Environmental Patriotism

Our two small granddaughters visited us this weekend. For me, their lives have been the most compelling reason to do something about global warming, to accept responsibility and to invest in a better future for them. But there is also the call of patriotism. Many have laid down their lives for this country. Can the rest of us deal with a little burden, a little expense, to save this country from catastrophe? Are we patriotic enough?

We’ve already seen that New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are vulnerable. Sandy’s storm surge washed over much of lower Manhattan and backed up through the tunnels onto parts of Brooklyn. More important, it put the subways and electrical grids out of operation. The City came to a standstill. Parts of Statin Island and Long Island were destroyed, stranding thousands without homes to return to. Travel to Providence, Rhode Island, and people will show you the water marks from other tidal waves that literally washed over their city, flooding downtown to a height well over my head. Or check a now hollowed New Orleans.

Facing two oceans and the Gulf of Mexico, America has a lot of coastline. Maps by feet over sea level show much of it at risk of being inundated. Much of Boston is built on fill and much of it will be underwater if the seas continue to rise. It won’t take much sea rise to bury Florida under water. Washington, D.C., is built on what was a lowland swamp, easily inundated by sea rise. The same is true on the Gulf and Pacific Coasts. Seventeen states from Maine to Hawaii have more than 1,000 miles of tidal coastline apiece, nearly 2,000 miles in New York State alone. Some 40% of the population of the U.S. lives in counties on the coast, facing the ocean or subject to high coastal hazards.

It’s easy to say it’s someone else’s problem. But who of us doesn’t have family members who headed for the big coastal cities for work, school, careers or retirement? Others frequently travel to the coasts on business. Some of my students have offices both here and in the City. All of us depend on business and trade that come through America’s port cities. John Dunne wrote centuries ago that “No man is an island, entire unto himself.” Truly none of us is an island unconnected to the coasts. This is one country and destruction of the coasts will be catastrophic for us all – not to mention the direct damage that global warming is doing by storms and droughts to the inland parts of our country.

What will America be like when something like nearly half the population become refugees, when we have to beg assistance from the rest of the world to put each other up in tents and stock refugee centers with food, water and toilets? Are we willing to make a sacrifice now to prevent that from happening? Are we willing to put up with a carbon tax to put the brakes on everything that goes into global warming? Are we patriotic enough to shoulder a piece of that burden to save our country?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 2, 2013.

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