Commentary

Seasick at the U.N.

Americans just aren’t scared enough by global warming to take it seriously. That’s the lesson from the poll published in the Washington Post last month showing prospective Savior-in-Chief Al Gore down by 19 percent. If people really thought Gore’s pet cause was such a threat, wouldn’t they vote to protect their children? Can “Clinton fatigue” be that bad?

Our friends at the United Nations understand the need to get the United States more involved in stopping global warming. They also understand Americans’ basic sense of fair play and compassion, as evinced by our sending troops to Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Ersatz-Yugoslavia and maybe Dili. If some nation can convince us it’s getting the short end of the stick, U.S. largesse is not far behind.

To enlist our help, the United Nations is currently holding a special conference of “island states” that view themselves as threatened by global warming in general and sea level rise in particular.

“In low-lying areas, the sea has claimed our burial grounds,” said Samoan UN envoy Tuiloma Neroni Slade, chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), an official UN hectoring organization. Slade added that in the Maldives, about 800 miles south of Bombay, “Climate change is already taking effect in terms of some of the life support systems.” Ditto for the Marshall Islands, Vanuatu et cetera.

Slade is banking on Americans’ being too guilt ridden to check the facts and ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on global warming pronto in order to make up for our sins. Unfortunately, facts are just a click away.

The 1995 report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contains a whole chapter on sea level rise, complete with charts. The monitoring station closest to Samoa is Sydney, Australia, where there has been a truly tiny rise in sea level of only 3.14 inches in the last 100 years. But almost all of that took place before 1950. Since then, the rise in sea level, which has “claimed their burying grounds,” has been 0.4 inches.

In the IPCC report, Bombay is the station nearest the Maldives. As Casey Stengel used to say, “You could look it up,” and there it is: sea level has fallen an inch in Bombay in the last 50 years.

Nice try, Mr. Slade.

Of course, the IPCC forecasts that sea level will rise in the next 100 years. The most recent projection gives two median values: 19.3 inches from one model and 10.6 inches from another termed “equally plausible.” But global warming is proceeding at a slower pace than those models assumed, so it’s probably a good idea to cut the totals by a third or so. Could Pacific Islanders adapt to 10 inches of sea-level rise in the course of a century?

Consider the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where, every few years, the sea rises about 12 feet in 10 minutes. This is a hurricane. Because of hurricanes, up until 1950 or so very few people lived there. Fearing the wind, the handful of mainlanders who came in the 1950s built little one-story “flattop” homes, nestled beneath the dune crest to protect them from the wind.

When away from home, those people were able to charge $100 or so a week for a summer “beachfront” rental, which really meant a human-eye view of the barrier dune. The flattop owners then discovered that wind wasn’t the problem after all, as their vacation houses were washed away into the sea by the numerous hurricanes of the 1950s and 60s.

One day they got the fine idea of elevating their homes on stilts so the sea could rush harmlessly underneath during a hurricane. Of course, that didn’t protect them from a direct hit by the northeastern eyewall of a Category 3 storm. In that case, a beachfront home is usually plumb out of luck, but the damage swaths in such storms are surprisingly narrow considering the thousands of miles of developed coastline from Brownsville, Texas, to Eastport, Maine. Somehow, damaged areas tend to appear larger on TV.

Stilts protect the houses from most every other hurricane. And, as a side benefit of the elevation of their homes, vacationers now view sunrises over the Atlantic Ocean and sunsets over Albemarle Sound from the same house. Rent skyrocketed, to $5,000 per week in high season.

A trip to Kwajelein in the Marshall Islands reveals that most of the homes are as close to the ground as they were in North Carolina before someone discovered how to make big bucks and survive foot after foot of extremely rapid tidal inundation. It seems probable that the AOSIS people will figure out how to adapt to 10 inches of sea-level rise in 100 years. They don’t need our help to raise property values fiftyfold. And if they don’t, it won’t be because they couldn’t.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute.