Rising Tides – Festival of Doom

November 25, 2012

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!


Global Warming Sinks Island Republic

July 19, 2011

The NYTimes had an OpEd piece today telling the sad tale of a tiny island republic, Nauru, that is doomed to obliteration, because of global warming, it would seem.  Reading the entire article closely, however, the cause is not so clear-cut.  The article is typical of many that appear in the news and advocacy press, so I am going through it point by point, my comments in bold.  The plain text of the original piece can be read here.

I FORGIVE you if you have never heard of my country…

But make no mistake; we are a sovereign nation, with our own language, customs and history dating back 3,000 years….an indispensible cautionary tale about life in a place with hard ecological limits...  Yes, cultures that take root in locations with such limits are fragile.  Consider the vanished Easter Island societies. 

Phosphate mining, first by foreign companies and later our own, cleared the lush tropical rainforest that once covered our island’s interior, scarring the land and leaving only a thin strip of coastline for us to live on…  This is certainly the most serious ecological disturbance that was visited on the island.  If not for that, the people could live elsewhere on the island, and the state of the coastal zone would not be so critical for them.  Nothing to do with climate.

I am not looking for sympathy, but rather warning you what can happen when a country runs out of options. The world is headed down a similar path with the relentless burning of coal and oil, which is altering the planet’s climate…  Not clear why the rest of the world is taking the same path by burning fossil fuels.  Clearly, the industrial world has many things it can do better, but the problems of Nauru are not the problems of most of the world.

Climate change also threatens the very existence of many countries in the Pacific, where the sea level is projected to rise three feet or more by the end of the century. Already, Nauru’s coast, the only habitable area, is steadily eroding  The sea level rise that is claimed so far, if it is accurate, is quite small.  Why would it be responsible for such damage to Nauru already?   More likely, the destruction of the natural land cover has led to a drainage situation in which the land is steadily and rapidly eroded.  The island is being washed away.  As for the three-foot sea level rise, that is a worst-case scenario that should be taken with many grains of salt.

…and communities in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have been forced to flee their homes to escape record tides. The low-lying nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands may vanish entirely within our grandchildren’s lifetimes.   They may vanish, and they may not…  Hasn’t happened yet.  People are running from flooding, not ‘record tides.’  One reason they flee is that most urban development has been taking place in flood-prone areas, despite the advice of engineers and geographers.   In many of these places, the land is sinking, which makes things worse.

Similar climate stories are playing out on nearly every continent, where a steady onslaught of droughts, floods and heat waves, which are expected to become even more frequent and intense with climate change, have displaced millions of people and led to widespread food shortages.   The usual litany, recited without any support.  Droughts, floods, and heat waves are always with us.  More people, more urbanization in the wrong place, better reporting – more disaster.  “Expected to become more frequent…” is simply a crystal ball prediction, not a proven fact.  Just pile on the horror stories…

The changes have already heightened competition over scarce resources, and could foreshadow life in a world where conflicts are increasingly driven by environmental catastrophes….    There is always competition for scarce resources: which ones are at issue here?  Water?  That’s been a concern for decades, rightly so, and has nothing to do with climate change.  Food costs?  The subsidies for ethanol have more to do with global food riots than does climate change since they resulted in a reduction in food grain exports.

The stakes are too high to implement these measures only after a disaster is already upon us...   Unfortunately for Nauru, if the global warming predictions are correct, it’s already too late to help the island escape the effects of climate change.

Nauru has begun an intensive program to restore the damage done by mining, and my administration has put environmental sustainability at the center of our policymaking.   Good show!  For such a small and vulnerable environment, that’s what is needed, especially forest restoration.

I wish the people of Nauru all the best with their efforts.


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