I was watching the tide today and thought of climate change.
Yes, they are different phenomena; the tide is predictable, well-known, and reverses itself like clockwork roughly every six hours, whereas climate change is unpredictable, uncertain, and (still) irreversible. Nevertheless, it serves as a relevant illustration of what we are often overlooking in the climate debate.
The tide moves continuously; slowly and gradually, not suddenly or surprisingly. Watching it, I’m well aware of the water level rising by the minute, even though I might not be able to tell from staring at the water: the short-term fluctuations of the waves drown out the unstoppable tide. But if I mark how far the largest waves reach, I find that after half an hour that area is entirely submerged, and the largest waves reach much higher.
Sitting where I am sitting is not ‒ as the modern terminology goes ‒ “sustainable;” soon enough my feet will touch the water, then my legs, and not long thereafter my whole body will be submerged, until I finally drown. Not good.
But nobody, sitting as I do, remains immobilized by a slowly advancing tide; frozen in place, incapable of taking even the slightest action against this minor and gradual change. Insofar as climate change contributes to sea level rise ‒ an uncontroversial statement ‒ this analogy is not entirely misplaced. Tides and sea level rise are both made of ocean water rising; they are slow and gradual; and most importantly, they allow us to take action well in advance of drowning.
You might think that nobody would make this elementary mistake of ignoring human adaptability ‒ but you’d be surprised how often climate science and environmentalist politicians and activists do. To convince you that I’m not setting up a strawman, here’s a lengthy quote by Jon Gertner, the science writer and journalist whose book The Ice at the End of the World had a big impact on me, sincerely advancing this naive tide-theory of sea level rise:
The catastrophe would manifest over time. First there is water in the basements, gutters and subways; then, storms regularly bringing water into the streets. Year by year, the rise accelerates. Brine infiltrates drinking-water systems and sewer plants; electrical grids spark out. Flood-insurance policies are discontinued, and home values plummet. Row by row, seaside homes are abandoned. Still the rise continues. Large-scale evacuation then becomes imperative — as long as inland cities and funds are available for relocation. In low-lying countries, however, the implications of significant sea level rise, and the occasional storm surges that amplify the floodwaters, move beyond the economic to the existential. ‘On these longer time scales,’’ says Anders Levermann, a sea level expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, ‘the magnitude of the sea-level rise could get so big that we have to evacuate New York, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hamburg and most of the Netherlands.’
This is the global equivalent of me watching the tide gradually soak me, its icy water moving further and further up my legs, my hips, my chest before the waves and the ocean currents carry me away ‒ and yet, I’m not moving. I’m not resisting, grabbing my bag and my bottle with hot tea and moving to a rock further up. Really?
We can be incredibly pessimistic and cynical about what political negotiations in Congress (or internationally) will ever amount to, but do we honestly think that regular folks will have their basements flooded and think: “Well, there’s nothing I can do about that now; I shouldn’t have taken that vacation to Bali or enjoyed steak for all those years ‒ look what my climate emissions have done!” That nobody will do anything about water in the streets, or power plants short-circuited by rising sea levels? That there’s nothing left to do but for homes and entire metropolitan cities to be abandoned, and governments to buy up unsellable properties and evacuate its inhabitants?
Of course not.
Sea Level Rises in Perspective
In her book from last year, Vanishing Ice: Glaciers, Ice Sheets, and Rising Seas, the Columbia-trained and NASA-affiliated geologist and climate scientist Vivien Gornitz writes:
The worldwide menace of sea level rise looms over the tens of millions of people who live along the world’s shorelines and who face an ever-growing vulnerability to coastal storm floods, made worse by rising sea levels.
Everything Gornitz writes here is technically correct ‒ but highly misleading. The tens of millions (or hundreds of millions, depending on how strict your definition is) living close to the ocean already face that vulnerability to storms and floods. What’s more, they have protection against it: highly sophisticated warning systems to alert them; sturdy houses capable of withstanding most of what Mother Nature throws at them; diesel generators to ensure access to electricity even if some power lines are destroyed; elaborate insurance policies and financial markets that redistribute risk and help to rebuild property and structures that were damaged.
