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Published: Sunday, 3/18/2012


All at sea

The climate change debate in America is like two ships passing in the night.

Aboard one vessel are the Republican candidates for president, many of the conservative voters they appeal to, talk-show hosts, and a sundry crew of others. They are united in denial of the fact that the climate is changing. This ship sails in a fog of misinformation.

The other vessel carries most of the scientists in the nation and the people who trust them, a group that includes environmentalists, but also ordinary people. They are disturbed by the evidence of their own eyes and view certain signs on this watery planet as lighthouses warning of danger -- unprecedented hurricanes, retreating glaciers, snow-lacking winters, and warmer springs.

But as the ships pass through the dark, the sea itself is rising -- and it has been since the late 19th century. While the passengers on the two ships disagree on a common course, knowledgeable people on the land see the growing danger. The latest sign of this comes from another research project that will be dismissed by the scoffers only at their peril.

As reported by the New York Times, two new research papers produced by Climate Central, a nonprofit organization in Princeton, N.J., constitute a rare, far-reaching attempt to estimate the proportion of American people and communities at risk from the rising sea related to global warming. Studies have tended to involve one community at a time.

The findings make sober reading. About 3.7 million Americans who live within a few feet of high tide risk being hit by more frequent coastal flooding in coming decades. Low-lying Florida is the most vulnerable state, but the coasts of Louisiana, California, New York, and New Jersey also are likely to flood more frequently.

As the Times story makes clear, these findings are ammunition for those people who want the federal government to stop subsidizing coastal development. But even people who do not have beach houses at risk should take the information as another piece in a growing mosaic of evidence.

It would be a breakthrough if the passengers on the ships passing in the night could agree at least that the climate is changing as a prelude to debating the cause. But this admission will be hard for those on the ship sailing against the tide of facts.

Unfortunately, theirs is a voyage of the damned.

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