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Health, Science, Environment

Commentary: A strengthening storm

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 28, 2012 - TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Peter and I are under the gathering clouds of Typhoon Jelawat, hunkering down with colleagues at the Academia Sinica (the Taiwan National Academy of Sciences).

The wind is picking up and the rain comes in spitting waves. The leading edge is ragged, with rushing, dark, roiling clouds interlaced with brilliant patches of blue, sunny sky. The storm is clearly coming, though its center is still well offshore.

The locals take it all in stride, with strong umbrellas and rain slickers now and plans to stay indoors over the weekend to ride it out. Just like us, before a snow storm, they are stocking up on batteries, food and bottled water. The threat of this storm, while scary to us, is part of the local weather pattern.

We hope the storm tracks to the north and east, sparing us the worst of the drenching, but it is not too predictable while it is still a few days out.

Some things are brewing that scare me more than the coming typhoon. Climate change, global warming. As an island nation, there is also great concern in Taiwan about rising sea level.

The most productive farming areas are on the coastal flats that run down along the western side of the island. Now it is an agricultural paradise with coconuts, a myriad of tasty Asian vegetables and luscious dragon fruits, but much of this fertile land will be flooded over the next few decades. Food security, the ability of a country to assure a constant and safe food supply to its people, will be compromised.

In a private meeting today with Minister of Agriculture, Bao-Ji Chen, said that Taiwan expects to lose about 10 percent of its productive crop land to the rising sea by the end of the century.

Here, we have been attending a series of scientific symposia on biodiversity and viewing presentation after presentation offering projections of species extinction and catastrophic environmental change.

Models of different warming scenarios, based on different forecasts reviewed by the IPCC, show that whole zones of Taiwan’s native vegetation will be driven up to the cooler, higher elevations of the island’s mountainous center. The plants and animals that occupy those spaces now -- the dwarf bamboo forests, grassy slopes, streamside ferns, and alpine wildflower covered rockslides -- will be driven to cooler places, higher and higher, until there is no place left to go but into oblivion.

Extinction looms.

The Taiwanese scientists project that if we change our behavior and turn away from carbon-based energy immediately, many species will still be lost. If we continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere at the same rate we are doing today, somewhere between half and two-thirds of all species may be lost by the end of this century.

What right do we have to kill most of the other living things with which we share our once Edenic planetary home? Biodiversity, which supports our life on earth so richly, deserves better treatment at our hands. 

Pat Raven has a Ph.D. in horticulture from Ohio State University. She was executive director of the Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Houston until 2001 when she moved to St. Louis.

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