Rising Tides – Festival of Doom

There is a festival of doom in the Sunday New York Times today, with multiple articles on the threat to coastal cities in the USA posed by rising sea levels.  It includes a mournful, fatalistic essay by James Atlas, and a suite of interactive graphics that allow users to see just “what could disappear.”

This quote from one article pretty much sums up the message:

According to Dr. Schaeffer’s study, immediate and extreme pollution cuts — measures well beyond any discussion now under way — could limit sea level rise to five feet over 300 years. If we stay on our current path, the oceans could rise five feet by the first half of next century, then continue rising even faster. If instead we make moderate shifts in energy and industry — using the kinds of targets that nations have contemplated in international talks but have failed to pursue — sea level could still climb past 12 feet just after 2300. It is hard to imagine what measures might allow many of our great coastal cities to survive a 12-foot increase.

A few things to note here:

  • This paragraph assumes that the predictions based on models are all correct, and that the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) hypothesis is proven, “settled science.”  It’s not really that certain.  Or rather, the models themselves display tremendous uncertainty.
  • Also taken pretty much for granted is the fact that humans are not going to give their economy a thoroughgoing overhaul into the world of Green, so we might as well get ready!
  • Unmentioned is the fact that in many places, e.g. NYC, sea level has been rising steadily for centuries.  In NYC, it has been at a rate of about 1-foot per 100 years.
  • The word ‘could’  is used many times:  this paragraph is a worst-case scenario.

I had a professor of Ancient Art once who liked to say, “Civilizations come: Civilizations go…”  In archaeology, ‘civilization’ is synonymous with ‘city’.  Many cities have seen their harbors silt up, their water supplies disappear, their precincts inundated with lava or sea water.  It’s part of history.  Many other cities have survived for millenia by adjusting and changing.  When the writer says “It is hard to imagine what measures might allow many of our great coastal cities to survive a 12-foot increase,”  he is displaying a lack of insight and imagination.  Yes, it would be hard to imagine how our cities could survive direct hits by meteorites either, but that’s not likely to happen.

I would suggest the following scenario as likely:  The climate will change, but most likely not in the drastic way some scientists predict.  Seas will continue to rise where they are rising now, and perhaps in other places as well, perhaps a bit faster, but slowly, over centuries.  Unlike Holland, where inundation brings national catastrophe approaching eradication, most places can adapt slowly, and they will adapt.  People will make decisions, slowly, haltingly, stupidly or with foresight, about when and where it is worth rebuilding.  Change happens even in NYC – most skyscrapers are not built for the ages. Lower floors can be abandoned or ‘repurposed.’  It all takes time, and we have time, plenty of it.  Things will change.  The only impossibility is keeping them just as they are now.

There is a bright side to all of this.  Think of the economic stimulus potential of a huge program to raise local airports and critical infrastructure above the flood level – the greatest ‘shovel-ready‘ public works program in history!

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