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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Warming Up to a New Crisis

January 25, 2002|JOHN BALZAR

Looking for parallels in life can be tedious. Just the same, to ignore them can be perilous.

Not so long ago, we had abundant warnings about terrorism. You could have listened to experts and known the name of our enemy, his whereabouts and motives. You could have connected the dots from earlier attacks and seen that more was coming. But, hey, we were busy back then. Hardly anyone talked about the subject and fewer still prepared.

If you recall, we were consumed back then by more important matters, such as the libido of one president and the campaign for another. Now we're left mourning the dead, cleaning up the rubble and kicking ourselves.

The subject now on my mind suggests an eerie parallel. The warnings are in front of our faces. We know our enemy's name. We can connect the dots. What had been thought of, ho-hum, as a far-off possibility is, unexpectedly, knocking at our door. Once again, we are faced with when, not if.

The trouble is, as soon as I describe this subject, I'm going to lose a good share of this morning's readers. Because, hey, everyone's busy. There's a war on. Consumers need cheering up. We've got more elections around the corner.

In this case, however, we are being advised that we won't be able to clean up the rubble. Our military might and economic clout will do us little good against this threat.

If you take the word of our leading experts, and why not, something awful is in the wind. And not enough people are talking about it. Congress isn't lifting a hand to get us prepared. The president has shrugged his shoulders. Yet our leading experts tell us that a child starting grade school today may emerge from high school in a world far bleaker than any created by terrorism. Middle-aged Americans planning for their retirements may find their golden years transformed by something more disturbing than numbers on Wall Street.

You see, most of us were taught in school that nature takes her sweet time here on planet Earth. Things happen gradually. We have handy phrases like, "the pace of a glacier." So for most of 20 years, we have regarded global climate change as evolutionary--just a few degrees of temperature alteration spread over decades. Our political discussions have proceeded at about the same pace.

In recent months, scientists have connected the dots that tell us different. They've been studying cores from ancient ice sheets, the annual record of our climate as laid down year by year.

"Recent scientific evidence shows that major and widespread climate changes have occurred with startling speed," concluded a report last month by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

"It's as if climate change were a light switch instead of a dimmer dial," said Richard Alley, a Penn State University climate expert and lead author of the report.

In the Northern Hemisphere, half of the temperature change from the last Ice Age to today occurred in just a decade. Add to that the effects of atmospheric change from the industriousness of 6 billion people, a potential trigger.

Once again, the headlines tell us to pay heed. A sampler of late: Scientists Warn State to Get Ready for Drought; Fear Growing Over a Sharp Climate Shift; Studies Point to Human Role in Global Warming; Scientists Now Fear Abrupt Global Warming Changes.

Here's one more: Warmer World Will Starve Many.

Singularly, these stories are shocking. Cumulatively, well, reach for the biggest, scariest word you can. This is the time to use it.

For too long, climate change has been discussed chiefly as if it were religion. You were a believer or you weren't. Science tells us better. The history recorded in ice tells us the risks of passing this problem to the future.

Early societies endured climate change in prehistorical eras, that much we know. But Sept. 11 reminded us that our modern lifelines are extended and fragile. We can cushion the blow if we set out to, perhaps. Or we can wait for the headlines: Bread Now $20 a Loaf; Congress Opens Hearings.

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