Warm thoughts for holidays

A LOG ON THE OPEN FIRE? Electric lights on the tree? Humbug! Or maybe not. The international types all worked up over global warming at the just-concluded U.N. conference in Copenhagen ought to see how we shiver from the below-normal cold that’s gripped our region for days. Based on this week’s temperatures, people won’t be planting coconut trees along Philmont’s Main Street any time soon.

Strange as it sounds, though, the current cold snap–even prolonged periods of chilly temperatures–fits the scientific models of a rapid global warm-up. Changes in the environment seldom happen in neatly arranged straight lines, and experts must rely on educated guesses about what exactly may happen. The present situation is one humans have never faced before so far as we know.

But looking back at Christmases past while our teeth chatter, it feels right to question whether human activity is responsible for warming the atmosphere at such an alarming rate. After all, we’ve only been trying to improve the quality of our lives. That attitude is reflected in national surveys, which report that Americans are less concerned now than in previous years about the threat of global warming. It’s an understandable response. The huge retreat of arctic and Antarctic ice sounds like an abstraction in Columbia County. We’re used to radical changes in temperature over the course of a year. Ice melts. Big deal.

At present, the water from that melting ice is beginning to cause sea levels to rise not only around Pacific Island nations that few people have ever heard of but along the south shore of Long Island. The sea doesn’t have to swamp Long Island to cause havoc. As the level of the Atlantic Ocean rises, some experts believe that in addition to coastal flooding, saltwater could infiltrate the vast aquifers that supply roughly three million people living just east of New York City with all their water.

Maybe they’ll build desalination plants and drink water from the sea. But those plants are mighty expensive, and it’s not clear where the money would come from to do that, unless the state kicks in big bucks. Do you think upstate taxpayers would have to help pay the cost?

As sea levels continue to rise, Long Islanders will move out of harm’s way. Some will probably head south, where costs are lower and it’s warmer, possibly much warmer. Others might head north, looking for an attractive, affordable place to live. What would Columbia County look like if we faced a new in-migration, and our population of about 62,000, which has been declining in recent years, doubled or tripled in a very short time? Would that make this a better place to live?

The Hudson River has a boundary south of Poughkeepsie called the salt front. As an estuary, the tides flow in and out along the river as far north as Albany, and the salt front is that point in the river where saltwater from the sea makes river water too salty to drink. That matters because in times of drought, New York City and other communities use the Hudson as their source of drinking water. But drawing more fresh water from the river allows the salt front to move further upriver, and eventually New York City can’t use the water either.

So what happens when eight million or so folks in the five boroughs don’t have the water they need to thrive and prosper? Aside from the migration scenario, consider the effect of a recession on business in the Big Apple. The latest economic downturn caused a big dip in state tax revenues from New York City, and that forced Governor Paterson to cut state aid payments last week by 10%. Having inadequate water supplies to support the city could really put a dent in the money the state expects to receive from the city, and all taxpayers will feel the bite.

These aren’t cataclysmic forecasts that make for blockbuster Hollywood movies and skepticism. They’re just the types of disruptive changes we might expect to see right here. We could ignore the warnings and hope that the most dire predictions won’t come true. We could also resign ourselves to growing cotton and bananas in Columbia County, or living in a suburban paradise. Or we could heed the alarms and acknowledge that the consequences of doing nothing only get worse the longer we delay.

So, enjoy. Take the spirit of the season to heart and give everyone you know a gift. Consider doing a little something now so human beings have plenty more holidays to celebrate. 

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