By David Roberts
Grist energy and politics writer David Roberts on global warming sea-level “lock in” versus sea-level rise, and what that means for our coastal cities, and when.
Humanity’s difficulties dealing with climate change trace back to a simple fact: We are animals. Our cognitive and limbic systems were shaped by evolution to heed threats and rewards close by, involving faces and teeth. That’s how we survived. Those systems were not shaped to heed, much less emotionally respond to, faceless threats distant in time and space — like, say, climate change. No evil genius could design a problem less likely to grab our attention.
This is a familiar point, but some new research on sea level throws it into sharp relief. Let’s quickly review the research, and while we do, keep this question in the back of our minds: “Does this make me feel anything? Even if I understand, do I care?”
The first bit of research is a paper that’s gotten a lot of press attention: “The multimillennial sea-level commitment of global warming.”
Sea-level rise is a vexed issue in climate discussions because everyone wants to know where sea level’s going to be in 2050, or 2100 — years that we can, at least dimly, imagine. I’ll still be alive in 2050, presumably, and my kids or grandkids in 2100, with any luck.
The problem is that it’s much easier to project long-term sea levels than short term. It’s difficult to nail down the near-term timing of “nonlinear” (abrupt) events involving, say, ice sheets, but over a few thousand years, it all evens out. A century just isn’t that long in climatic terms.
Miami beach aerial photo courtesy Shutterstock.