Going Under

As the Ice Melts & the Water Rises,
Some Think It’s All About Business

Where many see a loss, a few see an opportunity. Such a sacrosanct business tenet may not find enough apologists, though, when it comes to climate change. While that sort of discussion is bound to become overheated, the glaciers of the world, well, haven’t you noticed? they’re still melting.
Greenland’s been so far the poster nation for the changes: while warming waters are ruining its fishing industry, they’re also opening its receding real estate for mineral exploration. In the Pacific, however, entire islands are literally going under. Guess what will happen to their populations.
The environmental impact of our presence on this planet seems to be accelerating at a pace with our own demographic explosion, and daily heavy use of harmful pollutants. What few can safely predict is whether we’ll be able to catch up with the transformations before they crush us.
Since they’ve become faster in the past fifty or so years, all our prediction models are essentially speculative. That makes easy for climate-change deniers to jump at every opportunity whenever a faulty data, or an overzealous approach, may rush to a conclusion that no one, not even them, would like to face in the near future.
Thing is, when it comes to a large but limited, complex but enclosed system such as Earth’s, it’s hard to be overcautious. Considering how long it took for people to get the connection between DDT, or cigarette smoking, and cancer, for example, and you may have an idea of how slow we are to make changes in a global scale.
Both products are still widely used, of course, and in many cases, to stop either one may not even be a choice. How can anyone impose rules banning the use of old refrigerators, for instance, which cause harm to the atmosphere ozone layer, on impoverished communities who often rely on them as their only way of storing food?

Arguably, the most spectacular news about the environment this past summer in the northern hemisphere has been about the melting of Greenland‘s permafrost, which stunned even the most reluctant armchair climatologist. As it often happens too, the news was so bombastic, that immediately generated its own backlash. That’s unfortunate in many levels.
Once studies showed that at least similar phenomenons had occurred a few times in the past, the whole credibility of the new observations was called into question, despite the dramatic pictures showing the before and after effects. That ultimately undermined the sense of outrage and alertness that we should be cultivating even if the melting wasn’t in such a large scale.
Here comes, of course, the crisis-as-opportunity to make a buck phase. All of a sudden, eyes were shifted from the vision of large chunks of icebergs the size of Manhattan melting down into the waters, for the opening of new trading routes through regions that have been ice-locked for centuries.
Oh, that’s really great; just think how cheaper will be shipping goods, and cruising, over the North Pole, the thinking goes. Also, with receding waters, large swaths of land are being exposed and you know what that means, right? widespread mining for rare earth minerals, and, how much luckier can anyone be, for carbon fuels too.
For the small country, independent but still controlled by Denmark, such prospects may mean a reboot of its economy, which is mostly fishing-based and has been severely depressed for the exact same reasons that now signal its potential bonanza. Then again, we hate to be bearers of gloomy news for the good people of Greenland, who have been working so hard to achieve self rule.
For starters, while both shipping trading and the cruise industries stand to benefit from new Arctic routes, Greenland’s unlikely to do so in any meaningful way. Neither it may get kudos from mining and petroleum exploration, industries long controlled by multinationals with a terrible environmental record.
Like their land, a kind of strategic bridge between North America and Europe, trapped between the Arctic and the Atlantic ocean, Greenlanders’ aspirations may have need to undergo an upgrade. Instead of a battle ground for those who may irremediably damage the region’s pristine waters and surroundings, it may switch to a model of environmental awareness, and still get to keep its natural resources.

But it’s really a waste of time to argue whether Al Gore’s prediction that soon waters would cover lower Manhattan was an over-the-top assumption. Who can take that chance? And never mind New York; throughout the world, industries are still being powered by 19th century carbon-fueled technology.
It’s almost cruel then that places that couldn’t be any farther from the world’s big industrial centers, such as the South Pacific, are already catching the brunt of climate changes. And, unlike Greenland, without the benefit of having spent the past century enjoying all the amenities of contemporary life.
Take the Fiji Islands, for example, a group of hundreds of islands in the South Pacific, some 1,300 miles away from continental land, known for its stunning natural beauty, and at least one world-class golfer. Even though far from being underdeveloped, the islands’ population, under a million people, hardly registers in world demographics.
And yet, just like Greenland and New York, may be hopeless to contain the rising waters from submerging some of its land, as it’s already happening in Vunidogoloa. In fact, Fijians have been taking actuall steps towards relocation. Initially, hundreds may simply move to nearby islands, but as nothing indicates the waters will recede back any time soon, they may have to seek shelter elsewhere.
A similar alarm was sounded by the Marshall Islands several years ago and last year its president Jurelang Zedkaia made a dramatic appeal to the United Nations to help the island-state cope with the climate change threat. As world leaders gather in New York this week, for the U.N. General Assembly, we may expect to hear whatever happened to Zedkaia’s plea.
For a bit more of perspective about the issue, please read below a post we wrote about it almost two years ago. Enjoy it.

Drowing Nations

Global Warming May Claim
Its First Micronesian Nation

The 29 low-lying coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean that make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands, have a history that goes back four thousand years. The Micronesian nation was named after an English captain, hosted U.S. WWII battles against the Japanese and nuclear tests, and was ruled by a succession of European powers. It finally became a self-governing country in 1979.
It’s now the first one risking to disappear for good, under the threat of rising sea levels. Its 60 thousand plus inhabitants are running against the clock so it can also be declared the first nation to exist without a piece of land, in case it does go under.
It’s a complicated matter, involving fishing rights, offshore mineral resources, and a seat at the UN. A mere 20-inch rise in sea level would drown at least one atoll. A bit more than that would render any agricultural land and freshwater supplies unusable.
Another country indirectly threatened by global warming is Bangladesh. So while deniers insist that the alarming climate trend is a fiction concocted by leftists scientists, entire nations are already facing the prospect of having to relocate whole populations or simply cease to exist because of the phenomenon.
Sadly, the U.S. has failed so far to take the lead on this issue, despite the fact that two of its world-class cities, New Orleans and New York, would suffer catastrophic consequences in case of a dramatic surge in sea levels.
It’s no wonder. History is littered with examples of human short-sightness in the face of forces of nature that usually offer a limited window of opportunity to be controlled, and that once unleashed, show no mercy.
It took thousand of years but crews excavating the site of an ancient Roman city recently discovered a set of scrolls detailing a citywide system of defense and evacuation in the unlikely event of a volcano eruption. The city was Pompeii and the Vesuvio entombed not just the scrolls, but also those who’d been dismissing the warning signs for years.
Originally published on Jan. 2011

One thought on “Going Under

  1. Lisa at fLVE says:

    Great article. I am surprise that Marshall Island has 60K inhabitants. Wow, that’s quite a lot of people in a such a small island. Sad to see it go if the sea level rises…


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