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Wed, July 17

Column: Global warming's victims know it's real

I don't know much about global warming, but I know who does. I tend to believe the scientists, but I'm not referring to them. It's a complex subject and I'm sure scientists will find they've got some details wrong, but they've been pretty settled on the core aspects of the issue for a long time now. And in making national and international decisions we have to go with what's known. If the doctor says you've got cancer, that the odds are very high you only have a short time, that the treatment that's suggested wouldn't be easy but has high odds of success, what are you going to do? Yes, there's a slight chance they have it wrong and you have a lot more time left. There's a slight chance, if that's the case, that years from now they'll be more certain of what treatment is best in which cases. But odds are you don't have the time to wait for that. So what are you going to do? And oh, by the way, before long the treatment will have you better than ever. In global terms, that would mean great gains in energy conservation and in renewable, low-impact energy generation.

When I read reports from scientists, I have a hard time understanding what it means in real terms. As I say, though, I know who does know about global warming. For one, you could ask the taxpayers who will have to pay for changes to Goleta Beach County Park near Los Angeles. The rising sea level is forcing them to move the coastal bike path and buried utility lines inland. I suppose they could abandon the eroding bike path but the utility lines would certainly need to be redone. They wouldn't choose to do that, especially in this economy, if it wasn't necessary.

Or the tribal elders in Point Hope, Alaska. Their ice cellars, which are simply dug into the frozen ground, could always be relied on to stay firm with frozen walls, and keep meat frozen. Now the meat isn't frozen and the walls are dangerously crumbling. You know how here we worry about defensible space around houses in case of fires? How we have public information available and try to make it common knowledge? For them it's much the same with thawing permafrost. There are lots of public information programs about, for instance, where not to build lest it be on thawing permafrost and likely to sink into it. It's a common topic in their news. It gets to be a big expensive project when it messes up roads, gas pipelines, fuel tank farms.

In the village of Selawick, it's messing up their water and sewage pipes, all of which used to be either securely set into permafrost or set on top of it, but are now in sinking mud. The entire village of Newtok is having to be moved 9 miles away because the Ninglick River is eroding its shoreline and soon the entire village area will be in the river. That happens by other rivers, but this hadn't been a worry here in the past because the village was built on permafrost, which kept shoreline erosion from being a problem.

Or the fish off the Alaskan shores where they're finding what used to be more southerly species showing up further north. Or the normally warm-water venomous jellyfish that have caused the British to close beaches. Or the Gray Whales that made their way from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the newly melted northern passage. Or the coral reefs that have had massive die-offs. Or the species of plants and animals that have migrated north that are so unheard of the Inuit traditional languages don't have names for them.

There may be some things that would happen anyway. Maybe an eroding shoreline would happen anyway. But there's a growing list of these types of things. Some never heard of before, like those species the Inuits don't have words for. Some so big, like coral dying in places around the globe. Many are actors that have no bias, no interest in our debates, no concern about how accurate our science is. Permafrost, coral, jellyfish, have no stake in any of that, they just react to the conditions around them. And reacting they are.

Tom Cantlon is a longtime local resident, business owner and writer. Contact him at

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