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The Submerging World

by Bill McKibben

Published in the September/October 2004 issue of Orion magazine



Photograph by Matthieu Paley, used with permission

WARM WATER takes up more space than cold water does. That simple fact of physics, utterly inexorable, is one of the two or three most important pieces of information humans will have to grapple with in this century. And the people who get to grapple with it first are in places like Tuvalu, where suddenly the spring high tides are washing across the island of Funafuti, eroding foundations and salt-poisoning crops in the fields. Tuvalu is the canary in the miner’s cage, and instead of choking it’s drowning. Tuvaluans have begun to work out plans for evacuating the population over the course of the next decades as the sea rises.

The warmer water, of course, is a product of steadily increasing global temperature, just like melting permafrost, shrinking glaciers, and increased evaporation over deserts. And the global temperature rises because we burn oil and coal and gas, which inexorably produce as a byproduct of their combustion carbon dioxide—carbon with two oxygen atoms, a molecular structure that traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space.

When I say “we,” of course, I don’t mean all of us. People in Tuvalu don’t burn much coal and gas and oil—it’s warm there year-round. The old mainstay of their economy was selling postage stamps to collectors; now the fact that their official internet designation is “.tv” has helped produce a modest windfall from networks around the world.

In truth, no one in the submerging world has earned the fate that’s about to befall Tuvalu. A hundred and forty million people live in Bangladesh, half the population of our fifty states, but when the United Nations tries to figure out how much CO2 they produce, the number is a minuscule rounding error. Almost as minuscule as their chances of living out the century in their homeland, for Bangladesh is low to the ocean. When the Bay of Bengal rises, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra, great sacred rivers of Asia, will back up and flood the country.

When I say “we,” I mean we proud, we few, we Yanks. Four percent of the Earth’s population, 25 percent of its CO2. Earlier this year, Hollywood offered its global warming epic, The Day After Tomorrow, which depicted climate change destroying… New York City. Enormous waves overtopped the Statue of Liberty and then, oddly, the city froze solid in a matter of minutes, in a blizzard that also enveloped our nation’s capital. One hopes that The Day After Tomorrow doesn’t play in Tuvalu, or in Dhaka, or in the Maldives, or on the coastal plain of China, or any of the thousand other spots that will feel first and foremost the effects of global warming. It seems too much to ask that they feel fright or pity for fictional Manhattanites and Washingtonians when real Manhattanites and Washingtonians have felt nothing whatever for them.

Recent polling indicated that the single most salient issue for American voters in this year’s election is not Iraq, not the deficit, but the price of gas. Too high, the price of gas. Faced with the high price of gas, why worry that Tuvalu has a culture that may date back four thousand years? Why worry that as we raise the temperature of the oceans we not only make them larger but we also—inexorably—kill off the coral reefs that surround these islands? Marine scientists have warned that this most benign and teeming of all ecosystems may not make it to mid-century. Already, widespread bleaching from higher temperatures has sterilized many reefs. Oh, and when the reefs die off and disintegrate, islands like Tuvalu’s, with nothing to break the surf, are opened to increased wave action, which merely compounds the problem of rising seas. Why worry that mosquitoes carrying dengue fever are already spreading into places that have never known mosquitoes before—parts of Bangladesh, for one—bringing sudden hemorrhagic death?

You could come up with reasons to worry, but I fear that none of them, in the end, would be persuasive. Think back for a moment. When we wanted Muslim allies for the war on terror and to keep peace in Iraq, Bangladesh was one of the countries we turned to. We needed the Bangladeshis’ help with our big problem. But it wouldn’t occur to us even to ask if we might be of help with their big problem. Because helping would require us to change—to drive normal cars instead of SUVs, and to drive them less; to build normal-sized homes and spend the extra cash to put a solar panel on top, not a home theater in the den; to stop demanding tax cuts so we can buy more and more and more; to start sending technology and money off to India and China in large amounts so that they could develop their economies with renewable energy instead of following our ruinous path.

I keep using the word “inexorable,” but only as a tease. There is nothing inexorable about what is happening to Tuvalu, and to every other place on the planet. It is all happening by choice, our choice; we are engaging in a reckless drive-by drowning of much of the rest of the planet and much of the rest of creation. Admittedly, no one intends this destruction—on the other hand, nobody is doing much of anything to stop it, either. Eventually, of course, our inaction will do enormous damage even to our midlatitude fortress continent. Those pictures of crumbling foundations, swelling lagoons—that’s our future too, along with parched deserts, dying forests, discombobulated agriculture. But by the time that future kicks in, later in the century, we will be hard-pressed to say we don’t deserve it. Right now, global warming is coming first for the Tuvaluans—a little like last century’s scourge came first for the Jews. It took us too long, but eventually we roused ourselves to help meet that challenge with sacrifice and with fortitude. I wonder what we’ll do about this one.

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Orion magazine columnist BILL MCKIBBEN is the bestselling author of The End of Nature and Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age.

MATTHIEU PALEY, based in Hong Kong, has photographed throughout the mountains of Asia and the South Pacific for Newsweek, Time, Geo, National Geographic, Adventure, Outside , and Le Monde 2.

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