A few years ago, when I told strangers that I wrote about the climate crisis, they often looked at me as if I’d just told them I wrote about the mating habits of porcupines. Interesting in a freakish sorta way, maybe, but far from urgent.
That’s changed. Now, even in places like Texas, where I’ve been spending a lot of time recently, everyone wants to talk about the Green New Deal or the best places to live in the future or whether electric cars really emit less carbon (yes, but what the world really needs is way fewer cars and way more mass transit. Are you listening, Austin?).
And now 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg is Time’s Person of the Year, an honor she totally deserves, and one that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. As Greta herself points out, she is just one of thousands of climate activists rising up in what is by far the most hopeful sign that humans are waking up to the climate emergency. There are lots of other signs of cultural change, too: bankers warning about the risk of financial collapse in the climate crisis, great climate scientists like Andrea Dutton winning MacArthur “genius” awards, Oxford dictionaries naming “climate emergency” as its 2019 Word of the Year. Although the number of voters who think global warming should be a “very high priority” for the president and Congress has stayed flat among Republicans over the past decade, it has roughly doubled among Democrats. In California, climate change is the number one priority of voters in the 2020 presidential campaign.
With all this, it’s easy to feel optimistic that we are nearing some kind of a cultural tipping point, and that maybe the only thing keeping the world from taking dramatic action is our mad-king climate-denying president.
But then you look at the heat and fire and toxic smoke that is choking Australia right now, or you see that global greenhouse gas pollution will hit another record high this year (“we’re blowing through our carbon budget the way an addict blows through cash,” one climate scientist said), and you realize how far the 7 billion citizens of planet Earth are from grasping the scale of transformation that is necessary to confront the crisis.
The critical issue, as writer Alex Steffen succinctly put it, is this: “When it comes to climate, speed is everything.” The longer we wait to cut emissions and adapt to our rapidly changing world, the more difficult those changes will be, the more they will cost, and the more people will suffer and die. It is as simple as that.
Two reports this week really capture the disconnect between the speed and scale of the changes in the natural world and the speed and scale at which humans are addressing the problem.
The first is what’s happening in the Arctic, where the climate is warming roughly twice as fast as the global average. This week, NOAA, the top U.S. climate science agency, released its annual Arctic Report Card. The results were grim: dead seals, declining fisheries, an algae bloom the size of California, and hardship for the indigenous communities who depend on a healthy eco-system for survival.
The first is that the Arctic may have crossed an important climate threshold, causing the region’s vast expanses of permafrost (basically, frozen ground) to begin to thaw, releasing organic carbon that has until now been locked up in the soil. The report concludes that the melting permafrost is now releasing between 1.1 and 1.2 billion tons of CO2 each year, which is roughly the combined annual emissions of Russia and Japan. And if the warming continues, that could accelerate, with catastrophic consequences (hello “permafrost bomb”). Scientists estimate that approximately 1,460 billion to 1,600 billion metric tons of organic carbon is stored in frozen Arctic soils, almost twice the amount of greenhouse gases as are contained in the atmosphere.
The second bit of alarming news from the Arctic is that scientists have collected strong evidence from satellite data that the Greenland ice sheet is melting seven times faster than it did in the 1990s. The amount of ice lost nearly doubled each decade, from 33 billion tons per year in the 1990s to an average now of 254 billion tons annually. Since 1992, nearly 4 trillion tons of Greenland ice have flowed into the ocean, equivalent to roughly a centimeter of global sea-level rise.
A centimeter of sea-level rise may not sound like much. But as Erich Osterberg, a climatologist at Dartmouth University, told PBS, one way to visualize the scale of the changes that are underway in the Arctic is to think of a herd of elephants charging off a cliff in Greenland into the ocean. “If you imagine that, we’re talking about 2,000 elephants charging into the ocean every second. That’s how much mass is going from Greenland into the ocean.”
For people who live on the coast, even one centimeter of sea-level rise is consequential. “Around the planet, one centimeter of higher water brings another 6 million people into seasonal, annual floods,” Andrew Shepherd, a University of Leeds professor and lead author on the study, tells me. But the real risk is from exponential acceleration of the rate: “If the rate of sea-level rise increases seven-fold in a generation, that means that in just two generations, you could have an acceleration that is nearly 50 times faster.”
In Shepherd’s view, the new satellite data from Greenland means that sea-level rise estimates in climate models need to be revised upwards, especially the high-end scenarios. It means that instead of three or four feet of rise by the end of the century, the climate models that suggest we might get six, seven, or eight feet may be a little more plausible. And it makes comments by Richard Alley, who said last year that it’s impossible to rule out 15 to 20 feet of sea-level rise by the end of the century, a little easier to bend your mind around.
It also makes the long-term survival of many coastal cities, from Mumbai to Miami, a lot more complicated, expensive, and unlikely.
For cities, the cost of adapting to rising seas will be staggering. One study by the Center for Climate Integrity concluded that by 2040, building sea walls for storm surge protection for U.S. coastal cities will cost $400 billion. As a recent piece in Yale Environment 360 points out, that’s nearly the price of building the 47,000 miles of the interstate highway system, which took four decades and cost more than $500 billion in today’s dollars.
Where is that money going to come from? State and local taxes? The federal government? A benevolent god of climate adaptation? The politics of all this gets very complicated very quickly. Which neighborhoods get protected first?
New Orleans is a city that is particularly vulnerable to even small changes in sea level rise. After Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005, the Army Corps of Engineers spent about $14.6 billion on upgrades for hurricane defenses in the area. In the past 10 years, the Corps has built the largest surge barrier of its kind and the largest drainage-pump station in the world. It also strengthened levees, flood walls, gated structures and pump stations that form the 133-mile Greater New Orleans perimeter system.
Unfortunately, the Army Corps underestimated how rapidly things are changing. In the nearly 15 years since Katrina hit, the land around New Orleans has subsided and the seas have risen more quickly than engineers anticipated when they planned the system. As a result, the just-completed flood-protection system is already inadequate.
This week, the Army Corps released a report recommending a $3.2 billion, 50-year plan to upgrade and elevate the system. The upgrade, the report argued, was necessary to keep to the standard of protecting the city from a 100-year-flood (a flood that has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year).
Without the upgrade, the report said, homes behind the levees might now be ineligible for flood insurance. Without flood insurance, as everyone knows, the real estate values would collapse – and the city would begin a fast slide to oblivion. So to avert financial disaster, the city is forced to build ever higher, ever more expensive walls and barriers until either the money dries up or the engineering challenges become insurmountable.
The report pointed out that while the improvements would also result in a significant safety increase for residents, storms larger than the 100-year event would still pose a high risk to life “due to the extensive population protected by the levee system, even with good evacuation procedures.”
In other words, even after spending a total of $18 billion to protect the city, a big storm could bring another catastrophe. Every inch the seas rise, the risk rises with it. And the higher that wall, the greater the catastrophe when it fails.
I love New Orleans so it’s hard to say this, but in a rapidly warming world, it’s tough to see how it survives without a radical re-thinking of what it means to be a city on the coast. The same is true of course for any other city at extreme risk of rising waters, drought, and extreme heat. It’s not just a question of money and engineering skill. It’s a question of coming to grips with the scale of the crisis that confronts us, and with the profound injustices of who will be saved and who is doomed. In this sense, Greta’s anointment as the climate hero of our time is a sign of hope, but it is also a sign of how far we have to go.