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Sunny day flooding in Miami Beach
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US sea level rise – where the “Three E’s” of our predicament collide

From Hurricane Sandy to the ‘sunny-day flooding’ in Norfolk, Charlestown and Miami Beach, the evidence of sea level rise is increasingly obvious.  Nevertheless, the US Congress continues to deny the reality of climate change, and even at the state level, officials have taken to pulling the blinds down to avoid looking out at the flood waters in the streets outside their office blocks.

Thus far, the heaviest impact of climate change has fallen on those developing countries that bear the least responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions.  Sea level rise is unusual because it is having an early impact on the USA – a country that has just five percent of the world population, but that consumes 25 percent of the world’s energy.  A combination of melting ice and warming seas is raising sea levels around the planet.  But the US east coast has experienced an additional 4-5 inches because the warm Gulfstream current pushes Atlantic water onto the coast.

In an essay for the New York Times, Justin Gillis documents some of the early impacts of sea level rise in the USA:

“For decades, as the global warming created by human emissions caused land ice to melt and ocean water to expand, scientists warned that the accelerating rise of the sea would eventually imperil the United States’ coastline.

“Now, those warnings are no longer theoretical: The inundation of the coast has begun. The sea has crept up to the point that a high tide and a brisk wind are all it takes to send water pouring into streets and homes.

“Federal scientists have documented a sharp jump in this nuisance flooding — often called ‘sunny-day flooding’ — along both the East Coast and the Gulf Coast in recent years. The sea is now so near the brim in many places that they believe the problem is likely to worsen quickly.”

What far too many US politicians fail to accept is that this is just the beginning.  Much greater sea level rise is already baked in.  Three years ago, the scientific consensus was that the world would experience a metre of sea level rise by 2100.  However, every year since then has seen record breaking temperatures.  Accelerating ice melt in Greenland and, most recently, in Antarctica have caused climate scientists to re-think their projections.  It may well turn out that the world faces much greater sea level rise over the course of a few decades rather than a few centuries.  And even if we were to stop burning fossil carbon today, there is nothing we can do to reverse this.  All we can hope to do is to find ways of mitigating the problem.

But this is one of those places where the ‘Three Es’ – Environment, Economy and Energy – come together to render us impotent.  Gillis hints at some of the costs involved in attempting to protect coastal cities from sea level rise:

“Local governments, under pressure from annoyed citizens, are beginning to act. Elections are being won on promises to invest money to protect against flooding. Miami Beach is leading the way, increasing local fees to finance a $400 million plan that includes raising streets, installing pumps and elevating sea walls.”

Despite the high cost, this is akin to children attempting to protect their sandcastles from the incoming tide.  Not knowing how great sea level rise is going to be nor how long it will take to impact our towns and cities, we are unable to know whether a $400 million or a $4000 million investment is needed.

In the UK, the government has already written off several smaller coastal settlements on cost grounds.  Americans seem less disposed to do this for the time being.  But the pressure of low interest rates coupled to increasing climate-related damage to property on the insurance industry is bound to focus minds eventually.  There comes a point where the cost of rebuilding gets too high.  Similarly, there comes a point at which already indebted governments simply cannot afford to put in place the kind of defences that would make insurance viable.  So one way or another, whole communities have to be written off.

Energy provides an additional blow in this story simply because all of the things that humans do to mitigate coastal flooding (building sea walls, raising buildings, replacing drainage systems, etc) rely on an abundance of cheap oil to drive the machinery that does most of the work.  Although the world is currently enjoying a glut of oil that has driven prices down (although prior to 2008, $50 per barrel oil would have been considered expensive) the effect has been massive disinvestment from exploration and production with the result that many analysts now expect shortages and perhaps a doubling in price some time in 2017/18.  So those apparently expensive $400 million flood protection schemes could start to look like bargains by the time anyone gets around to building them.

Worse still, in the event of a sudden spike in energy prices triggering another banking crisis, Western governments – including the US Federal and State governments – may find themselves unable to raise the capital required to build the infrastructure needed to mitigate the impact of sea level rise.

The sad truth is that we have known for decades about the damage that climate change would eventually cause (among other things) sea level rise.  But instead of acting back in the 1970s – when we enjoyed the resources to make an orderly transition – we chose to demand proof.  Well, now the proof is washing up on the streets of US east coast towns and cities every time the tide comes in.  But even now, US Congressmen (and presumably the people who vote for them) choose to ignore the water lapping around their legs rather than face up to the low-speed disaster that is engulfing us.

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