We Must Begin Planning Now for an Inevitable Sea Level Rise
Most books about our climate emergency are sobering reads. John Englander’s new book, Moving to Higher Ground: Rising Sea Level and the Path Forward, is certainly no exception. A trained oceanographer, Englander lays out the scientific case for what he calls “unstoppable” sea level rise with utter conviction. But to his great credit he follows that litany of fairly grim news with practical advice and glimmers of hope. His short book should be a primer for coastal city planners and public officials. We have some time, he writes, but not all the time in the world, so we need to get our collective brains around the problem and begin planning for it now.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
JE: John Englander
Tell me the origin story of the book in broad terms.
The book is more or less a culmination of about 50 years of interest in sea level. Originally I studied it from a geologic and oceanographic standpoint. In the late 1990s I came to the realization, along with a lot of other people, that the climate was changing, the planet was warming, and the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica were melting. When I made my first trip to Greenland, in 2007, I realized that there was a big story to tell. And I wrote a book called High Tide on Main Street, and since then I’ve been explaining the concepts of unstoppable rising sea level all over the world.
I will be honest with you: The first 50 pages of the book, where you lay out the scientific case, is difficult. Even if we get our shit together, sea level is still going to rise—and we’re not getting our shit together. So, where are we now?
First, we have to understand what’s happening, the science. Most people, even people concerned about climate change, don’t understand sea level properly. I find many scientists and experts, who are so compartmentalized and specialized, do not see the big picture. Sea level has never been constant throughout geologic history. It goes up and down, as much as 400 feet, every hundred thousand years, and this has been happening for millions of years. Those are the scientific facts.
What kind of contemporary timeline are we dealing with? Where are we from a land planning and built environment standpoint?
Before we get to the projections, I’d like to clarify the word flooding, because we tend to think of flooding as just one thing. But there are five forms of it, plus erosion. We can think of flooding as storm related, or the result of heavier rainfall, which in a warmer world results in more rain and snow. At the same time we’re experiencing more droughts, which seems contradictory, but it’s what happens in a warmer world. So we have storms, rain, runoff, and then we have King Tides. Those are extreme high tides, or “sunny day” flood events. They only occur a few days a year, on a quirky schedule because of the position of the planets, but those King Tides are the harbinger of sea level rise. It’s those King Tides that show us the water level on a calm, clear day, as sea level rises, drip by drip. And then, finally, there is sea level rise itself, the fifth and the stealth factor. All of these kinds of flooding have different magnitudes and time periods, and they also do get confused with coastal erosion, which is getting worse.
Global sea level rise mostly happens as ice on land melts. (Not icebergs, by the way, which are floating ice and don’t affect water level as they melt.) Ninety-eight percent of the glaciers and ice sheets are on Greenland and Antarctica. So while we can be concerned about glaciers in Alaska, Canada, the Alps, and the Himalayas, the real issue is the ice on land in Greenland and Antarctica. If it all melted, we’d have over 200 feet of sea level rise. That’s the big issue, and it’s going to redraw maps of the world, but not in the normal human timescale.
Planners do work on 20-year, 50-year, sometimes even 100-year timeframes.
Exactly. 30 years is a good planning horizon, which is the home mortgage period. What can happen? Well, at the rate things are melting now, we can get a foot or two of sea level rise by midcentury. But it’s an accelerating problem, though, kind of like the pandemic. You can look at a current rate of change, but if you don’t pay attention to the trajectory or the exponential growth, you’re going to get fooled thinking what’s happened in the past will happen in the future.
What do they call that, a dynamic model?
We need to simplify this stuff. A lot of the stats that come out of the scientific community are misleading, because they’re too narrow or they require you to read pages of footnotes to understand what they’re really saying—for example, the U.N.’s intergovernmental panel on climate change. People reference the IPCC report and think the worst-case scenario for sea level was 90 centimeters, 32 inches, this century. But they didn’t read the footnotes, which said that these calculations don’t include any significant melting on Antarctica, which is where the vast majority of the water is, in frozen form. A careful reading explains that they can’t quantify the melt in Antarctica with enough clarity. As I show in my book, in effect, Antarctica becomes an asterisk. So, unfortunately, even with good science, we’re getting bad information. Planners, architects, and engineers don’t realize that our current pathway of warming could result in a lot more sea level rise. So what’s likely? A foot or two by midcentury is now realistic, as guidance. But a hundred years from now, we could easily have 7 to 10 feet, 2 to 3 meters, depending on how warm the planet gets. And that gets us back to the energy efficiency of buildings, how we make our power, the use of fossil fuels, and all of that stuff.
Some of that is going in the right direction, just not fast enough.
