Clear and Present Dangers 

Reasons not to mess with Mother Earth.

Are you really willing to take George Bush's word for it? "It" is the threat of global warming, and the president's attitude is still wait-and-see. He wants "more certainty" about any imminent danger, and so, for the time being, it's full speed ahead with America's dependence on polluting but profitable fossil fuels.

Consider, though, Bufo periglenes or, as it is more commonly called, the golden toad of Costa Rica. It was discovered in 1966, but by 1989, its days were numbered -- literally. A researcher named Marty Crump had for years been observing the species' dwindling numbers, and by May 15, 1989, she perhaps witnessed the last surviving male. A golden toad hasn't been seen since. The immediate reason: Drier conditions in the mountains of Costa Rica had robbed it of breeding pools. The far-reaching conclusion: The Pacific Ocean's unnaturally powerful El Niño was to blame.

But back to Bush. He's hoping to keep the U.S.A. from signing the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that calls for limiting the carbon-dioxide emissions that are seriously screwing up the Earth's atmosphere (and endangering species such as the golden toad). Unfortunately, Bush is not alone. Australia (another major burner of carbon) also has yet to sign. This then puts America and Australia in the company of Monaco and Liechtenstein, because they haven't signed either. But what's the rush? Very concerned scientists aren't calling for a 70 percent reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions until 2050. And so, when it comes to coal-fired power plants and gasoline-powered car engines, it's still burn, baby, burn.

Or are the recent reports of long-term droughts, melting glaciers and ice masses, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events -- not to mention those blasts from the past: acid rain and holes in the ozone layer -- causing the most skeptical to think again? Onetime skeptics such as the queen of England. Tim Flannery too, whose interest in the subject had turned by late 2004 to anxiety.

Flannery is the director of the South Australian Museum and professor at the University of Adelaide. (So he knows first-hand the environmental damage being done in his home country.) He's also an evolutionary biologist, explorer, and conservationist. (So he's watched as native habitats changed at an alarming rate.) And he's a respected commentator and author, most recently of The Weather Makers, a book as readable as it is chilling (but not inflammatory) on the clear and present dangers of global warming. The prospects are not altogether hopeless, according to Flannery, but his concern isn't 2050. It's now, as in the incidence and uncommon power of recent hurricanes: for example, Mitch (1998) -- 10,000 dead; 3 million homeless. Or Katrina (2005): You know the (ongoing) story.

But don't take my word for it, "it" being the threat of global warming. Take Tim Flannery's. And remember the golden toad.

The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth

By Tim Flannery

Atlantic Monthly Press, 343 pp., $24

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