Sea Change or Littoral Disaster

Believe That? I've An Island To Sell You...

Islands always seemed like the ultimate luxury item, toast your first business deal with lunch, celebrate your genius with champagne and dinner, and when you finally reach the pinnacle of success, buy an island. If not your own island then maybe an estate that you call a "the bungalow", with an exclusive beach to escape the hubbub of work, no deadlines, only the warm sun, gently lapping water, and soft sand to dig your toes into. Quintessential relaxation. You know the places -- with the private boat docks, dozens of bedrooms, turrets here and there, golf course-like lawns, and helicopter pads.

Perusing the news in this getaway state of mind on these chilly December-January-February-March-April days though, any advertisement for a beach vacation seems attractive. Even a gratuitous palm tree at the top of an online airline ad has me pining for warm sand and azure seas. Then there's the full page NYT ad for St. Regis resorts and residences in Florida. "Couture living" it brags, summoning the languor of luxury in a not so understated way: "Introducing unparalleled oceanfront residences...exquisite design...bespoke lifestyle...enviable address." It's the quiet escape that shouts you've arrived.

Alongside the come-hither text, a woman perambulates through the surf in a white evening dress, a take no prisoners expression on her face, a box suitcase in hand, and a white-gloved attendant trailing behind with the luggage. The photo seems inspired by Jack Vettriano's Oh, Happy Days. But the vignette nags uncomfortably, despite the cold of the day and the rain pounding against the window. There is a threatening amount of ocean in the photo, a montage of water up to the well-off vacationer's shins, tugging at her fancy clothes and fashionable clunky leather suitcases. Vettriano didn't do this to his subjects, he placed them safely on solid sand to dance. And as reports of glaciers melting and oceans rising pour in, wading through water in your evening wear, even with a lot of gumption, could be a not so happy harbinger of things to come.

I'm not the first to think that island properties and beach front resorts in Florida are worrisome, but I find especially discomfiting the insouciance of the ad's presentation, its inadvertent reflection of all too common attitudes about global warming. Of course people with business stakes in islands wave off my concern. My queries to online purveyors of island properties quickly yielded e-mail brochures informing me that business was just fine.

While I can understand the positions of realtors who have a livelihood to protect, I don't understand those who dismiss global warming without such businesses. It would be in their best interest to fight against global warming. In a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times June 22, 2005 regarding climate change, someone suggested that people interested in the "facts rather than liberal scare tactics", should read Crichton's "State of Fear." Someone could sell him an island. What's striking is that the cocksure writer hails from Surfside, California. While Surfside is not Florida or Louisiana, as you can see on the map it looks to be on a small peninsula between an ocean and a bay. A luxurious vacation home today, water gently rolling in tomorrow?

Willing the Unwilling to Change

It's tempting to hope that only a few lost sheep doubt climate change, that only White House and Senator Inohe have been bamboozled by Crichton's "State of Fear". But many people consider Crichton's book to be so well argued that it is suitable for non-fiction climate discussions. This, despite the fact that Crichton himself writes in his book contains 'real footnotes' but the story is fiction.

In a casual discussion about global climate change recently, more then a few of the dozen or so participants said that there was not enough evidence for climate change to support taking steps to lower carbon emissions. To bolster their arguments they of course quoted Crichton, and George Will, who rhetorically rolls his eyes, throws his hands in the air and complains that first the scientists thought it was global cooling, and now they say it's global warming. When scientists aren't being wishy-washy, he says, they don't have any data.

It takes a concerted effort to assert that there's no data. One must steadfastly ignore decades of evidence from all the corporations who acknowledge the evidence. When oil companies such as Shell, and British Petroleum (BP) admit to dangerous global climate problems (BP in 1977), how can citizens who don't own an oil companies deny it? And not only do they deny obvious evidence, they have a rebuttal for potential solutions too. Carbon reduction is too expensive they say, ignoring the cost of denying climate change.

They brush off the fact that businesses, insurers, and investors are busy adjusting their strategies to deal with the problem. Organizations like Ceres, and the Carbon Disclosure Project, which Acronym Required wrote about here monitor and lower carbon emissions. Insurers and investors know that any business not paying attention is a risky investment.

