Ellis Island

by Lorna Salzman

The 21st century may witness the birth of a new Ellis Island, but it is one that will be orders of magnitude larger. It will be at least as ethnically diverse as the old Ellis Island in New York Harbor, perhaps even more so. It will contain the multitudes of colors, races, religions and ethnic groups from the whole world: the refugees from global warming, the modern day Exodus from homelands that have disappeared under the rising seas, become unhabitable from lack of fresh water, or no longer fit to raise crops.

The evacuees from New Orleans who escaped with their lives from the Katrina hurricane disaster were among the lucky ones because they were able to move to another part of their own country, even though they lost their community, history and culture. But the new refugees will not have this luxury. They will not speak another language; they will have no relatives to accommodate them, they will have no job skills, no possessions, and will quite literally be thrust into a new kind of wilderness, in a world of social and economic chaos where the privileged as well as the impoverished will be forced to scramble for sustenance. These refugees in the coming Exodus will not be welcome anywhere.

Many of these refugees will be entire cultures such as the Inuit in the Arctic, whose culture and livelihood are based on hunting of seals, walruses and polar bears. Seals and walruses rest on sea ice, and are hunted there by polar bears. But as the ice thins and shrinks, the area available to seals decreases and the ice from which bears stalk seals can no longer support the weight of the bears.

On shore, the permafrost is rapidly melting; as a result, roads and bridges are collapsing, homes deteriorating, and local streams have become raging rivers where people often drown. Studies indicate that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as other parts of the world. This faster warming is also releasing large amounts of freshwater from glaciers and ice shelves into the north Atlantic; as a result of this inflow, scientists now fear the reversal of the Gulf Stream, which now warms northern Europe but which, if it ends, could bring a new ice age to that continent. A melting of the Greenland ice sheet and that of west Antarctica will mean a sea level rise of up to 80 feet. Residents of coastal communities worldwide will be displaced. No Ellis Island will be big enough to hold them all.

Where will the Inuits go after their hunting culture is destroyed? Where will the Bangladeshi go...tens of millions of people presently living in a small coastal zone that will disappear beneath the water perhaps before mid-century? Where will residents of the Pacific island nation Tuvalu go as their island sinks?The residents of the British Isles? Of Florida? Of America's east coast? To the tropics?

The tropics will suffer too. Coral reefs are becoming bleached due to pathogens adapted to warming oceans, and as a result, the fisheries that depend on them will disappear. Higher mean temperatures in the tropics will bring disease-bearing mosquitoes to higher elevations, spreading deadly diseases like malaria, yellow fever and Rift Valley fever even more widely, into temperate montane zones. The Andes and Himalayan glaciers that provide drinking water for much of South America and the Indian subcontinent are shrinking rapidly as are those of the Alps in Europe; the glaciers in America's Glacier National Park are now only one third of their original size and continue to shrink each year. Where will these countries get their drinking water from?

NASA scientist James Hansen, plus numerous other studies here and abroad, indicate that the tipping point for irreversible global warming has almost arrived. That point coincides with a 2 degree Celsius rise in average global temperature, of which one degree is "already in the pipeline" says Hansen. At the present rate of fossil fuel use the tipping point could arrive in this decade. American energy consumption is still growing 2% a year but in order to head off the tipping point, we need to stabilize our CO2 emissions at the PRESENT LEVEL. This means we must not only stabilize our energy consumption right now but CUT BACK our fossil fuel use by 80 % in the coming decade.

This means that we cannot rely purely on energy efficiency measures or on renewable energy at this point in time - an entirely new energy system needs 50 years to be put in place - but must take drastic measures to reduce energy use, by either rationing or imposing high taxes on all fossil fuels, especially gasoline and coal. In company with the termination of government subsidies and tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry and power plants, this may buy us some time to head off the worst impact of global warming and to prepare for the cataclysmic effects that must be expected.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.