It says something about Charleston and global climate change that the Holy City hosted its second climate change conference in a year last week. Thanks to Dana Beach and the Coastal Conservation League, this conservative old town may actually be stepping to the forefront on what is perhaps the most critical issue in the history of the human race.
If this sounds a bit overwrought, maybe it is. But these are the kinds of words that were being used last week at the Conference for Ethical, Moral, and Civic Dimensions of Global Climate Change to describe what is happening to our favorite planet.
"This is the biggest challenge that humans have ever faced, and I am not at all sure it will come out all right," declared Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities.
"This is the most important moment in the history of homo sapiens," said Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute.
I don't doubt it for a minute, based on all the SUVs and Hummers I see around me on the street every day. Trying to find my little Miata in a parking lot surrounded by these ugly behemoths is reason enough to start scaling back.
But, of course, there are better reasons to challenge the cowboys of the road: We are killing our biosphere for convenience and comfort, and we are not the ones who will have to pay the price. No, the bill won't seriously start coming due for several decades, but we may already be feeling the first impact on our comfortable way of life.
The genocide in Darfur? That may well be the result of a collapsing agricultural economy in the face of drought and heat.
Drought in the American Southeast? Don't look now, but it seems to be further evidence of climate change.
One of the greatest tragedies of global warming is that its first and greatest impact seems to be on the most vulnerable. Some of the lowest lying and most heavily populated regions of the world will be first and most dramatically affected by global warming.
In a world of rising oceans and more intense tropical storms, there will be major population displacement and economic collapse. Think of recent typhoons in Malaysia and Bangladesh. And think of New Orleans. How many Hurricane Katrinas can America endure? And what will happen if the next storm hits Miami or Jacksonville? (I will save Charleston for another column.)
And yet, current national policy seems paralyzed against any action on global warming. In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, the current administration has sided with corporate interests which have largely created this environmental crisis and seem intent on furthering it.
"How much uncertainty can justify further inaction?" asked Kirstin Dow, a geographer and climate change scholar at the College of Charleston. "We have understood the mechanism of climate change for over a century. Climate models cannot explain current climate change without factoring in human activity."
The melting ice caps, rising temperatures, changes to migration patterns, and other phenomena, which have been observed countless times by scientists, leave no reasonable doubt that the planet is warming and human activity is the cause. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a commission of over 2,000 scientists, recently shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for their work in confirming climate change. Yet, every week there is evidence on the pages of The Post & Courier and elsewhere that people are still in denial of this "inconvenient truth."
The early arrival of the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns in South Carolina will give this small and not always forward-looking state the chance to put global warming on the national agenda. But of course, that will mean having South Carolinians step forward and ask tough questions of the candidates. There is not much evidence that Republicans are ready to do that.
The same night as the global warming conference in Charleston, the GOP presidential candidates debated in St. Petersburg, Fla. Questions were asked by viewers on YouTube and presumably they were asked by Republican voters, reflecting the interests of Republicans at large. The questions concerned gun control, immigration, abortion, even the inerrancy of the Bible. None of these GOP followers had a question for their party leaders about global climate change.
This is just one example of how out of touch the Republican Party has become and why it is headed for a major collapse in next November's election. For years the Republicans have kept Americans distracted with their ranting about terrorism and family values, but the evidence is that we have finally seen through the blather, deceit, and mendacity. We have finally turned the corner on the most important issue in the history of the human race. Let's hope it is not too late.