This week, we e-mailed my husband's English cousin, Caroline, to ask if she was under water yet. Her garden backs on to the Thames, and we were worried that she might be washed away. In Britain, tens of thousands of people have evacuated or been left stranded by epic flooding that cut off entire towns and threatened to drown all of Oxford.
Not long ago, people would have blamed the cruel whims of Mother Nature for the rising waters. Now we know who's really to blame. Us. “Human activity altering global rainfall patterns,” said the front-page headline in The Globe and Mail, which ran beneath a photo of the floods.
The story described a new study by scientists from Environment Canada who say they have proof that man-made global warming is already making storms more violent and wet weather even wetter.
The British flooding “can serve as an example of the kind of events we will have in the future,” warned Britain's chief forecaster, Peter Stott, who is also a co-author of the study.
Even the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, blamed global warming, perhaps because it provides such a handy scapegoat for the fact that Britain's flood defences, like Louisiana's, are inadequate and poorly co-ordinated. “Like every advanced industrialized country, we are coming to terms with some of the issues surrounding climate change,” he said.
It was obvious that these were no ordinary floods. “The drumbeat of disaster that heralds global warming quickened its tempo this week,” wrote Jeremy Leggett, an adviser on renewable energy to the British government, in The Guardian. “Behind the gathering clouds the hand of God is busy, writing more bills.”
Senior clergymen agreed that the time has come for us to pay up. “We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation, as well as the environmental damage that we have caused,” warned the Bishop of Carlisle (who included gay-rights legislation as one of the causes). “We are now reaping what we have sown,” pronounced the Bishop of Liverpool. “If we live in a profligate way then there are going to be consequences.”
Somehow it doesn't seem fair that cousin Caroline should have to pay up for other people's sins. But that's the way it goes when you have offended God (or Mother Nature). Just ask Noah. No sooner had he built the Ark than God flooded the Earth and everybody else drowned.
Today, it's not unusual to describe the catastrophes allegedly wrought by climate change in the language of divine retribution. Most of us no longer believe in the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or the crude medieval punishments of hell, or the personal wrath of an Old Testament God. We're way too sophisticated for that. Instead, we believe that fire, flood, famine and war (not to mention plagues and pestilence) will be visited upon us by climate change. In either case, the ultimate root of these calamities is the same — human wickedness.
“Like the ghost of Christmas yet to come, [these floods] offer us a glimpse of the possible winter world that we'll inhabit if we don't sort ourselves out,” warned George Monbiot, who is Britain's version of David Suzuki, but even more so. (He also admitted, “I can't claim that these floods were caused by climate change.”) There's only one way to save ourselves from the ultimate deluge. We must renounce our decadent, wasteful, greedy, wicked, fossil-fuel-consuming ways. “We know what we have to do: Make deep cuts in emissions,” preached Mr. Leggett.
By now, you are probably under the impression that the floodwaters imperilling cousin Caroline must be Biblical in their dimensions. Alas, they're not. Back in 1953, severe flooding in southeast England drowned 300 people. There was worse flooding in 1947 too. Even before global warming, Britain could be awfully wet. Who knew?
Last summer, during this very week, we went to a delightful party in Caroline's garden by the Thames. It was unusually dry and hot. That too, as I recall, was proof of global warming. In fact, all the climate modelers have been predicting that Britain's summers would get drier – not wetter – as a consequence of climate change.
How can hot, dry summers and cool, extremely wet ones both be a result of the same thing? This seeming contradiction doesn't flummox Britain's forecaster, Mr. Stott. “The overall signal is generally for a drying trend but nevertheless within that drying trend when it rains it can rain harder,” he explained. In other words, when it's not drier, it will be wetter. So watch out.
What bothers me even more than the apocalyptic rhetoric of climate change is the insinuation of original sin. To be born is to be fallen, because to be born is to pollute. Humankind has messed up the planet, and it's probably too late to rescue it, and probably we'll all die.
This idea was the inspiration behind a new bestseller called The World Without Us, which imagines what the Earth would be like if the human race just disappeared. The author, Alan Weisman, says he wanted to show “how wonderful nature could be if only we didn't mess it up so much.” Most of the people he interviewed agreed that human extinction wasn't such a bad idea. “If the planet can recover from the Permian, it can recover from the human,” one ecologist told him.
Underlying today's environmental catastrophizing is a profound sense of cultural pessimism. A lot of people really do believe that the Earth would be a better place without us. In their view, we don't just emit pollutants. We are pollutants. Pollution is the chief consequence of human existence. And the best way to reduce our ecological footprint is not to live or breathe at all.
Fortunately, cousin Caroline is considerably more cheery. She isn't blaming global warming for her ruined garden. When she and her husband bought their idyllic property, they knew it was on a flood plain. (That's why they could afford it.)
Prudently, they built their house on stilts. Their roses may be soggy, but they are high and dry.