"Won't Be Water, but Fire Next Time, Lord"

09/02/2005 07:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ching Mai Airport, Singapore -- My one-month trip to Asia began with the floods that devastated Bombay, and is ending as New Orleans and the Southeast begin to dig out from their tragedy. But flying over Sumatra this morning, and looking upon swaths of gray where there should have been vibrant green, I was reminded that only a few weeks ago the globe's worst climate crisis was the smoke and pollution from burning fires in Sumatra, which shut down two regions in Malaysia and created a national emergency. The Malaysian government asked mosques to pray for rain and, looking to the longer term, asked Indonesia to take action against the practice of setting fires to clear land, a practice that, when the weather is drier than expected, produces these enormous smoke storms.

There's an old gospel song that refers back to the promise God makes in the Book of Noah: The next time he afflicts the earth it will be not by flood, but fire. What we don't seem to be able to learn is that, if we continue destabilizing the climate, we will be visited with both flood and fire. The global-warming cynics have tried to distract us with the argument that since we don't know exactly how global-warming pollutants will change the climate, we don't need to act quickly to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide and other climate pollutants. They also claim that we would be better off figuring out how to adapt our societies to global warming instead of taking precautionary measures to prevent it.

This is colossally irrational, and the media should be ashamed of itself for taking this line of argument seriously. The successive tragedies of Bombay/Mumbai, Malaysia, and now New Orleans show how thin the climate-variation band is that complex societies can handle. How could the 17 million people of Bombay prepare for 36 inches of rainfall in 24 hours? Well, they could do some things -- not build highways that choke natural river beds, ban plastic bags that clog storm drains (this one they are doing), and protect their mangroves. Good environmental stewardship creates human environments with more of the suppleness of natural systems. Calcutta exists as a port only because it is protected from tsunamis and typhoons by the mangroves of the Sunderbans tidal swamp forest, as the British discovered when they tried to create a blue water port to replace Calcutta at Port Blair.

Yes, Indonesia should crack down on those who burn forests -- another example of environmental stewardship by "adapting" to climatic instability. But if we keep drying the forest out, sooner or later it will burn. And then what should air-traffic controllers in Malaysia do to "prepare" for smoke storms? How should mothers in Kuala Lumpur "smoke-proof" their children's lungs? Government scientists predicted that this summer would be a bad hurricane season -- because more heat than normal is stored in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. What do governors in the hurricane belt do to prepare for storms like Katrina?

The unreality of the "just adapt" theory may be best illustrated by House Speaker Dennis Hastert's suggestion that perhaps the best thing to do with New Orleans is abandon it. Really? That might just be enough to turn Louisiana into a solidly blue state, and it's not a policy option that would be greeted with much enthusiasm in Florida, so I confidently predict that the President will not go along with the Speaker.

As the oil and gas industries constantly remind us, we have to produce the hydrocarbon fuels that are creating global warming in the places where nature stored them -- places like the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico. So now the very industry whose marketing genius produced this crisis is seeing higher prices and spot shortages because of the crisis itself -- even the oil industry needs a predictable climate it turns out. (The increasing shortage of the drilling season in the Arctic, thanks to the melting of the permafrost, may well prevent drilling the Arctic Wildlife Refuge even if the government issues leases, in another ironic example of the oil industry doing itself, as well as the rest of us, in.)

The scale of global warming is simply escaping us -- and the cynics want to encourage us to keep on missing the point. Here's a dramatic, graphic example: NASA's Aqua satellite has captured images that show the heat stored in the surface waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the western Atlantic. That's an almost inconceivable amount of thermal energy, just waiting to be turned into the kinetic energy of a storm. Remember, until it is radiated back into space, that increase in the energy of the climate system is permanent -- it doesn't go away just because Katrina, one of its manifestations, peters out.

Far from being reassuring, the cynic's emphasis on the imprecision of the global climate models is the scariest thing about global warming. It's one thing to prepare a city for a known change in its weather patterns -- more rain or less, warmer summers or cooler ones. But when the climate models tell us that the only thing we can be certain about is that weather in a greenhouse world will be less predictable, less stable, and more subject to extreme events, it makes a complete mockery of the other half of the cynic's argument -- that we can adapt. How does a city simultaneously adapt to some winters being colder and others being warmer? Wouldn't it be more sensible to invest in solar cells and wind turbines? Ross Gelbspan has a good op-ed on this in the Boston Globe. The Orlando Sentinel gets it as well.

Drought and flood, back to back, in India. Hurricanes in Louisiana, drought in the Southwest. India isn't alone. This time will we get it?

Otherwise, we will need to recast that old gospel song-- "Fire and water, both next time, Lord."