Set aside the question of whether global warming is causing an increase in the severity of hurricanes and tropical storms. (Scientists of all political persuasions disagree on that question.) Ignore the idea that climate change had anything whatsoever to do with Hurricane Katrina, the long-dreaded Category 5 storm that overwhelmed New Orleans' defenses.
The real issue is whether the devastated Gulf Coast is a harbinger of what is to come as global warming deepens and even accelerates. And on that question there can be little doubt. The scientific consensus is that climate change will bring about increasingly severe and unpredictable weather patterns. Melting ice at the poles and rising sea levels will render towns and communities located in low-lying coastal areas uninhabitable. Scenes of flooding and dislocation will become more common, as people in America and around the world are forced to retreat inland to higher elevations.
Some commentators have suggested that if there is a silver lining in the Katrina nightmare, it is that we have an opportunity now to address the unsolved problems of race and poverty that plague this country. If Katrina offers an opportunity in that regard, it presents a challenge in another. Will Americans finally wake up to the threat of climate change before too much time has passed? America's political leaders must make sure that Katrina helps lead to that awakening.
The problem environmental groups have had selling Americans on the threat of global warming is that, to much of the public, it remains an elusively abstract concept. Now there is something indelible and concrete for Americans to consider.
Sens. John McCain and Hillary Clinton were in Alaska and the Yukon in August, witnessing the unprecedented balminess prevailing there in the summer months. They were ignored by the media. Now they must press their case and show even more political leadership. If Katrina winds up serving as a pivot point in American history, causing us to address climate change with real urgency, then it will indeed have contained a silver lining. Otherwise, it will have been nothing more than a senseless tragedy.