Your Aug. 3 editorial ”Waiting for the Greenhouse Effect” poses an implicit question: Given the length of time for greenhouse effects even to be measurable and the immense uncertainty about the extent of the threat, how are people likely to respond?
Based on speculations of a former colleague, Ronald G. Ridker, I suggest the response will be to allow carbon dioxide to build up and to adjust only as its effects are felt. This could lead to disaster.
Consider how coastal populations are likely to adjust to a slow but inevitable rise in sea level. Such a rise may proceed by only 10 feet or less each century, but if all the water now trapped as ice in Greenland and Antarctica were added to the oceans, the sea level eventually could rise by perhaps as much as 100 feet.
Only two responses to this situation appear possible: low-lying lands can be evacuated or seawalls and dikes can be built. Given the slowness of the change and the tendency to give more weight to current than to future consequences, seawalls and dikes are all but certain. And once built, it will appear cheaper to make them a bit thicker and higher than to evacuate an area.
Eventually, much of the human race could find itself living below sea level, with the probability of a catastrophic breach in the dikes growing over the centuries.
Under such conditions, a repetition of the legendary sinking of Atlantis is highly probable. Only the date of the event is uncertain. Adjusting incrementally to slow changes in temperature, as they come along, may be the worst thing that we can do. Adaptability normally is a distinctive human strength, but in this case it could well be self-destructive.
KENT A. PRICE, Washington, Aug. 3, 1982
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