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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Whistling past the graveyard on climate change and sea level rise

by David Atkins

David Roberts at Grist has more bad news that policymakers will continue to ignore:

The news is not good. The press release struggles to put a positive spin on things by noting that limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C “could halve sea-level rise by 2300, compared to a 2-degree scenario.” In their mid-probability scenario for 2 degrees, sea levels rise up to 3 meters (9.8 feet) by 2300. The good news is that 1.5 degrees raises seas only 1.5 meters (5 feet) by 2300!

These numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. It will be the rate of sea-level rise, more than sea level itself, that determines how difficult it will be for humans and other species to adapt. So can we slow down or stop the rate of change in sea levels?

It matters a great deal, because small differences in the rate of sea-level rise over the coming century will have huge consequences for total sea-level rise in subsequent centuries. (Once again: the decisions we make in the next few years are very important!)...

So can we ever stop sea levels rising? Er … theoretically. If we limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C, Schaeffer et al. project that by 2300 the rate of sea-level rise will decline back to zero — i.e., sea levels will stabilize, albeit more than a meter higher than they are today.

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that if we let temperature rise even 2 degrees C, by 2300 sea level will still be rising at a rate of around 8 millimeters a year, lower than its peak rate but still higher than humans have ever experienced.

So that’s the, ahem, good news. The bad news, as anyone who’s read my brutal logic posts knows, is that limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C is probably flatly impossible at this point, and limiting to 2 degrees C is, while technically and economically possible, probably politically impossible. We’re currently on a trajectory for as much as 6 degrees...

So, if we f*ck around and allow temperature to rise 4.5 degrees C, by 2300 sea levels could be up to 5 meters (16.4 feet) higher and rising at around 13 mm a year. That will be tons of fun to adapt to for all Earth’s creatures, I’m sure.
Roberts also notes that the next fifty years of sea level rise are guaranteed even if the world dropped emission rates to zero tomorrow.

This is the sort of problem that democracies and free markets are mostly incapable of solving. Politicians who have to come up for reelection every two to four years aren't good at annoying business interests in order to solve problems that won't even show up in a significant way for the rest of their lifetimes.

And even in its most ideal form, the logic of "free market solutions" is predicated on companies getting punished by angry consumers if they don't do the right thing. There are all sorts of things wrong with this approach, of course: if a bunch of people die due to food poisoning, it's not as if it's always easy to identify where in the production chain the problem occurred, or which corporations to punish by not buying their product (not to mention the obvious fact that the deaths should have been stopped by regulation and oversight in the first place.) But in its most simplistic form it might work if the impact of corporate malfeasance is immediate.

But how does a "free market solution" work when it comes to carbon emissions? Whom do consumers punish? Whom do consumers reward? On what timescale? By the time the problem is advanced enough to penetrate consumer consciousness, it will have been far, far too late for the market to change organically.

And that's, as I've said before, why climate change is such a threat to the conservative enterprise. It's not just that big energy interests would be impacted. It's that the entire conservative model of problem solving would be rendered obsolete if the realities of climate change were accepted in our public discourse.

So absent some sort of organizational metamorphosis for human societies, business interests will continue to divide nation states against one another as politicians in the major industrialized democracies dawdle and pretend the problem will go away.