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The Human Toll of Sea Level Rise: What the 2014 National Climate Assessment Doesn’t Say about It (But We Can)

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The good news about the 2014 National Climate Assessment (NCA) is that, unlike past assessments, it is able to connect climate change much more directly to our lives. The authors have looked well past the iconic, canary-in-a-coal-mine sectors (native salmon, maple syrup) into many aspects of American life.

This post is part of a series on the National Climate Assessment. Learn more about climate change where you live by attending a UCS webinar.

This post is part of a series on the National Climate Assessment. Learn more about climate change where you live by attending a UCS webinar.

The bad news is that the NCA can do so, not just because scientific understanding has grown, but because our recent raw experience of climate change here in the U.S. has, too.  We’re in it; this is an assessment of now. And in light of that, I’d like to stand on the truly tremendous foundation of the NCA and shout it a little louder.

To the coast

I live near, love, and think a lot about the coast, so my focus in reading the NCA is on what it has to say about coastal risks, impacts, and adaptation. The report drives home some great messages:

  • The coastal chapter talks plainly about uneven social vulnerability, the inequities cropping up as people try to cope with sea level rise and recover from coastal damages. It motivates us, e.g., to guard against trends that would see socially vulnerable groups disappear from the coasts.  
  • It discusses vulnerable ecosystems and the risk of “tipping points,” or thresholds beyond which rapid ecosystem change is in motion and collapse is possible. I’m partial to messaging that reminds us not to dither. 
  • The state of coastal adaptation section neatly lays out that barriers to adaptation are rife, while still calling for the heady concept of “transformational adaptation.” I’m all in.

End to end, the NCA provides everything one wants from a scientific assessment in a streamlined, powerful read.  Its web interface is gorgeous and compelling.  And yet…

The people part

The NCA can be a foundation for telling the many humans stories of sea level rise along our crowded coasts. (Photo: Bryan Reese)

As the NCA tells us, more than half of all Americans live in coastal communities, the water is rising and picking up pace, and we are far behind in adapting to the sea level rise we have set in motion, let alone in slowing the heat-trapping emissions that determine the future rate of acceleration. This stuff matters.

But I felt at times like I was reading part of the story, the part without all the people. To my ear the clarion call of the NCA, at least on coastal impacts and adaptation, is muted: the nearness of many changes and the seriousness for certain places and for millions of real people are simply harder to grasp from the report than the situation demands. (Yes, this is unfair to the NCA. More below.)

The coastal chapter thoughtfully lays out the important subjects of “coastal lifelines at risk” (vital but vulnerable coastal infrastructure, like evacuation routes and power plants) and “economic disruption” (the risks to key economic assets, like ports). But it largely skips what are, for many of us, more basic and meaningful discussions. Here are some examples of what the “people part” of the coastal story might cover:

  • I wanted to see more specific connections that drive home the scope and urgency of our sea level rise problem. I wanted to read about the nearly 20 percent of Miami-Dade County that could face permanent inundation by 2050, and to better understand what that means, well within the lifetime of a mortgage, for the people who live there. I wanted to see charts like the one below, e.g., emphasizing the population living within the foreseeable reach of sea-level.

Coastal-States-at-Risk-from-Sea-Level-Rise

  • I hoped the NCA would help us better understand what is happening with coastal communities on the front line of sea level rise – the coastal “life” for which the “lifeline” is needed. Things like: here are today’s regular flooding impacts on places where we live and work. Here is how that flooding will rapidly increase in just the next couple of decades. Here is how, in reality, sea level rise can render places along our coasts unlivable decades before any late-century projections of permanent inundation.
  • In addition to the serious risks of economic disruption, people need a sense of the potential of sea level rise to uproot lives, to undermine the social networks that help people cope, and to tear the fabric of communities.  Hurricane Sandy caused great economic disruption, but in 10 years when that is all but forgotten, thousands and thousands of people will be able to tell you how their lives and communities were changed forever by that storm.
  • I wanted the NCA to more clearly couch the low-end projections of sea level rise. For example, one foot of sea level rise by 2100 will require substantial emission reductions from our current trajectory, and effectively no melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. That is to say, magic. Yes, as the NCA suggests, decision makers should draw on a range of sea level rise scenarios, depending on the risk tolerance of the decision at hand. But I can’t think of a decision for which one foot of SLR by 2100 would be a responsible scenario, other than “whether to build a sand castle here.”
  • And I wanted the NCA to drop from the national vantage point down to some of the places that we know are ground zero for sea level rise, spend some time there, and talk frankly about what lies ahead and what is needed – not in regional chapters, but prominently in the national narrative. What lies ahead for Southeast Florida, for example, is stark, shocking even, and it will take a sustained national response to begin to see Florida through to a future of sea level rise resilience.

Making good on the NCA

What I want is what the rest of us need to deliver. It is the job of the NCA to deliver a new body of knowledge, based on the latest science, that helps us better understand our country in a changing climate, not to put that science in the purely human terms that matter most to us. But with nearly a decade between the first and second National Assessments (2000 and 2009), and plenty of other sand in the gears, critical time has been lost when we as a country could have been supporting leading edge climate research, coming to terms with the findings, and moving forward on emissions reductions and resilience building. 

