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The globe warms, America shrugs

ElectionsConservationMoviesWill Smith

If life were a movie, the president of the United States (probably played by Will Smith) would be leaping into action to save humankind from the calamity that a new scientific report says is about to befall Earth.

A paper prepared by 22 international scientists and just published in the journal Nature warns that overpopulation, environmental destruction and climate change have pushed the world toward a tipping point beyond which lie irreversible, frightening alterations in the biosphere that supports life on this lonely planet.

Of course, since this is not a movie and is instead just another surreal election year, the scientists' alarming analysis will be go unheeded. If the report is addressed at all by Republicans, it will be dismissed as another attempt by fiendish environmentalists to destroy the American economy by reining in polluting industries. If Democrats take note, they will tout their green jobs program as a panacea and quickly move on to a different, less disturbing subject.

The fact is the scope of the problem as described by the scientists is so immense and so intractable that denial is a natural response. Here is what is happening as we cling to our ignorant bliss and bicker about the president's birth certificate:

--The world population has passed 7 billion and will hit 9 billion before the middle of the century. To make room for all these people, 40 percent of Earth's surface will be cleared for farms and cities.

--Continued burning of fossil fuels will spew more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and that will make the oceans more and more acidic and literally lethal for sea life.

--All that CO2 will continue to push up global temperatures at a rate too quick for species to adapt. The resulting loss of bugs and birds and plants and fish and other links in the chain of life that humans depend upon will be cataclysmic.

In an interview with Los Angeles Times reporter Bettina Boxall, the report's lead author, Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at University of California-Berkeley, seemed to resist sounding too alarmist, but it was obviously hard for him to hold back.

"The net effects of what we're causing could actually be equivalent to an asteroid striking the Earth in a worst-case scenario," Mr. Barnosky said. "I don't want to sound like Armageddon. I think the point to be made is that if we just ignore all the warning signs of how we're changing the Earth, the scenario of losses of biodiversity -- 75 percent or more -- is not an outlandish scenario at all."

That is as scary as any apocalyptic scenario dreamed up by Hollywood. In end-of-the-world movies, like "Independence Day" or "Armageddon," nations unite to save themselves while a heroic, bantering band of astronauts or jet pilots zip off to defeat the threat. Unfortunately, in real life, we have no heroes, at least among our so-called leaders. All we have is a Congress that can't even reach a deal to avoid draconian budget cuts and tax hikes that they themselves put into place. And we have a presidential campaign in which the most vocal debate is about which candidate is most out of touch with the average Joe Sixpack.

This is not the cast of characters we need to save the world. This is not the debate we need to have. This is not anything close to leadership at a time of looming disaster.

Unless we can get Will Smith to run for president, I'd say we are doomed.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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