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Nature

08/21/02 12:00AM By David Moats
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(Host) The extreme heat of the last few days has reminded commentator David Moats that the idea of what is "natural" can change.


(Moats) If you thought it was hot this week, you were right. The temperature in Burlington on Sunday was the hottest in 103 years. Meanwhile, huge floods have rolled through Vienna and Prague and Dresden. Floods have overrun parts of Asia. And drought has plagued the United States.

Each of these events now prompts an almost automatic response from people who think: global warming. Climatologists are quick to remind us that the causes of any particular weather event are so complex it's impossible to blame it on global warming. But even if we don't know for sure what has caused a particular storm, the idea has been planted in our minds, and in our culture, that nature has been altered.

The reason we have that idea is because of the growing mass of evidence. Seven of the ten hottest years on record occurred in the 1990s. A study in 1997 found that heavy rainstorms - storms that dumped more than two inches within 24 hours - had increased by 20% since 1900. We know the polar ice caps are melting and the coral reefs are dying. And numerous species are in decline because rising temperatures are altering their habitat.

We know these things, so when Prague is flooded we wonder. And we change our language. We used to say a flood was an act of God. Now it seems to be an act of man. Warmer temperatures cause more evaporation, which leads to bigger storms. We used to call it a natural disaster. Now we think it's not so natural after all.

Bill McKibben wrote about these things in his prophetic book "The End of Nature." By the end of nature he meant the end of nature as an independent force, larger than us. Human beings have been altering nature for thousands of years, but we understood nature to be a force that was far beyond us.

Lately, though, we've done more than chop down a forest here or dam up a river there. By altering the climate, we have altered everything, setting off a chain of events whose outcome we can't predict. Who knows what the melting of the ice caps and the warming of the atmosphere will do to the Gulf Stream? And if something happens to the Gulf Stream, what will happen to the climate of Europe? As McKibben points out, global warming may thaw the Arctic tundra, which would release even more carbon into the atmosphere, adding to the carbon spewed by our cars and power plants.

McKibben writes of the sadness he feels when he hikes into the wilderness only to find that someone has left behind on the shore of a pristine lake an empty soda can. We're saddened by offenses like that because we crave nature unspoiled by man, and when it is spoiled, we feel the loss. In a way, nothing is wilderness anymore. That's because everything is touched by the altered climate. Vermonters were uncomfortable enough during our August heat wave. It's even more uncomfortable to think that, even in a small way, we brought it on ourselves.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.
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