“With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it.” —Sen. James Inhofe

In the three and a half years since the Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, made this stunning declaration on the floor of the United States Senate, awareness of global warming has increased radically.

Nevertheless, Inhofe has made the cable news circuit, repeating his malicious blather and making even grosser charges: He has compared those who warn of global warming to Hitler and his “big lie;” and people who believe in global warming he has called Nazis. He has said that every claim in Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, “has been refuted scientifically” — which truly is a big lie — though he admits he has not seen the documentary. On another occasion, he compared Gore’s film to Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

It is a measure of the corruption of our politics and our media that such dangerous nonsense was ever unleashed on the public. To cite just one example, Ian Bowles, former senior science director on environmental issues for the Clinton National Security Council, told the Boston Globe in 2001: “The basic link between carbon emissions, accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the phenomenon of climate change is not seriously disputed in the scientific community.”

But the “public debate” goes on, because prominent people like Inhofe are paid to keep the public divided and confused on global warming. That’s right — paid! Since 1999, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Inhofe has received almost $300,000 in campaign donations from oil and gas interests and nearly $180,000 from electric utilities. In the 2002 election cycle, he received more oil and gas money than all but one member of the Senate.

This was the unmentioned background to the conference of environmentalists, regulators, business leaders, and policy makers who gathered at the Francis Marion Hotel last Wednesday. The Heinz Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment organized the event as part of a 30-month project to prepare America’s coasts and their inhabitants for rising sea levels, increased storm activity, and the inevitable havoc they will wreak.

Yes, it’s here and it’s now. Regardless of what James Inhofe says, global warming has come to South Carolina.

“The fact is, global warming is real, sea levels are going to rise, and we have to prepare for that,” Strachan Donnelley, President of the Center for Humans and Nature, told the conference. “Just the name Lowcountry ought to send chills down our spines.”

The sea level in Charleston Harbor will rise as much as 19 inches in this century, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (which former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay once called the Gestapo). Warming atmosphere and warming seas will make tropical storms more frequent and more violent.

Warmer weather and milder winters will bring more insects — including mosquitoes — which may mean we will see more West Nile virus and the return of malaria. Warm water will spawn toxic algae blooms, which will poison both fish and the people who eat them, said Dr. Robert Ball of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The irony in all this is that people continue to flock to the Southeastern coasts by tens of thousands a year. “The shift of population to the coast in the present manner is unsustainable and will inevitably lead to permanent damage to the coast,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said.

Fifty-four percent of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the coasts; $4 trillion worth of real estate lies in America’s coastal counties. Insurance premiums will continue to rise or insurance will become unavailable for much of that property, said Eleanor Kitzman, director of the S.C. Department of Insurance. Federal and state governments will have to make hard decisions on whether to underwrite property that private insurers won’t touch.

If the world had acted in concert decades ago, much of the destruction and havoc, which now seems inevitable, might have been avoided. But we did not act, and have not acted, because there was too much money to be made by certain interests.

Today we are fighting a war halfway around the world, ostensibly to protect ourselves from global terrorism, but what have we done to protect ourselves from global warming? The United States has not even signed the Kyoto Accord on greenhouse gas emissions. When chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix said, “I’m more worried about global warming than I am of any major military conflict,” Sen. Inhofe labeled him “ridiculous and alarmist.”

The clock is ticking on our way of life in this proud old city. What would any of us be willing to sacrifice to save it?

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