By Michael Shank and US Congressman Alan Lowenthal
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Michael Shank and Rep. Alan Lowenthal. Shank, of Brandon, teaches sustainable development at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and is the communications director at the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. Lowenthal, D-Calif., serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
With the news earlier this month that 95 percent of the oldest and most resilient Arctic ice is now gone, coupled with the recent findings of the fourth U.S. National Climate Assessment by the Trump administration, it’s crystal clear that our oceans are taking a serious hit from global warming. Not only have sea levels risen by 7-8 inches in the last century (a rate not witnessed at any point in the last 2,800 years), but oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the world’s warming and one quarter of our CO2 emissions.
The federal government’s report also notes that by the end of this century, oceans could be 1-4 feet higher, levels which would spell catastrophe on every shore. What we do know, regardless of exact footage, sea level rise and flooding will become a frequent occurrence on every coast of the North American continent.
While Southern California will suffer from some of the most significant sea level rise, no coastal community will be exempt. Reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also show just how frequent and dire the predictions are becoming.
Today, it is already five to 10 times more likely, than it was 50 years ago, for flooding of one to two feet above high tide. And for many coastal communities, every inch matters.
But in the coming 40 years, America’s densely populated coasts will witness over 30 days of this type of flooding each year.
No East Coast or West Coast community will be left untouched, as the flooding of our coastlines will not discriminate. Floodwaters will target wealthy communities and poor communities, they will ravage fossil fuel and fishing industries, and floodwaters will impact all constituencies, regardless of political affiliation.
The changing of our climate and the thermal expansion of the oceans is due, of course, to global warming. While many of us are feeling extreme cold winter temperatures, don’t be fooled; global warming does not mean that we won’t have cold weather. But the long-term trends are clear: 17 of the 18 warmest years since modern record-keeping began have occurred since 2001.
As our temperatures warm from the dramatic increase in human-generated greenhouse gas emissions over the past decades, our ecosystems and climate system are getting out of whack.
Record high temperatures are now occurring at twice the rate of record low temperatures, which is a dramatic shift from just 60 years ago when record high and low temperatures were roughly equal. This is making heat waves hotter, rains heavier, and storms more volatile.
This extreme weather and flooding, which is already happening now, will only become more frequent in the coming decades. And while California has had its recent share of extreme weather recently — as record droughts, fires, flash floods, and torrential rains have torn through communities wreaking havoc indiscriminately — the state is not alone.
The rising seas, according to NOAA, are set to regularly inundate the East Coast, from Boston to Baltimore, from Norfolk to North Carolina, and everywhere in between.
The nation’s financial and political capitals, in New York City and Washington, D.C., will be flooded more frequently, imperiling policymaking and capital markets. Texas, too, will see a high frequency of flooding near Galveston Bay, while Pacific coastal inundation from San Diego to San Francisco will be commonplace.
Mitigation measures, in response to this new reality, might require moving communities further inland, building up natural protective features like dunes and wetlands, and exploring better storm water systems, and, if necessary, sea walls. But many of these measures will be too expensive and infeasible for small towns.
A more sustainable track towards creating a safer climate for coastal communities, therefore, requires everyone’s participation, including non-coastal communities, in a courageous man-on-the-moon exercise in carbon cutting. It is the only realistic way we will slow the warming of the planet and prevent further extremization of weather events. Keeping the planet inhabitable for everyone requires an all hands on deck approach, regardless of political ideology.
The nations of the world are beginning to take real action to calm the rising seas and so must the United States. Things are different now and the world is watching America’s cue. It is time for us to what we do best — and lead.