Mr. Will and his ilk carry the proof of active intelligence, degrees from top schools and positions with bonuses and/or prestige. You want to trust that they're sincere and if they had just taken one more science class we could all band together in recognizing the urgency of the problem. But as the evidence spans decades and the tenor of the climate rhetoric remains relentlessly constant, it's obvious that this is a game of posturing, where roles are defined, for and against. This is a game with a structure defined to frame many decades of disagreement. It's not so much a path to resolution as a face-off like a couple of gangs of boys in a schoolyard with shoving and stare-downs. Climate change denialists aren't unlike those belligerent bullies daring the next geek to call them on their roughshod ways. Predictably, should one point to the fallacies in their argument of the day, they remain defiantly unconvinced. But they're not looking to be convinced.

Long ago, the media and some scientists cemented the idea that this was a simple split between those they characterized as oil company shills and those they characterized as environmentalists. We are conditioned to think that for every side there is an equal and opposite side. Our inclinations are exploited by the oil companies such as Exxon Mobil, who have paid "skeptics" to instill doubt in global warming.

Tuvalu Today, Gone Tomorrow?

Each side routinely calls the other the same names, so the incurious, or busy, or intellectually preoccupied don't have to miss a beat as they parrot back the accusations of the other side. Tuvalu, whose highest point is 5 meters above sea level, is called greedy (as many would accuse the oil companies of being) because it threatened to sue the U.S. and Australia for environmental negligence. One op-ed writer at conservative PR organization CEI accused Tuvalu of trying to exploit global warming with the "phony neck brace of 21st-century litigiousness". Oil company advocates accused a collective of states in the U.S. who legally demanded federal action to reduce emissions of trying to ruin the economy via "pseudo-tort intimidation suits".

Each headline that shows more evidence of warming is greeted with hope from those who believe that the naysayers really, really do need one more piece of evidence to convince them. Then the barrage of squawky letters to editors follows from the people who insist the science is all flawed. All sides are fiercely engaged in this disagreement, which is undoubtedly more pleasant then having to change, since everyone can stall together as they wait for another headline.

The back and forth is predictable. In 2002, when Tuvalu threatened to sue, their plight had been documented since at least the 1980's when the media began to report the rising seas and global warming with titles that are familiar today..."Tuvalu's...Sinking Feelings", appeared again and again.

Similarly, the demise of the coral reefs due to bleaching and other causes has been documented at least since the 1980's when large parts of the Caribbean reefs died off. And there is the always increasing, always alarming rate of glacial melting. We need no more evidence. We have decades of studies indicating that our lives will change, but its easier to wait for another headline and hope a miracle intervenes, or eventually government action.

Cognitive Dissonance

Even those who have the most immediate, perilous stake in global warming are sometimes reluctant to change, as Nature reports this week on Tuvalu. The Nature reporter noted that some Tuvalu islanders, as affected as they are by global warming "refuse even to talk about climate, or dismiss it with a weary wave of the hand.", and that "frequent workshops on climate and the dangers of accelerating sea-level rise fail to provoke a sense of urgency. (Samir S. Patel: Nature: 440, 734-736, 6 April 2006: "Climate science: A Sinking Feeling").

For Tuvaluans this must be the most difficult subject to face -- they will need to leave their homeland. But we cannot not feel too removed. We will face equally difficult life changes. As the vacationer at the St. Regis Resort wades through the surf in Florida, and as the Tuvaluan islanders "sink" up to their knees on the "main street", someday we will all notice that their fates are entwined with ours with global climate change.


Some related Acronym Required articles:

Business and Climate Change: "Carbon Emissions Disclosure Project"

Ice core research to study atmospheric conditions 650,000 years ago: "Holocene Days"

Politics and climate change: "Will Loose Lips - Or Global Warming - Sink Ships?".

Carbon emissions regulation after Katrina: "The Environment & Katrina-Slick Oil Fallout"

Drought in the "Amazon", and in "Australia".

Science research communication and climate change: "Research, Politics and Working Less", and "Science Communication".


June 20, 2006: The New York Times writes a piece on erosion and global warming titled Next Victim Of Warming: The Beaches"

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