12 July 2018

Rising Tides: Urgency Needed!

“October 2016 King Tide Swallows Parts of South Florida,” (Oct. 17, 2016). An October 15 full moon and swells from Hurricane Nicole made for an extraordinary king tide over the weekend. Reporter Jess Swanson captured these images in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood as residents explored their flooded communities. “October 2016 King Tide Swallows Parts of South Florida,” (Oct. 17, 2016). An October 15 full moon and swells from Hurricane Nicole made for an extraordinary king tide over the weekend. Reporter Jess Swanson captured these images in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood as residents explored their flooded communities. http://www.browardpalmbeach.com/slideshow/october-2016-king-tide-swallows-parts-of-south-florida-8162616/4

Scott Pruitt, who until last week was President Trump’s Environmental Agency (EPA) Administrator, resigned amidst numerous ethics scandals. Yet he was ruthlessly effective in carrying his boss’s mandate to dismantle as many Obama-era regulations as possible. His deputy Andrew Wheeler, now the acting head of the EPA, will no doubt continue where he left off.

Of course, this was predictable. Pruitt, when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, sued the EPA fourteen times. He had always been a staunch climate change denier. In an article that lists seven ways Scott Pruitt’s legacy will move ahead at the hands of his successor, the author argues that without the weight of scandals over him Wheeler will implement Trump’s deregulatory zeal even more effectively.

On top of that list was Pruitt’s lobbying for Trump to pull the US out of the Paris Accord and to dramatically downplay any connection between the rise of human-related greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and global warming. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists contribute to and agree with the ongoing reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007). The IPCC was formed by two United Nation agencies in 1988 and its reports comb though all the most recent published studies in the field. The hundreds of scientists who contribute to this ongoing work all volunteer their services to the IPCC. They do so, believing in the urgency and crucial importance of their work as a way to reduce the suffering of future generations inhabiting this planet.

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment came out in 2013 and the most complete summary of three Working Group contributions to this assessment was published in 2015 (“Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report,” available for download here). Perhaps this summary captures best the kind of tone exhibited by these ongoing reports (the Sixth Assessment is due to be published in September 2019):


“Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”


In this blog post I want to specifically examine the damage that sea level rise is already having on the United States eastern seaboard. But first, a look at new report on the accelerated melting of ice in Antarctica.


Polar ice runoff accelerating

We know that Arctic ice is melting faster and faster, if only because for the first time in human history ships can now cross that region in the summer months. But that ice is mostly sea ice, that is, icebergs or mammoth ice blocks floating in the sea. One of the big exceptions is Greenland, where the ice is melting fast, but not necessarily all going out to sea for now. Still, a recent study found that between 2011 and 2014, a trillion tons of ice has poured into the sea.

By contrast, Antarctica is a continent covered by ninety percent of the Earth’s ice, and were all those ice sheets to melt, the oceans would rise about 200 feet. Some of it is three miles thick, so it is not likely to see much of it melting for several hundred years. But the pace of melting is accelerating, and that speed has tripled in the last decade.

An article in Vox helps us to visualize the extent of this melting. An Olympic-size swimming pool contains 2,500 tons of water. Every second, Antarctica is losing three times that amount, which means that every forty hours, it looses one gigaton (or a billion tons) of ice. That is definitely more than the peak flow of Niagara Falls, and it is accelerating.


Eastern seaboard especially threatened

Because of the many factors involved, scientists cannot predict exactly to what extent the seas will rise in this century. The two direct causes are a) expansion of water as it warms; b) ice melt. But the main cause behind these is the rise of greenhouse gas emissions due to human activity. A NASA article (“Empirical Projections”) considers various studies and estimates that seas could rise anywhere between 0.2 meters and 2 meters. But if a midway position around one meter might seem conservative, even that would spell catastrophe for most of today’s human populations, which lives on the sea coasts.

As might be expected, this would affect poorer countries much more than wealthier ones. Miami and New Orleans will suffer from rising tides with more frequent and more powerful hurricanes, but the U.S. will no doubt find ways to lessen the impact of this rise on its population.

Not so for the Bay of Bengal, where almost one in four humans live. People from eastern India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Sumatra, all have to share in the pollution, which is enormous, and in the deadly consequences of dramatic sea rise. Lands in the various deltas is sinking, salt water is encroaching more and more on agricultural lands, and food production is threatened.

