By Patricia Lee Sharpe
It was lovely to look at. A bold white streak caught between blue sky and blue ocean! A long string of hotels and resorts glimmering in the sun! We were approaching the Florida coastline, and soon I was gazing down on roofs and terraces as my flight continued due west toward the airport in Fort Lauderdale last week.
I’m a lover of wild beaches. Once upon a time my consciousness would have been dominated by thoughts of over-development. Not last week. I'd been reading of studies that show how glaciers are melting in Alaska. Also travel writers’ effusions about a Northwest passage now open to luxury cruises. Result for Florida: water no longer captured as eternal polar ice has already imposed higher sea levels that Miamians are finding it hard to cope with.
Walking along the beach a few days later, I came upon a yellow earthmover building a little berm in front of one property. A three foot wall of loose sand! How long will it last when the next hurricane arrives? How pathetic! Like the general response so far to the inexorable warming of the earth.
Sadly, it’s hard to imagine what Floridians, who occupy a vast, low-lying sand sprit, can do about their very real jeopardy. The challenge of protecting endless hundreds of miles of properties—hotels, resorts, homes, whole cities—makes the task of protecting New Orleans seem like a Legoland game.
No doubt some of the global warming that’s underway is downright cosmic and beyond human control. But much has been caused by the industrialization that has so enormously improved our standard of living—and the good news today is that humans can enjoy these benefits without generating the greenhouse gases that warm the earth unnecessarily. (To say nothing of lung-clogging soot.) Yes, the warming curve can be flattened, and the sooner we humans take that job seriously, the better for the life-sustaining qualities of earth. Then what’s the obstacle to meaningful action? Short term political and economic profiteering make it almost impossible to mobilize an effort that is much more effective, locally- and globally-speaking, than the sand-shifting of that poor little bulldozer on the beach at Ft. Lauderdale.
Maybe Floridians can’t protect the entire state from oceanic encroachment, but they can support efforts to save a good bit of the world we love. It’s in their own interest, after all. Sooner or later, the people of Florida, like the residents of the Pacific isles, are going to need a receptive landscape to move to. Unfortunately climate issues don’t seem to play the dominant role in Florida politics.
China Wakes Up
At least China seems to have awakened from its smoggy slumber, if only because its own citizens are beginning to demand action and China seeks civic order above all. Efforts are being made to reduce air and water pollution, and the Chinese have invested so massively in alternative energy that Chinese products dominate the solar power industry even in the U.S. Doing well by doing good. Which is not to say that the Chinese don't continue to mine some particularly noxious types of coal. And cars in Beijing had to be grounded to make the air breathable during President Barack Obama’s visit to China two weeks ago.
The highlight of those US-China discussions was a disingenuously tepid climate accord focused on green house gas emissions. Critics say it won’t accomplish much more than what could be expected from existing declarations, treaties and agreements, but (1) it allows China and America to agree about something, which is a good thing, and (2) it forms a useful foundation, a springboard even, for broader negotiations scheduled to begin in Paris next year. Anything on paper is better than nothing. References to democratic processes in moribund Constitutions have been known to spring alive and unseat autocrats.
Coal Belt Politics
Among those ridiculing the Obama-Xi accord is the soon-to-be-Senate-Majority-Leader Mitch McConnell, who owes his electoral success to the support of his state’s ultra-powerful coal industry. If any state is under the thumb of King Coal, it’s Kentucky, though West Virginia comes close. Coal-mining pollutes rivers and streams; coal-burning pollutes the air with lung-ravaging soot and greenhouse gases, but it’s profitable enough to underwrite supporters’ political campaigns and destroy the electoral chances of environmentally-conscious candidates. Should the Republicans have gained control of the White House as well as Congress if and when a climate-protecting treaty is written in Paris, don’t expect the U.S. to sign on, however reasonable or scientifically sound the terms of the accord may be.
Perhaps Mitch should move to India when he tires (or gets kicked out) of American politics. King Coal rules happily there, with all the usual ill effects. Some years ago life in New Delhi was greatly improved when municipal buses emitting enormous clouds of black exhaust gave way to transport powered by natural gas, but it will take a lot more than that to make Delhi’s air salubrious, especially in the winter. Meanwhile, the forests and waters of Eastern India are being ravaged, thanks to mining permits that are issued with no regard for the environment or the wishes of the surrounding population. The scale of this politically-corrupt depredation is so enormous that a recent news story merited this title: “Coal Rush in India Could Tip Balance on Climate Change.” Read the article to learn of the horrendous impact of unrestrained mining in the area of Dhanbad in the state of Jharkhand
Oddly enough. the article failed to mention another, equally calamitous effect of coal mining gone mad: insurrection. A long-running Marxist rebellion in the Eastern hills of India was sparked and continues to be fed by irresponsible mineral extraction in areas inhabited by tribal peoples who value their hills and forests as essential to a way of life. Unfortunately these people are poor and politically impotent. They can’t compete with the coal cartels that pay for votes, influence and contracts. Hence, the seemingly endless and relentlessly expanding rebellion.
So far as that goes, I am a bit surprised that the people of West Virginia and Kentucky haven’t taken to direct action to protect their beloved natural surroundings from corporate predators and land-levelers that make those bulldozers in St. Lauderdale look like so many tiny ants. On the other hand, coal belt politicians haven’t done much to modernize these state economies. Few alternative jobs exist and most people don’t like to starve.
From time to time, climate experts express concerns about social unrest and violence should food supplies begin to suffer from repeated or extended droughts caused by global warming. Globe-spanning competition for scarce agricultural resources will make the water wars of the 19th century American West look like child’s play. It’s time to stage an irreversible coup against King Coal and replace the politicians beholden to the coal industry with representatives who know that it's cool to keep the earth cool.