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News from the Arctic: Are We on the Edge of a Climate-Change Cliff?

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The recent disturbing news out of the Arctic reminded me that we are making the same dumb mistake that once almost got me killed in the mountains. I survived my mistake. It remains to be seen whether the world will be so lucky in the face of global warming that just caused a full one million square miles of the Arctic ice cap to go AWOL. In an unprecedented meltdown, an area the size of six Californias has disappeared, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo.

As far as we know, this is the most stunning melt in this or the previous century. Given how central the polar ice cap is to the global climactic system, not to mention the survival of the polar bear as a species, this should be more than a wake-up call. It should be cause to take stock of just how thin is the climatic ice we are skating on.

As a nation, we are repeating a little error I once made on the slopes of Mt. Rainer. It was several years ago when I was backcountry telemark skiing at about 2,000 feet above Paradise with my pal on a cold winter's day. An impenetrable whiteout moved in and blocked our vision as we headed back down the mountain. When this happens, the only thing that exists in the world is you and your skis, because there is absolutely nothing else you can see. There is no up, no down, and no horizon. It's really quite spooky to be so disoriented.

We slowed down to a crawl to be safe and took little baby steps downhill, or at least the direction our compass said was south, as you couldn't really tell if you were going downhill or uphill. We had tiptoed this way for about 10 minutes when all of a sudden I was falling -- falling straight down, something I could tell was happening only by the rush of air past my ears. I had a consciousness that this could be either a 20-foot tumble or a 400-foot disaster, and I didn't have any visual clues as to which fate the stars had in store for me. It was funny how fairly detached my immediate thought was: "Wow, it'll be really interesting to see how high this cliff is."

In any event, it was a mere 20-foot plunge, cushioned by some of Mt. Rainer's finest fall-breaking powder. It turned out to be just a good story, one that still astounds my ski partner who says I just totally disappeared, "into thin air," and he had no idea where I had gone until I landed and started yelling, even though he was just a few feet behind me when I stepped into the elevator shaft. But it could have been a much more significant event. If so, I would have deserved it, by moving at all in conditions of zero visibility with the possibility of cliff bands.

This is metaphorically just what we are doing on a global scale right now. The precipitous meltdown in the Arctic should alert us to the fact that we are cruising along on an unchecked global-warming path, with no knowledge whatsoever as to where the hidden climactic "cliffs" may be. At what point will the climactic system tip into some unknown and unknowable regime that devastates agriculture? Or melts the Greenland ice cap, inundating our coastlines? Or sparks rampant desertification? Will it be when atmospheric concentrations of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere reach 600 parts per million? 500? 400? Nobody knows.

The fact that we don't know ought to terrify us.

We are skiing along in a climatic whiteout, with cliffs in the near vicinity of unknown height and unknown location. Perhaps we have already skied over one. My little mistake -- believing that if we just slowed down, we could stop before we went over the precipice -- could have just meant one less politician in the world. A continuation of our global mistake -- to proceed with an explosion of greenhouse-gas emissions in blissful ignorance of the potential consequences -- could be a lot more serious for the globe.

I have learned my lesson and haven't made a similar mistake in the mountains since. We ought to hope and pray that we can learn the same lesson globally in time, because there won't be enough snow left in the world to cushion a fall off a global climatic cliff.

U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) is a co-author of the forthcoming book called "Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy" and has sponsored comprehensive clean-energy legislation called the New Apollo Energy Act. He serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House Natural Resources Committee and the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.