March 1, 2024

Have we been talking about climate change all wrong?

For decades, environmental advocates have been urging governments, businesses and individuals to take drastic action to limit climate change and prevent Earth’s average temperature from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) during pre-industrial times. .

Now, some climate experts advocate a different goal: Instead, they want to create limits on sea level rise, setting the upper limit at about 2 feet or a little higher, depending on location. Relative sea levels along the US coast have already risen by about a foot and could rise another six by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and methane are not significantly reduced.

“Sea level rise is an easily understood impact of climate change, as it is direct, visible and growing”, says Rafe Pomerance, former environmental specialist for the federal government, co-author of an opinion article on this topic and who has urged policymakers to recognize the importance of rising seas, especially in Florida, which is particularly vulnerable.

Why is sea level rise dangerous?

Rising Earth temperatures expand ocean molecules and melt land glaciers around the world, raising water levels. Shifting the focus to the damage this water produces locally makes sense, says Pomerance, because it “directly describes the people’s lives and properties that are at stake.”

Although the US coast represents only 10% of the continental landmass, about 40% of the population currently lives near it. The rise of the oceans is also important globally, as low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands face “a death sentence”, as water infiltrates vast areas if the current trajectory is not changed, agreement with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

The 1.5 degrees Celsius warming goal “is meaningless to most Americans,” agrees Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Climate Change Communication Program at Yale University. People often mistakenly think that such a small number is inconsequential because they don’t know that average temperatures have been so stable over the last 10,000 years that a change of a single degree has “led to the rise and fall of empires,” says he. Additionally, there is confusion in the US about a target not expressed in Fahrenheit.

Rising seas are among the most important effects of climate change, says Alice C. Hill, an energy and environment expert at the nonprofit Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., and co-author of the op-ed. Higher coastal water levels not only damage homes near the ocean, but also impact communities even miles inland, she says. Roads, public transport, sanitation systems, water treatment plants and drinking water wells, power grids and agricultural fields can be damaged. Additionally, during hurricanes, storms that begin at a higher ocean level can greatly increase destruction.

(Learn more about how rising temperatures will affect life on Earth.)

Communicating these impacts is important to encourage faster adoption of climate solutions like renewable energy, says Pomerance. The concentration on temperature did not sufficiently motivate the change, which is why last year was the hottest on record, with global temperatures approaching the limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Individuals can use the websites of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the nonprofit Climate Central to determine how much ocean rise will affect their specific coastline, which is influenced by numerous factors, including topography and ocean currents. The free sites allow users to digitally raise local water levels, one foot at a time, to observe the effects of flooding.

Using flood maps from the federal government is a less accurate forecast, Hill says, because “the maps are old and not updated and typically do not reflect climate risk.”

Understanding what will be lost

Scientists are increasingly documenting how communities are being harmed by rising sea levels. Scientists at the University of Washington who combined sea level projections with topography along the Washington coast found that some parts of Seattle and other areas will be permanently underwater if the worst-case projections are realized. Even at lower levels, certain drinking water wells and agricultural fields will be affected.

“There may be places where agriculture is no longer viable,” says Guillaume Mauger, a scientist from the university’s Climate Impacts Group who worked on the projections.

The Florida Keys, a chain of low-lying islands south of Miami, have estimated that nearly half of the county’s roads will be at least occasionally impassable in less than 25 years under moderate estimates of ocean rise. Certain parts of New York City are also threatened by a rise that experts call the fastest in the area in 1,500 years.

These changes will trigger a five- to 18-fold increase in the number of Americans moving away from affected communities, researchers at Florida State University recently calculated. Experts are already mapping out “managed withdrawal” options for parts of the Louisiana Gulf Coast, Houston and other U.S. communities when water becomes unsustainable.

People may decide to leave communities long before they become permanently underwater, Hill says, because periodic flooding, like the one already seen in Miami, makes everyday activities difficult. She fears this could sink property values ​​in many areas.

How to communicate a global crisis

Not everyone agrees that rising oceans constitute an ideal climate communications message.

“There are no silver bullets” when it comes to getting people to recognize the imminent effects and urgency of action, says Leiserowitz. People in the central US and other countries are not directly affected, and those within a few miles of the coast may not realize they will be affected. “Climate change is difficult to communicate… [A person’s] the ability to understand what is happening on this planet is incredibly limited at all times,” says Leiserowitz.

Recent unpublished research by Matto Mildenberger of the University of California, Santa Barbara and others confirms this challenge. Showing maps of local projections of sea level rise to the year 2100 produced mixed results. In fact, concern was reduced in households most likely to be flooded, but increased – along with support for expensive climate mitigation policies – when people were told that traffic and travel times would increase due to roads damaged by rising waters.

This follows an earlier study by Mildenberger which found that people who were told that their own home was at high risk of flooding nevertheless thought it would be other people, more geographically distant, who would be harmed by climate change.

Still, it’s worth focusing on water damage rather than rising temperatures, says Hill. Communities will be greatly altered or irreparably damaged by coastal flooding, but many residents are not paying enough attention.

This increase will inevitably lead to the loss of land and services; the greater the increase, the greater the loss.

“How much loss is too much for communities to accept and what is needed to keep sea level rise below that?” Pomerance says. “This question has never been explicitly asked before.”

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