Here’s a game for Sporcle fans: What do the following locations have in common? Bangladesh, Barbados, the Maldives, Papua New Guinea, Miami and Vancouver. Besides being unlikely locations for a Duke student to study abroad, these are areas that could be at least partially under the sea by the year 2100. There will be no dramatic “Day After Tomorrow” scenario. The gradual inundation will take many forms: coastal erosion, violent storms and nagging tides that creep higher each year.
Due to the positive feedback loop of climate change, global sea levels are expected to increase by an average of one meter in the next 90 years. The numbers are higher still in “hot spots” caused by variations in ocean currents and other factors. The East Coast of the United States is one of those hot spots, according to a recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey. The study found that New York City, for example, will likely see an additional 8 to 11 inches of water on top of the predicted meter. Of course, the effects we’re seeing right now are just the tip of the iceberg—one of hundreds of icebergs that will melt away in the next few decades.
I’d like to believe that such imminent, large-scale flooding could be an issue unmarred by politics. Of course, this is not the case. In a recent interview with NBC, Mitt Romney proudly explained, “I’m not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet. I’m in this race to help the American people.” No surprises there; no one expects climate change mitigation to be a major focus of Romney’s campaign. What is truly disturbing about this statement is the cheeky juxtaposition of slowing the rise of the oceans and helping the American people, as if these were mutually exclusive goals.
Apparently, Mitt Romney has never heard of Newtok, Ala. In 2006, this indigenous coastal community became one of the first to begin planning for climate-induced relocation. Erosion, melting permafrost and frequent flooding rendered the land unlivable. And it’s not just the Arctic; places in the lower 48 are threatened as well. A recent study published in Environmental Research Letters found that 3.7 million Americans inhabit areas at high risk for more frequent coastal flooding in the coming century. The states of Louisiana, New York, New Jersey and Florida will be particularly vulnerable to climate-related flooding. Why, then, do so many Americans remain unconvinced that climate change poses risks to our society?
Unfortunately, decision-makers in coastal states like our own have also contributed to this dilution of reality. In another attempt to be on the wrong side of history, the North Carolina legislature recently placed a moratorium on the use of current sea level rise projections in considering coastal development policies. As of August, when Gov. Bev Perdue failed to veto the bill, N.C.’s Coastal Commission may not “define rates of sea-level change for regulatory purposes prior to July 1, 2016”. In other words, North Carolinian lawmakers and developers have an official mandate to ignore scientific studies on sea level rise for another four years. Their guess is as good as anyone’s, I suppose?
While North Carolinians fret over their beach houses, the people of the Arctic region and many Small Island Developing States (SIDS) will struggle to ensure the survival of their cultural identities. SIDS in the Caribbean, Pacific, Mediterranean and Indian Ocean share similar challenges related to their limited resources, vulnerability to natural disasters and fragile environments. One example is Papua New Guinea, where international dialogues are already taking place to share information and build local capacity for climate-induced relocation.
The leaders of these island nations face extremely complex practical and ethical questions. What options are available to fortify islands against the rising waves? Will people relocate proactively, or wait out the storms while saltwater surges gradually ruin homes and croplands? If a community initiates relocation, where will they go? What status do they receive under international law—climate refugees or simply migrants? What happens to the sovereignty of a nation whose territory no longer exists? Who will finance the relocation of hundreds or thousands of people? Perhaps most importantly, who gets to make these decisions?
My head and heart ache to consider how these questions will be resolved. If sea levels continue to rise at current rates or faster, some island nations will lose everything. Entire cultural foundations will be swallowed by the sea. It’s time that national and global leaders take these issues more seriously. It is petty and counterproductive to continue to question whether these changes are real, or to try to assign blame.
Sea level rise and climate-induced relocation are already occurring. However, there is a range of possible futures available to us—some drier, some soggier. The outcome depends on actions we take now. The first step is to stop scoffing at peer-reviewed scientific research. Once we face the facts at home and in the global context, we can begin to work toward mitigation.
Hannah Colton is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Friday. You can follow Hannah on Twitter @ColtonHannah.