A practical, urgent call for change in America's environmental policy

Review Environment


The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America's Coastal Cities

Mike Tidwell

Simon & Schuster / 180 pages / $24

James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, warned recently that global warming is melting the Greenland ice sheet at twice the rate of just five years ago.

Instead of facing a sea-level rise of up to 3 feet by 2100, as predicted by the National Academy of Sciences and many other experts, cities like Baltimore, New York and Miami could be inundated much more quickly. Hansen's grim calculus suggests a 23-foot surge in sea levels within a century.

The alarm sounds shrill and so dire that some want to shut it off. Or give up and live in willful ignorance. But Hansen is not the lunatic fringe. He's the chief climate modeler for President Bush, the former oilman who has finally acknowledged - but not acted on - the broader problem of global warming.

Such warnings persuaded Mike Tidwell, a veteran author and climate activist from Takoma Park, to write a passionate call for a revolution in American environmental policy.

It's not the first book on the subject, and it covers some of the same ground as Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth. But what makes Tidwell's account valuable is that it's extraordinarily well written, offers concrete solutions and doesn't carry Gore's political baggage.

Readers from Tidwell's home state will be disturbed by his predictions of storm damage to Maryland.

As warming seas continue to stoke more intense hurricanes, Tidwell predicts the flooding of parts of Baltimore, the destruction of Assateague Island, waters pouring into the Washington suburbs, the Eastern Shore being almost cut in half by the swollen Nanticoke River and the destruction of the Blackwater National Widlife Refuge.

To prevent Katrina-like calamities from hitting other cities around the world, we need to act within the next 10 years - or else the train will be impossible to stop, Tidwell argues.

"To visit with the knowledge that the sky itself is in the grip of a fever, storing up power for even darker events to come, is to see and feel amid the muddy wrecked streets of New Orleans a strange new universe looming just beyond America's new horizon," Tidwell writes.

Tidwell is well known in the Maryland environmental movement, as director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. It's one of several groups that succeeded in persuading the Maryland General Assembly this spring to overcome opposition by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the power industry and pass a law requiring a 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants operated in the state.

Most of Tidwell's solutions are thankfully logical. He describes how he cut his own electricity consumption in half by replacing an old refrigerator with a more efficient, EPA-approved "Energy Star" model, and his conventional light bulbs with fluorescents. He also cut his gasoline consumption in half by buying a hybrid Toyota Prius.

Such moves toward conservation - especially when backed by tax breaks or other government incentives - make sense, because they fit perfectly with the American passion for technology. Tidwell's advocacy of increased use of ethanol and corn-burning furnaces in homes is also likely to resonate with voters in red and blue states alike.

But Tidwell also suggests that consumers stop eating beef and pork, because the animals produce methane that contributes to global warming. This is the kind of politically tone-deaf suggestion - Americans giving up steak? - that opens him up to attack as an out-of-touch liberal from Takoma Park.

And even though Tidwell urges tough choices, he refuses to consider expanded nuclear power as a proven way to generate more electricity without any global warming gases. He calls it "dangerous" even though a half-century of nuclear generation in the United States hasn't caused a single radiation death.

If global warming is truly a crisis that threatens to destroy our civilization, perhaps environmentalists need to make sacrifices, too, and give up some ideological rigidity.

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