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Published: Thursday, 4/26/2012

COMMENTARY

Climate-change debate goes on; time's run out for one nation

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE COLUMNIST

The Great Lakes region should heed what's happening in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean, where for the first time a nation could be swallowed by rising sea levels.

In what may be the first climate-induced migration of modern times, the Republic of Kiribati has begun talks with Fiji about buying 5,000 acres for its residents. Kiribati's president, Anote Tong, recently told a British newspaper there is "no way out" other than mass migration.

"Our people will have to move, as the tides have reached our homes and villages," he said.

Kiribati is an island nation of 113,000 people east of Australia and 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. Many Americans would have trouble finding it on a map, let alone pronouncing its name (kiri-bus).

Residents of the Great Lakes region obviously are not in danger of becoming environmental refugees. South Florida's the most likely spot on U.S. soil where an eventual relocation could occur; it includes the Gulf of Mexico region and low-lying New Orleans. New York City and North Carolina's Outer Banks also are vulnerable.

China leads the world in greenhouse gas emissions, but the United States continues to emit the most per person. The industrialized Great Lakes region and especially Ohio, which is second to Texas for emissions from coal-fired power plants, can't forever write off climate change as a futuristic, faraway concept.

This area has a responsibility not only to other parts of the world but also to itself. Northwest Ohio has some of the world's most fertile soil. It could become drier and less productive as the Earth's population expands and this region comes under greater pressure to produce food.

Western Lake Erie's notorious algae problem could get worse. So could air pollution, the No. 1 pathway for toxins in Great Lakes fish.

Without a significant reduction in emissions, the Great Lakes region could have less fresh water in the future even though it could get more rain. Some scientists believe there will be more quick-passing thunderstorms, but fewer all-day soakers and less snow. Any precipitation increases would be wiped out by more evaporation.

Stories about Alaskan homes sinking into thawing permafrost are shrugged off. But Kiribati should be a clarion call. We can't remain indifferent while we watch people lose their homeland.

In the United States, the insurance industry already is contemplating how to adjust rates in coastal communities for future potential climate impacts.

Climate change is a national security issue for the military, because of the astronomical sums of money for massive break walls and other engineering structures that may be needed to adapt to it.

Cynics have every right to challenge conventional thinking about climate change. But that doesn't justify indifference.

Climate change is not about Al Gore, the Democratic National Committee, polar bears, or a socialist plot to tax our souls into oblivion. It's about modernizing, being more fuel-efficient, and making smarter choices -- including moral ones -- that emerge from the convergence of science, religion, and personal ethics.

I first heard about Kiribati when R.K. Pachauri, chairman of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, addressed the Society of Environmental Journalists in 2008.

"You really can't treat human beings as cattle," he said. "They can't be taken from one part of the world. Their fathers' and grandfathers' bones are there. Their cultures are established in that place. They have a way of life. How can you even think of uprooting them?"

I'm not so naive as to think things will change because of a tiny nation halfway around the world. The climate debate will continue, with missteps -- even scandals -- on both sides.

The problem may never be solved, only mitigated. But standing pat and watching the climate change more dramatically aren't productive.

Tom Henry is an editorial writer and columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at thenry@theblade.com



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