And the vulnerability is of course not “ever-growing.” While changes in the severity and the frequency of storms, floods, and hurricanes may be increasing because of human-made climate change, we have so far not been able to detect an upward trend in damages. What’s worse, what it means to be “vulnerable” is not given primarily by the strength of nature’s forces, but that strength discounted by our ability to protect against it. And that ability has multiplied several times over ‒ and will again, unless we severely restrict our use of energy or fossil fuels or hemorrhage ourselves with harmful climate policies.
Yes, Gornitz is correct that rising sea levels would likely make the worst floods even worse, and warmer mid- and west-Atlantic waters fuel even stronger hurricanes, but again it’s not like humans stand bewildered and suspended in place incapable of reacting to it. We are not facing a scenario like in the 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow where a wave probably fifty meters high sweeps through New York City and other places.
Instead, the most extreme climate projections talk about a gradual, less than 2-centimeter-a-year in global sea level rise. Eric Rignot, the U.C. Irvine physicist and climate researcher specializing in finding the theoretical maximum effect of climate change ‒ i.e. absolute worst-case scenarios ‒ thinks that a 5-foot (1.5 meters) sea level rise by the year 2100 is more likely than the conservative IPCC (the international consensus of “the” scientists) projects. The scientific consensus numbers include about a 4-inch sea level rise per decade in the worst-case (and highly unlikely) scenario, and about 2 inches per decade under more plausible scenarios ‒ equivalent to between 1.5 feet and 3 feet by 2100. Yes, the median is not the message ‒ the regional maximum is ‒ but it tells us something about the magnitude and more importantly the speed with which sea level rises happen.
The tide I’m watching moves about 8 feet 6 inches every six hours ‒ several times more than total sea level over the next eighty years. Do we really think that an 8 foot 10 inch tide in the next ten years will spell doom for our society? Or a little over 9 feet the next? Even at high tide, there’s much margin left before the water would reach the top of the protective rock barrier that separates the ocean from the adjacent road.
Take the low-lying Florida, always a poster child for the dangers of sea level rise. Today it has tidal changes of between 5 and 8 feet. Do we really think that Florida is doomed ‒ unlivable, a real-world Atlantis ‒ if the tide were something like 5’8” or 8’8” by 2030, which is what Rignot’s extreme predictions amount to?
Could we really not, after some inevitable future storm or flooding that destroys some houses and electricity poles, not build back better? Can we not manage our increasingly complicated affairs with a little more water, a little less ice, or a little higher temperatures?
In geological or climate terms, decades or even centuries are brief periods. For human beings, and certainly for human societies, they are extremely long times. We can construct record-breaking buildings in shorter time than that; completely revolutionize the way we process information (smartphones) in less time; reconsider how we look at homosexuality, color-blindness, autism or putting-pineapples-on-pizza in shorter time frames ‒ South Korea even went from a poor backwater country to a high-tech rich country in about four decades!
Surely, we can build dams and sea barriers and storm surge barriers if it turns out that sea level rises are matching the projections of the IPCC scientists or even those going beyond the scientific consensus.
Adaption and sensationalism
After all those pitfalls, seriously distorting probable ‒ or even possible ‒ outcomes, Gornitz still has the audacity to write that her book
looks beyond sensational media coverage or dry technical literature to depict the dramatic changes rapidly transforming the cryosphere by illustrating the mounting evidence of the expanding meltdown.
She’s doing nothing of the sort when she implies that millions of people and their homes will unavoidably be underwater. Or when she labels gradual changes to vast expanses of ice as “meltdown” (conjuring up images of the rapid collapse of a nuclear fission process gone out of control). It might be correct to call the changes to the world’s ice “meteoric” in geologic time frames, but what matters for humanity is human time frames by which nothing that now happens to the world’s poles and ice caps resembles the immediate and explosive impacts of a meteorite.
There is a way to do serious and sensible environmentalism, and it involves the descriptive and scientific observations that writers and researchers like Levermann, Rignot or Gornitz occasionally engage in. But their results must be discounted by humanity’s ability to protect itself. If the climate gets 10 or 20% more hostile, while our ability to master the elements doubles, we are less ‒ not more ‒ “vulnerable.”
Adaptation matters. Economic growth matters. Feats of engineering most certainly matter, as do flexibility and ingenuity of unregulated markets. Everyone from serious climate researchers to less-serious climate activists seem to forget that.