Still, the rate of sea level rise is projected to be higher on the U.S. east coast. An article published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies reports that “from 2011 to 2015, sea level rose up to 5 inches — an inch per year — in some locales from North Carolina to Florida.” This is much higher than most other coasts around the world. Why? It seems that three factors contribute to this: “a slowing Gulf Stream, shifts in a major North Atlantic weather pattern, and the effects of El Niño climate cycles.”

 Miami already suffers from what is now termed “king tides,” or flooding from unusually high tides. Another study this year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated that by the end of the century this will happen every other day along the east coast. Then the Yale article adds this:


“Scientists have been steadily increasing their estimates of how much sea level overall will rise this century from melting glaciers and polar ice sheets. The current best estimates are in the range of 3 to 6 feet.”


 Naturally, this would mean much higher sea level for the east coast and other places like the Gulf of Bengal where changing monsoon patterns have markedly heated and expanded the northern Indian Ocean. But in the Atlantic, you also have the Gulf Stream that is slowing down. This current of warm tropical water, about 100 to 200 miles from the coast “whisks water away from the eastern seaboard.” As recent research shows, its slowing down means that sea levels rise along the coast, and this is likely to increase as Arctic and Greenland ice dump huge quantities of fresh water into the North Atlantic.

Add to that the effect Pacific El Niño patterns have on the Jet Stream and wind patterns moving across the US to the Atlantic, but I have no room here to explain. Suffice it to say we have a convergence of factors that will wreak havoc in New York, Boston, and other eastern cities in the decades to come.

And then you have an increase in more devastating hurricanes, like Sandy in Oct./Nov. 2012. Here’s an article from May 2017 on that same Yale website, this time by Gilbert M. Gaul, who has won two Pulitzer Prizes and been a finalist four other times:


“Sea level rise played an important role in Sandy, with historic flooding from Delaware to the Battery in lower Manhattan. Upward of 100,000 people experienced flooding who otherwise would have been dry, researchers estimate. Most late season hurricanes veer out to sea by the time they reach the mid-Atlantic. Sandy took a hard left-hand turn, crashing ashore near Atlantic City and pushing a five-foot plume up the bays, into places water had never reached before.”


As you might imagine, insurance and real estate companies have taken notice. The federal insurance plan (National Flood Insurance Program, NFIP), even before Sandy was basically bankrupt. Zillow, a real estate firm, conducted a study that estimated that with a likely sea level rise of six feet two million homes worth about $900 billion along the eastern seaboard would literally be underwater by 2100. But again, we can figure that out and find a way to pay for it. A large percentage of those homes are secondary residences along the New Jersey shore. Cities like New York are already investing hundreds of millions of dollars in storm mitigation infrastructure.


Ethical and theological conclusion?

At the end of 2016, I posted a two-part blog on Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Laudate Si, which literally translates as “Praise be to you,” but with the subtitle, “On Care for Our Common Home.” There I did my best to unpack the pope’s “theology of planet care.”

By way of summary, by virtue of God’s creation God has delegated great responsibility to his human creatures to care for the earth he designed for them. They have plainly failed in many aspects of their divine calling, but it is not too late for common action:


“The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it” (18-19).


The pope’s phrase “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes” ties into his conviction that people of all faiths and of no faith – humanity in its entirety – must wake up to this crisis and work together. On this point, note that I posted a blog in 2012 on “Muslims Investing in our Planet” and I co-edited an issue on Islam and Ecology that year in the journal Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture and Ecology (see here). I have done less with Christians, but here is a short piece on evangelicals and ecology. For a statement by over 300 senior evangelical leaders on climate change, see here.

Certainly the three Abrahamic faiths emphasize the solidarity of the human race and the divine imperative to love God and love our neighbor, whoever and wherever on the planet he or she might be. It’s out of that imperative that I end with a note of urgency. What strikes me the most in what I learned for this piece is how various factors impinging on the climate are accelerating in their intensity and interactivity with one another. Less than a decade ago, scientists were talking about two or three feet of sea level rise as a worst-case scenario. Now six feet seems no longer an extreme prediction.

This only makes the Paris Accord all the more urgent – and the US pulling out of it all the more tragic, though it’s likely that states and large corporations will step in to realize similar goals. Many Pacific islands and nations will likely disappear before 2100. Droughts and flooding in various places will exact a staggering human toll. As people of faith in particular, we must not remain silent. Following Pope Francis, we must also lead the way in making “changes of lifestyle, production and consumption.” We must also pressure our politicians to sideline the use of fossil fuels and dramatically expand the use of clean energy as first steps.