I agree. But here’s the problem. We’re at 415 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere right now, and it keeps going up. We need to get it back down to 280, to stop the ice from melting. Historically, carbon dioxide has moved between 180 and 280 parts per million. It’s now 40% higher. Even if we eliminate fossil fuel use—which will be hard to do in a world of 8 billion people headed toward 10—sea levels are still going to rise. So we need to do two things: slow the warming and begin adapting to sea levels, which will be irrevocably higher, even if we slow the warming.
Spin out a hypothetical scenario: You get brought in as a “resiliency” consultant for a threatened coastal city. How would you lay out a course of action with the mayor and the planning director?
First thing I would do is say: Let’s talk about time spans. I use 100 years as long, 30 years as medium, and a decade as near term. We should agree that we are planning for the lifespan and use of the building and transportation infrastructure. I’d tell them: We don’t have to prepare for a hundred years today, but if we do, our community and our investment will have a greater return, and in a rapidly changing world will be seen as a place that’s prepared for the future. That becomes a strength. We don’t have to do it all at once. But we need to lay the right foundation. In other words, you can build a 10-story building a floor at a time, but you’ve got to have the right foundation to support the final structure. We need to make an honest assessment of where we’re headed and turn the danger and risk into a strength.
Are there cities that are going to be indefensible in your view?
Yes. Unfortunately some cities and towns will be indefensible. In fact, in the book I cite an item in the federal register by the Army Corps of Engineers. Eleven months after completing the $14 billion levee repair in New Orleans, the largest civic works project in U.S. history, the Corps put out a notice essentially saying: due to sea level rise and subsidence, the fix may not be adequate. And they added: we need to ask the question about how long New Orleans is defensible. That’s a sobering message, and that’s from the Army Corps of Engineers in the Federal Register.
That may be disturbing, but so is getting older. Obviously there are a lot of things that we wish were different in the world. But facing reality and thinking about future generations is essential. Facing the facts can be turned into an opportunity. Once we wake up and begin understanding the science, we realize that planning for this becomes the ultimate challenge for built environment professionals.
It will be the most unprecedented challenge in human history.
Let’s switch to insurance and finance. Because that’s a fascinating part of the book, especially for me, a resident of New Orleans, a city rebuilt by insurance.
Insurance is a huge problem. Flood insurance is almost always a one-year policy. The insurance companies, underwriters and actuaries, look at the chance of flood damage during the 12 months of the policy. They really don’t care what happens a decade from now. That future risk is not built into current rates. We’ve always assumed that the last 30 years, or even the last 100 years, will tell us how things will be in the future, because we assumed that the world was what the actuaries called a stationary environment. Well, the situation is no longer stationary. The last 30 years of insurance losses no longer shows us what will happen for the next 30 years.
The problem is, we finance things over 30 to 50 years, but we insure them year to year. The banks require that we have insurance. But nobody will write you a 30-year flood policy. So there’s a mismatch. We’re loaning money, based upon the security of an asset and saying you must have adequate insurance, but in the future, the cost and even the availability of that insurance might be very different.
I think that’s what we’ll eventually see in southern Louisiana. Flood insurance that was once $2,000 might now be $10,000 a year. Suddenly they can’t afford to live there anymore, but the decision to move won’t be made by a planner or local government, but by an insurance company.
And ultimately by the banks. They’re now focussed on fossil fuel supply, energy sources, and vulnerability to carbon pricing. They’re worried about a possible carbon tax. That’s where most of the concern is in the financial community at the moment. But I think what you’ll see in the next five or 10 years is that the financial sector is going to realize that the current cost of flood insurance doesn’t reflect the future risk. And that’s going to be when the problem explodes, because how do you loan somebody a million dollars for a house, or a hundred million dollars for a corporate complex, with 30-year financing, when you realize nobody is telling you what the cost of flood insurance will be 10, or even five years from now?
The subtitle to your book is Rising Sea Level and the Path Forward. What is the path forward?
Teaching the scientific facts about rising sea level is something we can all do. We need to teach the truth, and we need to do it simply and not confuse things, or think that if we just add solar panels to our roofs, or recycle more, that somehow sea level rise will stop. Fortunately, the good news is that sea level can’t rise that quickly. We can have a hurricane bring in a 10-foot storm surge three weeks from now. That’s the problem we need to prepare for. We’re experiencing these sunny day floods, and we’re getting heavier rainfall. Those are events we need to prepare for now.
Significant sea level rise is something that we’re not going to see this decade. We’ve got some time to do it right, but we don’t have time to delay. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road. Sea level rise gives us time to adapt, but we can’t use that as an excuse not to do anything for 10 or 20 years, because the buildings, infrastructure—the bridges, tunnels, and levees that we build today need to have the right foundation, so that they can be built higher in the future.
Featured image via the Scientific American.