December 7th, 2005

Chris Keeley

In September, the area of Arctic sea ice shrank to a record low, prompting glaciologists to conclude

by Elizabeth Kolbert
Issue of 2005-12-12
Posted 2005-12-05

The Kilinailau Islands—also known as the Tulun Islands, or the Carteret Atoll—which lie four hundred miles from the coast of Papua New Guinea, are tiny, low, and impoverished. Their fate, thanks to global warming, has long been a foregone conclusion. In 1995, most of the shoreline of Piul and Huene washed away, and the island of Iolasa was cut in half by the sea. Saltwater intrusion has now reached the point where islanders can no longer grow breadfruit, and have to rely on emergency food aid. Last month, Reuters reported that the decision had finally been made to give up. The islands’ two thousand residents are being relocated, at the expense of the Papua New Guinean government, to the slightly higher ground of Bougainville Island, some sixty miles to the southwest.

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America’s failure to ratify Kyoto is widely viewed as a scandal. The Administration’s effort to block a post-Kyoto agreement has received less attention, but is every bit as dangerous. Without the participation of the United States, no meaningful agreement can be drafted for the post-2012 period, and the world will have missed what may well be its last opportunity to alter course. “If we don’t get a serious program in place for the long term in this post-Kyoto phase, we will simply not make it,” Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton, told reporters last month. “We will be crossing limits which will basically produce impacts that are unacceptable.” Such is the nature of global warming that the problem is always further along than it seems. The kinds of changes that are now becoming evident—the rise in sea levels, the thawing of permafrost, the acidification of the oceans, the acceleration of ice streams—mean that much larger changes are rapidly approaching. To continue to delay is not to put off catastrophe but, rather, to rush toward it.