Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sea! I Command You to Come No Further!

I remember as a child reading of King Canute, the 11th century Viking ruler of England. Canute famously silenced his fawning courtiers by having his throne placed at the fringe of the rising tide, and audaciously commanding the waves to come no further. His point? Though the deeds of kings might appear to be great in the minds of men, they are as nothing in the face of God's power.

In the last few days, I have seen this narrative unwittingly played out again in the industrial juggernaut called the Pearl River Delta of South China. The “PRD” is by far the greatest exporting region in the world, and its growth is without equal anywhere on earth. From cities like Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen, the 46 million residents of the PRD provide the electronics, clothing and consumer products used by the whole world. And these cities display unbelievable growth and opulence as the reward for their hard work and innovation.

There seems to be nothing that they cannot do.

Except – like Canute – hold back the sea.

The PRD – we have learned – is in the path of trouble. Serious trouble. Its principal city, Guangzhou, is among the most exposed in the world to sea level rise and other effects of climate change. Only Miami stands to suffer greater loss of asset value. And worldwide, only Calcutta, Mumbai, and Dhaka stand to suffer greater loss or displacement of human life. What’s worse for this delta, ranked right behind Guangzhou are nearby Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

How do we know all this? In 2007, the 34 countries of the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) conducted a survey of all 136 global seaside cities with a population of at least one million inhabitants. They examined the impact on each city from rising sea levels, coastal flooding and land subsidence resulting from human-caused climate change. First, they considered which cities stood to lose most value; then, they looked at which cities had the most people exposed to rising floods.

Guangzhou, sadly, ranked among the very worst in both categories. By the year 2070, Guangzhou (pronounced “Gwong-Joe”) is projected to lose $3.4 TRILLION in value due to inundation from higher sea levels and more intense coastal storms. In perspective, that’s about a quarter of the entire U.S. national debt, all lost in one city.

Now, to be sure, Guangzhou’s loss will be a bit less than Miami’s, and we’ve written extensively about that. But Guangzhou has neighbors. Having been here, I can see that nearby Shenzhen (10.4 million people), Dongguan (8.2 million), Foshan (7.2 million) and Hong Kong (7.0 million) will suffer alongside Guangzhou’s 12.8 million residents. When the rising sea sweeps through this city, it will take the neighbors with it as well – each one of them about the size of New York City.

And how many millions of those Pearl River residents will be at the mercy of the floods? The OECD estimates that by 2070, rising sea levels and storm surges will imperil 10.3 million people in Guangzhou alone. Apply some quick math to the neighboring cities, and the PRD may see 40 million human souls threatened or displaced by rising seas by 2070.
That’s not a typo: Forty million precious human souls awash in a region smaller than New Jersey.

How will it happen? A leading Hong Kong think tank has filled in the details: storm surges will overwhelm coastal levies (much like Katrina); Hong Kong’s airport and other landfill areas will be reclaimed by the waves; salt water will contaminate drinking supplies; damage to roads and rail lines will cut communities off from each other; sea and river port terminals will be inundated or landlocked behind new levies; tropical diseases will accelerate and spread; and – of course – people’s homes and livelihoods will be destroyed.

Can we turn back the rising sea? Sadly, no more than King Canute could. God’s good earth is working exactly the way He designed it. We’re continually thickening the blanket of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and His earth is heating up just like you’d expect.

But we can do something to reduce he harm to the port cities of our world, including our own Miami, New York and New Orleans. We can demand that our politicians stop denying what is known by every country in the world about the ruinous effects of our fossil-fuel gluttony. We can demand that they take action now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at home, and get serious about joining in international efforts to do the same.

More importantly, we can begin talking to each other about climate change and the threat to our children and millions of exposed people around the world. When 40 million people in this one river delta are in the path of deadly rising seas, it’s hard to understand how silence can remain an option for people who honor God and his possessions – or for any person of goodwill.

Inaction for the last decade has cost the creation dearly. But it’s never too late to make things better than they could be. Forty million souls on the Pearl River are depending on us.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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