Sea Level: How Effed are We?

October 13, 2018

Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone: this short video. In it, you’ll see a scientist named Richard Alley in a Skype discussion with students at Bard College, as well as with Eban Goodstein, director of the Graduate Programs in Sustainability at Bard. It would be just another nerdy Skype chat except Alley is talking frankly about something that few scientists have the courage to say in public: As bad as you think climate change might be in the coming decades, reality could be far worse. Within the lifetime of the students he’s talking with, Alley says, there’s some risk — small but not as small as you might hope — that the seas could rise as much as 15-to-20 feet.

More detail below.

Let’s pause to think about what 15-to-20 feet of sea-level rise in the next 70 or so years looks like. I’ll put it bluntly: It means not just higher storm surges from hurricanes, but the permanent drowning of virtually every major coastal city in the world. Miami, New Orleans, large parts of Boston and New York City and Silicon Valley, not to mention Shanghai, Jakarta, Ho Chi Min City, Lagos, Mumbai — all gone. And I don’t mean “sunny day flooding,” where you get your feet wet on the way to the mall. I mean these cities, and many more, become scuba diving sites.

There are not enough economists in the world to calculate the trillions of dollars worth of real estate that would be lost in a scenario like this. Nor are there enough social scientists to count the hundreds of millions of people who would be displaced. You think the world is a chaotic place now? Just wait.

Richard Alley is not a fringe character in the world of climate change. In fact, he is widely viewed as one of the greatest climate scientists of our time. If there is anyone who understands the full complexity of the risks we face from climate change, it’s Alley. And far from being alarmist, Alley is known for his careful, rigorous science. He has spent most of his adult life deconstructing past Earth climates from the information in ice cores and rocks and ocean sediments. And what he has learned about the past, he has used to better understand the future.

For a scientist of Alley’s stature to say that he can’t rule out 15 or 20 feet of sea-level rise in the coming decades is mind-blowing. And it is one of the clearest statements I’ve ever heard of just how much trouble we are in on our rapidly warming planet (and I’ve heard a lot — I wrote a book about sea-level rise).

I interviewed Jim Hansen on this topic a few years ago.





28 Responses to “Sea Level: How Effed are We?”

  1. redskylite Says:

    Having listened to the short except and read through the postings, it’s a great pity so much was devoted to McPherson. As far as I’m concerned Richard Alley has both feet planted firmly on the ground, but more importantly he can think into the future in deeper time frames, which many people, especially politicians seem to lack. Listen to Alley he is spot on.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Agreed. As I’ve said in other replies, attacking McPherson is just a way for some folks to work through their grief. As you say, a waste of time when Alley and Hansen and Mann and so many others are now speaking truth and addressing how bad it is likely to get too soon. (And I still maintain that McPherson gave them “cover” to speak out more strongly—-threw himself on the live grenade, so to speak).

      The same for all the computations and speculations about past and future sea level rise here. Why bother with all that obsessive doodling when so many like Alley are saying it’s looking very bad indeed. Put SLR together with all the other trends and look for the pattern, the “web” if you will—-anyone with any intuitive skills at all can see what’s coming—-trying to work it out on the back of an envelope is a waste of time (but MAY help process grief). Rational fatalism and acceptance RULE!

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