When we’re faced with threats of inundation, our reaction has traditionally been to build walls. Sea-level rises, storms and floods have been held back with solid barriers, seawalls and dykes. We have used walls to keep out people, too: the fact that this has failed throughout the ages has not stopped its recent revival in the United States.
The climate crisis threatens global sea-level rises of well over half a metre if we fail to act, while tidal storm surges will reach many times that height.
According to the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2013 (What the new IPCC report says about sea level rise), under scenarios where emissions stabilise by the end of the century (RCP4.5) or soon after (RCP6.0), sea levels are projected to rise by between 32 and 62 cm (47cm on average). If If governments achieve drastic emissions cuts from 2020 onward (RCP2.6), sea levels are projected to rise by between 26 and 54 cm
Fiercer and more frequent hurricanes will batter us.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Global Fluid Dynamics Lab (GFDL) in 2019 (Global Warming and Hurricanes), in the Atlantic, it is premature to conclude with high confidence that human activities–and particularly greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming–have already had a detectable impact on hurricane activity.
Millions of people who live in areas where crops have failed and wells run dry will be forced to flee their homes.
We’ve heard this before. In 2005, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that imminent sea-level rises, increased hurricanes, and desertification caused by “man-made global warming” would lead to massive population disruptions. By 2010, some 50 million “climate refugees” would be frantically fleeing from those regions of the globe. Not only did the areas in question fail to produce a single “climate refugee,” by 2010, population levels for those regions were actually still soaring. In many cases, the areas that were supposed to be producing waves of “climate refugees” and becoming uninhabitable turned out to be some of the fastest-growing places on Earth.
But walls will not work with the climate crisis, even if the temptation to try to keep out the consequences, rather than dealing with the causes, is as strong as ever.
And yet the Hungarian border wall (see linked article above) successfully diverted economic migrants from Africa and the middle east around the country.
The prospect of a “climate apartheid”, in which the rich insulate themselves from the impacts of the climate emergency while the poor and vulnerable are abandoned to their fate, is now real. According to the UN, climate-related disasters are already taking place at the rate of one a week, though only a few of them – such as Hurricane Dorian – get reported.
As quoted above, the NOAA, who are the experts, have yet to find a statistical correlation between global warming and increased severity of hurricanes. Those who connect hurricanes to global warming without evidence are propagating fake news.
Nowhere on Earth will be untouched, with the number of people facing water shortages set to leap from 3.6 billion today to 5 billion by 2050. At least 100 million people will be plunged into poverty in the next decade, and in the decades following that, rising sea levels will swamp coastal cities from Miami to Shanghai, wiping $1tn a year from the global economy. Agriculture will become increasingly difficult, with more people displaced as a result, searching for liveable conditions elsewhere.
According to the NOAA, large areas in the west and southwest U.S. have experienced abnormally dry to exceptional drought conditions that stress water resources and present challenges to farmers, ranchers, water resource managers, and energy utilities. These water deficits appear to be part of a long-term trend toward drier conditions in the west and southwest.
Currently, 20 times more is being spent on reducing emissions than building resilience to the effects of rising temperatures and extreme weather, according to the Commission on Adaptation. That seems patently unbalanced, and neglecting adaptation is putting millions of people and their livelihoods in danger now, as well as storing up problems for the future.
Preventing the problem seems more valuable than preparing to live with it. That said, Richmond, a low lying city just south of Vancouver in British Columbia, has already begun preparing for higher sea levels.
What’s more, money invested today will pay dividends in the near future. Spending less than $2tn by 2030 would result in more than $7tn saved in damage avoided and better economic growth. These sums sound huge, but are a fraction of the amount the world will spend on infrastructure in the next decade.
Money “invested” in government programs has a poor track record in paying any dividends, far less yielding “better economic growth”. On the other hand, pure capitalism will lead, as it has been doing, to a tragedy of the commons.
And modern adaptation means more than building seawalls. Restoring natural features, such as mangrove swamps and wetlands, can do far more to protect coastal regions, as well as nurturing biodiversity and tourism. New technology will play a key role, as early warnings of extreme weather give people time to take shelter or protect their property. Engineering climate-ready infrastructure encompasses everything from porous pavements to urban trees to provide shade.
And, as pointed out in this article, such adaptation tactics are affordable in affluent countries, but not in their poorer cousins.
What’s clear is that we need to adapt and build resilience now, because climate change is no longer a comfortably faraway problem. The predicted ravages have come sooner than expected: heatwaves over much of the northern hemisphere last year, floods and extreme weather in south-east Asia, Arctic ice melting at unprecedented levels this summer, and Hurricane Dorian, one of the strongest ever recorded. Worse still, some of these effects are likely themselves to increase temperatures further, in a series of feedback loops. The fires in the Amazon are destroying a vital “carbon sink”.
It’s hard to take this article seriously when this last claim has been debunked by the New York Times (What Satellite Imagery Tells Us About the Amazon Rain Forest Fires): “Scientists studying satellite image data from the fires in the Amazon rain forest said that most of the fires are burning on agricultural land where the forest had already been cleared.”
It is tempting, in the face of these events, to suggest that the game is up for trying to prevent climate change. The emissions reductions needed to stop it are so vast, and the changes to our way of life so total, that it may seem like all we can do is adapt to the consequences. The hastening prospect of a “climate apartheid” is morally revolting as well as politically alarming, and could lead to a kind of paralysis.
The challenge of reducing CO2 emissions can only be solved by the biggest emitters.
Trying to adapt to the consequences of climate change while continuing to burn fossil fuels is like trying to mop up an overflowing sink while the taps are still running. As long as we continue to pump CO2 into the air, we are fuelling rises in temperature. We cannot outrun global heating any more than we can hold back the rising sea with dykes. And the fires blazing through the Amazon show that without action, things could easily get much worse.
As stated above, the fires in the Amazon are largely unrelated to global warming. Also, we can hold back the rising sea with dykes, as the Netherlands has been doing for centuries.
It can seem that in a world of finite resources, we need to make a binary decision about where to put our efforts. That is an illusion. The truth is that dealing with the climate emergency requires an across-the-board approach, for the simple reason that all of our resources – economic, physical, social – are at stake. If we do not throw everything we can at the problem, there won’t be much left anyway. In short, there is no wall high enough to keep out the consequences of inaction on emissions.
In a world of finite resources, we absolutely must choose where to expend them. All of our resources are not “at stake”. In fact, for much of the world, the more climate change there is, the better off we will be. See Global Warming: Crisis? What Crisis? where I discuss a Moody’s Analytics report that says that Sweden, Canada, and Germany will all benefit from global warming, and that the US will have negligible harm done to it’s GDP.
This article is typical of news articles about global warming in that it mixes facts with overblown predictions and downright falsehoods. As stated above, even the UN has been caught crying wolf. If you want to convince people that we should spend tax money on fighting or adapting to global warming, stop promulgating fake news about hurricanes and forest fires.