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EDITORIAL: Sea change forecast a challenge for Long Island

Two scary things happened yesterday that starkly illuminate the challenges of climate change on Long Island.

First, another wrong-way accident closed eastbound lanes of the Long Island Expressway during the morning rush, causing traffic to seize up on roads for miles around. Most of the cars stuck in that mess carried just one person.

Second, there was news of a state panel's draft report that, despite the measured tone and foregone conclusion, was as hair-raising as a Stephen King novel. It said that in 70 years the sea level around Long Island could be a foot or two higher - barring any rapid melting of the world's land-based ice. But if that should happen, the rise could be an amazing 55 inches.

There is debate over the extent of global warming, and there are those who still doubt the evidence. But the great preponderance of scientific opinion is that the world is beset by accelerating climate change, and that human activity is the primary cause. Put simply, there is strong evidence we are overheating the planet by burning too much fossil fuel.

Yesterday's events - the traffic jam and the report from the New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force - perfectly illustrate the two main ways in which we must respond.

Cutting back. All those nearly empty cars crawling along the highways demonstrated how important it is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel. Slowing the pace of global warming will take unprecedented global cooperation, costly new technologies and financial incentives such as carbon taxes. Meanwhile, no one has to be an actor in the ongoing tragedy of the commons. On the contrary, most of us can easily shrink our own carbon footprint - and collectively make a big difference, given America's disproportionately large share of global emissions. We can carpool right now. And longer term, we can get serious about improving public transit.

Making do. The Earth is already warming so much that, no matter what we do, the damage will continue to unfold for the better part of a century. Higher sea levels are an example; they will threaten beaches, homes, sewage systems and the region's entire economy. Our challenge will be coping with this new reality in some coherent and cost-effective way.

The report suggests some sensible actions, including new rules that would make it harder to build in coastal areas, and more research. It also suggests that we embrace such measures as relocation and accommodating periodic inundations while reserving costly structures such as sea walls for situations when they are crucial. The best way to deal with the rising waters, in other words, is to stay out of their way.

What the report doesn't address are the many complex questions that will rise with the sea. If your waterfront McMansion is permanently under water, who should pay? Will insurance dry up? Will tourism vanish with the beaches? And given state and federal deficits, where will we find the money to mitigate these problems? The cost of acting is sure to be high. Yet the cost of inaction will surely be higher. hN