It's Global Warming, Stupid!

By Bruce E. Johansen

A walk around New York City’s Battery Park area, at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, got me seriously into global warming during October of 1999.

I had been invited to the National Museum of the American Indian in the Old Customs House to give a presentation on racism and press coverage of ‘Kennewick Man.’ The evening before my talk, I read an article in the New York Times speculating on the consequences that would follow melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, including a rise in sea levels worldwide of 16 to 18 feet. The next day, I walked around the area and took a look at who and what would get wet if the sea level rose by that much – the lobby of the then-standing World Trade Center, much of Wall Street, Battery Park itself, and the Customs House. I imagined brackish water sluicing into the subways, and zapping underground electricity lines.

My speech took place in the basement of the Customs House. After my scheduled presentation, I mentioned the Times article. I asked one of my hosts, Mohawk writer and activist (as well as member of NMAI’s board) Doug George-Kanentiio how high above high tide level I was standing. “Eight to ten feet,” he said. After a few more words of explanation, I stepped back from the podium, pointed to the back of the room above the heads of roughly 300 people in attendance, and said “In about 150 years, a dock may be built up there.” The audience let out a collective gasp.

The next day, I visited my editors at Greenwood Press (then in Westport, Connecticut) and pitched an encyclopedia that became The Global Warming Desk Reference (2001).

The Storm Surge at Mom’s Back Door

Thirteen years later, nearly to the day, I spent much of October, 2012 in the Norfolk, Virginia area at my mother’s bedside, following her operation for a brain hematoma complicated by cardiac arrest on the operating table. At the time, Hurricane Sandy was raking the Atlantic on its way to inundating New York City and the Jersey Shore with its highest storm surge on record.

New York City’s storm surge was 14 feet; Norfolk’s was half that, bringing the brackish water of an estuary off the Elizabeth River where my mother has lived for 35 years to about three feet (vertically) below her back porch. At 14 feet, New York City’s surge, the cockroaches would have been having swim meets in her living room.

I sent a letter to the editor of the Virginian Pilot. He, or she, threw it away. I don’t think my letter was rejected because I can’t write. Perhaps a line about the Tidewater area going underwater might have raised the ire of real estate agents who sell waterfront property in the area. Some things can be just too true.

Face it. My timing sucked. Three days after I emailed my letter, Hurricane Sandy rolled up the coast. Water views are very nice, except when the largest low-pressure system in recorded history moves in next door.

I had written:

For the first time in 20 years, climate change was not mentioned in this year’s presidential debates. At the same time, NASA satellites have detected a widening rift in the Antarctica’s Pine Island glacier. This glacier acts as a plug, like a cork in a bottle, between the ocean and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Should this ice sheet melt into the sea, the world ocean would rise 16 to 18 feet. This ‘cork’ is now breaking up.

Given the recent trend in temperatures (and the fact that thermal inertia due to increasing use of fossil fuels makes future increases all but certain), a major sea-level rise could put large portions of Tidewater under water within two centuries. The real sea-level rise could be sooner, and faster, given the likelihood that other ice (such as mountain glaciers and Greenland’s ice sheet) also will melt at the same time.

Such a prospect should at least be worth a mention in our political campaign. Hurricane Sandy is only a wake-up call.

Mayor Bloomberg’s Endorsement

Two days after Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge struck, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a registered Republican-turned-Independent, endorsed Obama for reelection. Bloomberg stated that he made the endorsement in the hope that the White House would do something about global warming, because of its role in a growing roster of natural disasters like the “superstorm” that had just assailed New York. And to punctuate the point, the cover of the November 1 edition of Bloomberg Businessweek (owned by the Mayor) blared in black and red: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid!” Two weeks later, another severe storm tracked along the same path, intensifying the devastation along the coast.

How many disasters will be required to get the subject on our political radar? Will a newly re-elected President Obama do what’s right for the Earth?

Bruce E. Johansen is Jacob J. Isaacson Professor at the UNO and author of The Encyclopedia of Global Warming Science and Technology (2009).

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