Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Stop Requested

The nice Washington, DC Metrobus (number 10E) that runs on clean-burning natural gas - the one that I take to and from my home each workday - talks to me. I don't mean in the way that gods might talk to saints or devils to sinners or anything like that. I mean that, in a very soothing feminine voice, she announces which stops are coming next. "Herbert Street." "Arlington Ridge Road." That kind of talking.  And when someone pulls the cord for a stop she says, "Stop requested." Much nicer than a buzzer or ringer. Then the driver stops the bus and people get off to go their merry ways and do their important things, while my bus rolls on to its final destination. "Pentagon Station," she gently announces.  And I get off bus number 10E to take the subway into DC.

After I merrily arrived at work today to do my own thing, there was this new climate change conundrum in my daily in-box of environmental news items: Lisa Friedman wondered in an article in Climatewire (reprinted in Scientific American magazine), "If a country disappears (beneath a rising sea), is it still a country?" and "If entire populations are forced to relocate by rising seas as a result of climate change, do they remain citizens of a vanished country?"

The legal issue at question centers around the premise that national and international laws currently on the books all assume that coastlines are a constant.  But constant coastlines, like many other things thought unvarying, are not so constant in a world in which temperatures rise, and glaciers melt and icebergs calve into the sea at ever increasing rates.  The human rights issues at question are even more pressing and immediate than the legal: millions of people in low-lying regions around the world face the daunting prospect of watching their homes drown beneath rising seas, and their lives forcibly relocated elsewhere, as they become climate refugees.

According to the Friedman article, officials in the Marshall Islands, a Micronesian nation of 29 low-lying coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean, are campaigning to turn international attention toward the plight of it and other vulnerable countries around the globe.  In the Maldives, another of those susceptible, low-lying countries, President Mohamed Nasheed has declared that he plans to create a fund in anticipation of that country's 305,000 residents requiring future relocation.

Edward Cameron, former adviser to the Maldive government, says in the Scientific American piece that nations threatened with sinking beneath rising seas need answers to the myriad and complex legal questions of land, water and migration for their own sakes.  But, Cameron cautions, those countries also need to send a message to developed countries not acting on climate change mitigation; a message that "if you don't come up with a response, we're going to start looking at legal options." Even more important, Cameron notes, the international community needs to start viewing climate change from a human rights perspective.

Ironically, the Republic of Palau, which acknowledges that its very survival is threatened by climate change and the accompanying rising sea levels, has embarked on a mission to become a major supplier of oil and natural gas, the burning of which is among the chief culprits behind greenhouse gas accumulations and climate change. The tract to be initially explored is found in the waters of Palau's Kayangel state, located on the northern edge of the 300-mile long island nation. Palauan officials say the area is likely home to one of the world's largest oil fields.  The Marine Biology Coordinator for Palau Pacific Exploration, which has secured a million acre drilling concession on the Velasco Reef in Kayangel State, has determined that "the planned drilling will not impact the environment."  All is well; business as usual, in other words. 

For money's sake, Palau wants to pump that oil and natural gas. For us to burn in our cars and clean DC Metrobuses, and convert into greenhouse gases exhausting into the atmosphere. To melt the ice caps. To raise the seas. To drown the low-lying archipelago of Palau.  And the Marshall Islands.  And the Maldives.  And, even, New Orleans.

In the meantime climate legislation has been officially pronounced "dead" in both the U.S. House (by Representative Collin Peterson) and Senate (by Senator Mitch McConnell ); scientists warn that the entire ice mass of Greenland will disappear if the earth's temperature rises by as little as 2 degrees C; a group of nine Nobel laureates has announced that unless the world starts reducing greenhouse gas emissions within six years, we face devastation; the U.S. Geological Survey reports that many of Asia’s glaciers are retreating as result of climate change; Canada has declared that it will delay greenhouse gas emission reduction efforts for at least another five years; and a Chinese analysis of U.S. and Australian carbon dioxide emission reduction plans says they are inadequate and inconsequential.

"Stop requested!"

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