acts of God” clause in most insurance and indemnity policies… and that’s certainly where casualty insurers would want it.

With such a massive loss possible, it’s no wonder that no one really wants to address it… and that politicians and policy-makers chose either to ignore the possibilities or to wait until “better data” are available. In the meantime, more and more homes, buildings, and other societal assets are being created in areas ever more vulnerable to losses through rising waters, storms, and violent weather.

But, of course, if all that warming is just a “natural” effect, we really don’t have to worry, do we? And our children and grandchildren will be just fine, won’t they?

And besides, it’s not really a world-destroying environmental danger of the kind we writers postulate, is it? Just a minor rise in temperature and sea-levels, that’s all.