Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Climate Calamity in My Back Yard?

Images of sea level rise often seem distant to American eyes.
A couple of months ago, one of our readers commented on the injustice of carbon gluttony by the developed world.  We had just written about the trauma facing the country of Pakistan:  160 million souls, wholly reliant on a single river which is flooding today but running dry in coming decades due to the melting of the Himalayan glaciers at its source.  The melting comes from climate change, and climate change comes largely from increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations.  Finally, the average American emits as much CO2 as 22 Pakistanis.

We burn the fossil fuels; they lose their only source of water, most of their crops, and their hope for the future.  (See yesterday's post: Archive, Pakistan Flooding.)

Doesn’t seem fair, does it?  And yet this is what permits us to ignore the issue.  All the people we talk about – Pacific islanders losing their homelands to rising seas, Inuit villages collapsing into the advancing Arctic seas, Bengali and Sindhi farmers watching their fields wash away in flood waters – they're all so different from us.  They don’t look like my mother, my wife, my kids.

Well, it’s with mixed feelings that we relay this unpleasant news: Climate calamity is coming quickly to your own American back yard.  This fact was driven home this week when we read an OECD report listing the world’s ten cities most vulnerable to property loss from sea level rise. (To read for yourself, click here: 

Not Venice: Routine Miami Beach tidal flooding.
Here’s the story:  As the world gets warmer, sea levels are rising.  This is happening for four reasons: (1) in some places, like New Orleans, the land is actually sinking; (2) the oceans are warming, and warm water expands; and (3) warmer climates are melting mountain glaciers all over the world, and these are pouring water into the seas -- water that has long been held captive in mountains. 

You thought I said four reasons, right?  I did.  But these first three are generally measurable with confidence.  Based on what scientists can project, they will cause seas to rise about two feet by the end of the century.  This is very bad.

Ah, but number four!  The world has three great “ice sheets”: Greenland, West Antarctica and East Antarctica.  Together, they hold enough water to raise sea levels 250 feet and submerge the entire state of Florida (among many other unpleasant effects).  We’ve seen signs that the first two are starting to melt.  But if they behave nice and steady, the world might manage for the next 50-100 years or so.  But they are touchy: once these giants wake, the prospects for catastrophe are enormous.  

And we’ve seen them stirring.  Two massive ice shelves in West Antarctica collapsed in the last decade.  Greenland’s melting rate has more than tripled in the last 15 years.  This summer we witnessed the collapse of Greenland’s massive Peterman Glacier outlet.  Massive forces have been unleashed.

But scientists don’t yet know how to model the collapse of the great ice sheets.  So the last UN report (2007 IPCC) simply left this effect out of its projections.  Experts in coastal management have reached their own conclusions about this, and are using estimates ranging from 3’ to 7’ for global sea level rise during this century.  And it could be much worse.

So who gets hurt by this?  You know the usual suspects: The Maldives disappear below the Indian Ocean, and the earth loses one sovereign nation; Tuvalu slips into the Pacific costing us a second; Bangladesh is awash in the Bay of Bengal, killing millions.  But the OECD has recently ranked the cities to lose the most property value to rising sea levels.  And – surprise! – three of the world’s top twelve are right here in the USA.

Miami tops the list, with $3.5 trillion in assets exposed to flooding by mid-century.  New York is #3 worldwide, at $2.1 trillion.  Little New Orleans is #12, at more than $1.0 trillion.  And we thought the banking bailout was expensive!

Lest there be any misunderstanding, these cities won't slip quietly under rising sea waters.  The calamity will come in storms.  Like Hurricane Katrina, most people will think it to be a stand-alone "act of God" (a singularly unfortunate term given the underlying causes of climate change).  We'll pour money into restoring what was lost.  And then we'll do it again, and again with greater frequency.  

Eventually, like New Orleans, these cities will give way in significant amounts to the waves, but not before we've spent trillions in ultimately futile efforts to defend our land from the rising seas.

In today's national climate, politicians readily pounce on any effort to put a price on carbon emissions as unaffordable new taxes. We wonder if they've given much thought to the cost of doing nothing?  Millions, billions and trillions are easily lost on us aren't they?  Let's just say this:  It's more than our country -- or our world -- can afford.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.


More Images of Rising Seas in the U.S.
Routine tidal flooding on the New Jersey Shore.
Sea level rise isn't a theory; these are the historical increases over the last century.
The lighthouse at Cape St. George, FL used to sit high and dry; by 2005 it was awash in the Gulf of Mexico; and in 2007, it collapsed into the waves.

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