Rising tides 

Global warming hits a wall in Montreal

Montana’s former governor Marc Racicot was fond of saying “a rising tide raises all ships.” He said it when he signed the bills that gutted Montana’s water quality laws, neutered the Major Facility Siting Act, crippled the Montana Environmental Policy Act, and gave away hundreds of millions in tax breaks to large, polluting industries. Racicot’s actions, coupled with the Bush administration’s dreadful environmental policies, have led to a rising tide all right—just not the cheery, uplifting sort they promised.

Though virtually ignored by Montana’s mainstream press, 189 nations met last week in Montreal to once again discuss what steps might be taken to rein in pollution-caused global warming. And once again, further eroding this nation’s standing in the world community, the U.S. representatives provided an embarrassing example of Bush’s head-in-the-sand approach to the growing disasters emanating from global warming.

Citing an ominous portent of things to come, the United Nations Environmental Program issued a statement citing the relocation of the island village of Lateu due to rising sea levels, saying the village “has become one of, if not the first, to be formally moved out of harm’s way as a result of climate change.” With their coastal coconut palms already standing in sea water, the villagers have torn down their homes and moved to higher inland ground as “king tides” regularly inundate islands across the region.

“The peoples of the Arctic and the small islands of this world face many of the same threats,” said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the U.N.’s Environmental Program. “The melting and receding of sea ice and the rising of sea levels, storm surges and the like are the first manifestations of big changes under way which will eventually touch everyone on the planet.”

U.N. officials said 2,000 people living on Cantaret Island near Papua New Guinea are abandoning their homes and making a four-hour boat trip to the higher ground of Bougainville Island. Closer to home, the native inhabitants of the Arctic villages of Shishmaref in Alaska and Tuktoyaktuk in Canada are considering relocation due to changing climatic conditions which have caused sea ice to thaw, increasing wave-caused coastal erosion.

According to the U.N.’s scientific advisory panel, sea levels may rise nearly 3 feet in the next century due to melting ice caps caused by the pollution from fossil-fuel burning power plants, trucks and cars and industrial factories. What that means in simplest terms is that coastal cities around the world will be facing a threat of almost unimaginable magnitude.

The displacement of millions of people and the virtual destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, coupled with the dire predictions of continually rising sea levels, is sparking fierce debate on the wisdom of spending billions of dollars to rebuild entire sections of the town that many say should simply be returned to natural wetlands and barrier islands. The city of Seattle recently cancelled a design for a new sea-wall project, citing predictions of rising sea levels which would overtop the hugely expensive project in the near future.

And yet, despite these enormous losses here on our home ground, the Bush administration continues to play dumb, reaping scorn and disbelief from the world community. In this week’s editorial titled “America’s Shame in Montreal,” The New York Times harshly castigates the Bush approach. “The best that can be said of the recently concluded meeting on climate change in Montreal is that the countries that care about global warming did not allow the United States delegation to blow the whole conference to smithereens. Washington was intent on making sure that the conferees required no more of the United States than what it is already doing to restrain greenhouse gas emissions, which amounts to virtually nothing.”

“For its part, the Bush administration deserves only censure,” the editorial continued. “No one expected a miraculous conversion. But given the steadily mounting evidence of the present and potential consequences of climate change—disappearing glaciers, melting Arctic ice caps, dying coral reefs, threatened coastlines, increasingly violent hurricanes—one would surely have expected America’s negotiators to arrive in Montreal willing to discuss alternatives. They did not.”

Instead of confronting these problems with realistic solutions, the U.S. negotiators held fast to a strategy of “voluntary reductions” by companies and further research into “breakthrough technologies,” which the Times editorial concluded were a thin prospect: “To believe that companies will spend heavily to reduce emissions while their competitors are not doing the same is to believe in the tooth fairy.”

Here in Montana we are having our first white Christmas in a long time. As our snowpack builds up, we look forward to having enough water to keep our fisheries healthy and meet domestic and agricultural needs. For us, the issue of flooded coastlines from global climate change seems far away, but nothing could be further from the truth.

While we are not being forced to higher ground, climate change is impacting Montana in other ways, from crop damage to increased insect infestations to the tinder-box drought conditions that have lead to massive forest fires in recent years. More subtle yet is the northward migration of animals, plants, insects and diseases as warmer winters and earlier springs open new territory.

Faced with the federal government’s lack of awareness, let alone action, California recently passed a measure affirming that it would no longer purchase electricity generated by polluting power plants. If you want to sell there, you’d best be thinking renewable power—just the opposite of Racicot and Bush’s antiquated policies of hacking environmental regulations and handing out billions in tax breaks to “raise the tide” for polluting industries.

The tide has risen, and the Times editorial got it just right in its closing lines: “The battle against global warming will never be won unless America joins it, urgently and enthusiastically. Our grandchildren will look back with anger and astonishment if we fail to do so.” Amen!

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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