Inconveniently, the earth is getting warmer. Polar ice caps are melting, oceans are rising, coasts are eroding, and weather patterns may be shifting. Scientists are predicting increased droughts, floods (not a contradiction), wildfires, a massive disruption of agriculture and the food chain, and more severe storms—especially hurricanes. The sea level might rise by several feet in this century alone. The best-case scenarios look pretty awful.
This is what we might call a slow-motion catastrophe—the proverbial frog in the slowly heated pot. It happens so insidiously, we never quite have that impulse to react. It also sounds innocuous on its face—average temperatures higher by a few measly degrees? So we turn our air conditioners up a notch in the summer and buy more property in northern Canada. What's the big deal?
The problem is that each tiny increase brings on a cascade of effects in weather, crops, migration, species interdependence, and so on. More rain here, less rain there. Hotter, drier earth means fewer microscopic worms fertilizing the soil, lower crop yields, and on and on and on. One quick glimpse at the minimum of devastation: The British government's chief scientist recently estimated that an increase of 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) was the minimum we could hope for, even if we managed to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions in the near future, and that this temperature increase would result in a decrease of 200 million to 400 million tons of grain production throughout the world—and subsequently threaten starvation for 400 million people.
Other possible inconveniences coming our way include landslides, sewage overflows, insect plagues, forest-fire epidemics, and massive coastal erosion (according to a recent EPA study, my own in-laws' Delaware beach cottage stands a decent chance of being underwater before the end of the century). The American Great Plains will suffer diminished crop yields, while some Canadian regions become more productive. We'll lose a massive number of high alpine areas, salt marshes, and wetlands. Enormous human migrations could disrupt cities and nations. Smog and asthma could increase, fish stocks could decrease. Malaria and dengue fever could become prominent in the United States. Mosquitoes are going to love the 21st century.
The good news is, everyone reading this will be dead before nature's wrath is fully revealed. The bad news is, most of us have children, or hope to. A couple of generations down the line, Disney kids may ride on crazy underwater rides like Atlantis! and Boston! College girls will go wild on the spring break beaches of Pittsburgh and Albany. Don't even think about New Orleans being around. (Visit this clever adjustable map to see how ocean rises of 1-14 meters will affect your region in centuries to come.)
Even today, you may be more exposed than you think you are. I was surprised to learn that New York City once again pops up on the vulnerable list, not just for future sea rises but for right now. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a Category 4 storm making landfall at just the right spot could put Kennedy airport under 20—no typo, 20—feet of water, bury New York's tunnels and subways, and flood out portions of residential Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. Because of its high bridges and population mass, the city would need far more evacuation time than any other American city, but since Atlantic hurricanes tend to move much more quickly than Gulf hurricanes, such lead time simply might not be available.
What can one do? First: Vote. Global warming may or may not be a disaster we can avert, but we certainly have no chance if we continue to steer the wheel right into it. The United States ought to have signed on to the Kyoto Protocols years ago, and we ought to be leading the way in exploring alternative, renewable sources of energy.
Second: Act. There are already several painless ways for consumers to be dramatically more energy efficient and environmentally friendly: fuel efficient cars, Energy Star appliances, fluorescent bulbs, etc. One intriguing new experiment is TerraPass, a voluntary program that enables car owners to be "carbon neutral" by paying between $30 and $80 annually to remove roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that their car emits. Buy a TerraPass for each of your cars, and buy an extra for your stubborn father-in-law who still thinks recycling is a bad idea.
Third: Brace yourself. No matter what we do, increasingly severe hurricanes and beach erosion are on their way. Current coastal property owners should buy whatever insurance they can and look seriously at the long-term forecasts. Think Katrina. Would your beach cottage survive a Category 4 hurricane? Is there anything you can do to prepare for one? Prospective owners should think very carefully before they sink the family fortune into a plot of land that may eventually be home to living coral and sea algae. If you build a new house in a hurricane-prone region, consider new superstrong fortifications such as concrete walls and roofs, deep reinforced structural columns, frames bolted to the foundation, and impact-resistant windows.
On the flip side, consider investing in cooler climates and inland property. While it's impossible to predict precise outcomes from major climate change, it is fair to infer that elevation will be good, that the northern portion of North America will become more and more hospitable, and that tomorrow's new coastline will be every bit as desirable as today's.