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Harder rains will fall unless we change

printed in Newsday
Scott Carlin is an associate professor of geography at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University and founder of the Long Island Climate Solutions Network.

Wednesday’s drenching downpour was our baptism. We are officially Earth citizens. The rains poured out of the heavens, and Long Island’s streets turned into rivers. Roads closed, lights flickered and then went black.

Climate change is no longer a forecast. It is changing right before our eyes. It cannot be undone, but its intensity can be reduced if we, all 6 1/2 billion of us, put aside our differences and start seeing ourselves as one people, an Earth community.

Climate change didn’t cause Wednesday’s mess because climate and weather are different. Weather is immediate, tangible and variable: It’s what is happening outside each moment of the day. Climate is more abstract, statistical and historically more stable: It informs us about average monthly temperatures and rainfall.

But, as this century progresses, Long Island will experience Wednesday’s weather with greater frequency and intensity. Scientists have documented that damaging rainfalls are already increasing in frequency. “New York: Confronting Climate Change in the Northeast,” a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, singles out 2006 and 2007 for their intense spring rains. It predicts hotter summers, with frequent dry periods punctuated by heavy, and sometimes extreme, downpours.

This year’s wet summer pales in comparison to other states’ problems. Texas has been inundated by rains and floods for weeks. Yet, other states are experiencing serious droughts. Not just Western states, but Eastern states like Florida and Georgia.

To reduce the frequency of future washouts, we need to decrease greenhouse emissions. The Town of Babylon pledged in 2006 to reduce that government’s use of energy 12 percent by 2012 – its 12×12 initiative. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlanNYC calls for curbing greenhouse emissions 30 percent by 2030. California, New Jersey and Florida have enacted laws to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050. Legal declarations to act are important first steps, but a challenging road of social and
technological change lies ahead.

Part of our challenge is to see ourselves as Earth citizens. There’s no other way to tackle this immense problem. Otherwise, it is going to be too easy to blame the Chinese, Indians, Venezuelans and others.

The real problem is that our carbon emissions are much higher per person than any other nation. We’re very dependent upon oil for our cars, large homes and airplanes. Reducing emissions and changing our lifestyle are real challenges. Part of the solution is for the federal government to mandate that manufacturers produce more efficient cars and
technologies, but curbing consumption will also require higher energy prices.

We also need to pay more attention to how our oil addiction is affecting others and to begin acting as global neighbors. Listen to artists, teachers and writers from other nations. Send them an e-mail; engage them. Make this a class project, a family or civic project. What is life like in Japan or Germany, where per-capita carbon emissions are half of ours? How are people in Russia, China and Nigeria coping with climate change? Host a climate fundraiser to assist communities in need. Participate in the Sept. 4 Climate Emergency Fast.

Earth citizenship also confers ecological responsibilities. The climate crisis exists because we convinced ourselves that the Earth’s resources are inexhaustible and pollution poses no harm. Powerful, energy-intensive technologies allow us to harvest prodigious quantities of resources.

But ecologists insist this is pushing ecosystems into crisis. Science affirms that we are not separate from nature, so we need technologies that heal and restore natural systems and promote biodiversity. Today’s technologies and corporations should be reprogrammed to promote ecological sustainability or else decommissioned.

Here on Long Island, climate change is already affecting our lives. Precipitation patterns are changing, hay fever is increasing – carbon dioxide promotes ragweed – and warmer coastal water temperatures are hurting marine life. In the future, we will experience more frequent and intense summer heat waves. We’ll have to tackle new disease threats – as climate change diminishes air quality and makes more hospitable environments for vector-borne illnesses – and increased coastal flooding and rising seas. Forests, vegetation and farm fields will all have to adjust.

More than ever, we need to understand what scientists are discovering and ask them questions. We need to challenge an energy industry that is wedded to stretching out fossil-fuel profits rather than accelerating Earth-friendly solutions. And we need to redefine our political, civic and ecological identities. The future health of the planet and its
inhabitants depends upon it.


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