Instead, Americans are at all different places in their level of engagement and concern. We are playing catch up, with so much to learn, overcome, embrace, and act on, all at once. For this, the 2014 Assessment is the best resource we have and we should listen closely. We should ensure that the next assessment has the sustained resources it needs to dive deeply on what matters most. And we should challenge ourselves to build on the NCA now, and tell the human stories of climate change, in every form we can.

Posted in: Global Warming Tags: ,

About the author: Erika Spanger-Siegfried is a senior analyst in the Climate & Energy program at UCS. She currently manages UCS’s coastal and Mountain West climate impacts projects, designed to shed light through new research and outreach on ongoing local impacts, current efforts to cope, and the urgency of high-level action. Erika formerly managed the Energy-Water Initiative (EW3) and, prior to that, the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment, a research effort to explore climate change, impacts, and solutions in the northeastern United States. She holds a master’s degree in energy and environmental analysis from Boston University. See Erika's full bio.

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  • http://www.dramaticsustainability.com Mimi Katzenbach

    Great piece, Erika. I, too, caught McKibben on NPR, Doug, and was struck by his statement, “The scientists have done their job.” Indeed, you have. Scientists have given us our tragic diagnosis.

    As someone on the arts side of sustainability, I think we need to bring the science and the arts — and scientists and artists – together to do exactly what you are calling for, Erika, to explore and express human responses to the many dimensions of the tragedy of human caused climate chaos and catastrophe, including, and critically, audacious, bold visions of the best outcomes for this tragic stage (as it were) in human life on earth. A Dickens ‘Worst of times, Best of Times’ project of scientists and artists collaborating to help us face the worst case scenarios and together dare to imagine audacious, bold visions of best outcomes, best creative, salutary responses.

    Bringing the science and the creatives together is one way of developing environmental educator David Orr’s idea of “full spectrum sustainability.” Artist and scientists giving us the “full spectrum” of possibilities for human responses to the tragedy of climate chaos.

    In my view, when it comes to the climate chaos (it is a much better term) I think we are expecting too much from scientists, and I fear not enough from creatives. A balance of scientific reality with creative imagination would be my idea of ‘full spectrum’ sustainability.

    When seas are rising, it is our cue for the remarkable human imagination to overflow with possibilities for how to act.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/erika-spanger-siegfried.html Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Mimi, Thanks for your comment — I love where you’re going and hope you can bring the artist community with you! The situation *does* require a vision of the future that goes well beyond what the scientific community alone can offer. Are you familiar with the Rebuild By Design initiative? Worth perusing. http://www.rebuildbydesign.org/

    • Aaron

      I was watching James Cameron’s “Years of living Dangerously” last night, and Leslie Stahl was in Greenland and said that the ice is melting 5 times faster than 20 years ago, it’s difficult to process such information without utter despair. Because about half of the US, like political conservatives like Marco Rubio, don’t even accept the science. It doesn’t seem to matter how compelling and obvious the science gets. These climate-change deniers and doubters also, unfortunately, usually have strong disdain for the arts. So as much as I agree with you, I don’t know that it’s possible to change their ignorance. Seems to me we are just rearranging the chairs on another Cameron work, the Titanic.

  • Aaron

    I don’t understand how 150,000,000+ can afford dealing with all of those slimy insurance companies. In Florida we had a modest little place in Hernando county and with the sinkhole issue also, the insurance was totally unaffordable, not to mention they usually don’t payout properly even in there’s a claim. Surely, they will use this report to rip-off people even more. I’m assuming the rich somehow swindle the rest of the tax-payers to cover their mansions before/after a storm.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/erika-spanger-siegfried.html Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Aaron, thanks for weighing in. You’ve raised such a huge concern – the affordability of homeowner’s insurance – one that I know millions of us share. When it comes to sea level rise and coastal risk, the system definitely needs fixing and there are no easy answers. I can’t speak to the private insurance industry in FL, but you might be interested in this report that UCS released last summer on flood insurance more broadly: “Overwhelming Risk: Rethinking Flood Insurance in a World of Rising Seas”. http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/impacts/flood-insurance-sea-level-rise.html

      • Aaron

        Thanks for the link, well it’s like TARP was to Goldman-Sachs then, a bailout for known risky behavior. Who wouldn’t want to have their ocean-front house and yacht?, if there’s a storm, folks in Kansas and Wisconsin will help me pick up the tab. Thanks federal flood insurance program. We can’t even get Erie insurance to pay a few hundred dollars for their client roofing contractor’s screw-up on our house. The state insurance commission is a joke, but we can’t get bailed-out by anyone else.

  • Ann Whittier

    This is a very thorough description of what we are really facing; and impressively restrained in light of this impending tsunami of events. Thanks for your optimism and clear sighted informing on something most of us seem to refuse to recognize.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/erika-spanger-siegfried.html Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Thanks Ann! I’m glad you found my post useful, and really appreciate your feedback.

  • Doug Cabot

    Great blog post. Bill McKibben on NPR today seemed to be offering the term “climate chaos” as a more effective term (because it’s a more recognizable phenomenon) than the usual suspects, “climate change” and “global warming.” Maybe a bringing-it-home approach and the new report will add up to some kind of a (pardon me) sea change.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/erika-spanger-siegfried.html Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Thanks Doug. Bill McKibben might be on to something with that term; that NPR piece was great on a number of fronts. And I think you’re right that our on-the-ground experience of climate change (sometimes “chaos”-worthy), reflected in this new authoritative report, is a potent motivator.

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