Culture, Science & Faith

Sea Level Rise: A Reason to Drown in Fear?

The debate isn't so much over the facts of warming but how to respond.

Jordan Candler · Feb. 20, 2017

The quibbling over how much warming the world has actually seen is back in the news thanks to new allegations from Dr. John Bates, a former NOAA scientist who says the agency used bogus techniques to discredit the recent global warming pause. Given the long history of accusations against the agency — including longstanding charges of rewriting logbook data — these assertions should be investigated, regardless of what may or may not turn up. Perhaps the agency is guilty, or perhaps not.

But let’s set aside for a moment the wrangling over the magnitude of warming and lay out what everyone can agree on. We know unequivocally that global temperatures have gradually warmed for more than a century now. (This acknowledgement, by the way, reveals the Left’s slandering of conservatives as “climate deniers” to be all the more vindictive). We also know that periods of cooling or static measurements have occasionally interrupted this gradual warming, but it hasn’t been enough to reduce the overall upward trend. And finally, we know that global carbon dioxide emissions have risen to slightly more than 400 parts per million (ppm), an increase from 340 ppm in the early 1980s.

It’s what to extract from this information that results in harsh disagreement and even indignation. How much of the warming is natural? How much is cyclical? How much (if any) is driven by CO2? If it’s a mix of man-made and cyclical effects, which one is disproportionately to blame for meteorological changes? The Left, in addition to blaming climate change for what it says are worsening droughts and burgeoning heat waves, worries that sea levels, aided by the acceleration in ice loss, will wreak havoc on coastlines and nearby lowlands.

In truth, it’s admittedly a bad time for sea ice concentration. A few years ago, Antarctica was almost routinely, it seemed, breaking records in ice coverage. So it might come as a surprise today to learn that it’s now at a record low. In fact, both the North and South Poles are measuring historically low percentages. According to a large number of scientists, the continuation of global warming means coastal areas are in for a nightmare scenario. What does the data say?

Last June, NOAA reported, “Sea level has been rising over the past century, and the rate has increased in recent decades. In 2014, global sea level was 2.6 inches (67 mm) above the 1993 average — the highest annual average in the satellite record (1993-present). Sea level continues to rise at a rate of about one-eighth of an inch (3.2 mm) per year, due to a combination of melting glaciers and ice sheets, and thermal expansion of seawater as it warms.” And according to a February 2016 USA Today report, ocean levels overall increased by 5.5 inches during the 20th century.

Think about that. The rate at last check was one-eighth of an inch per year and mere inches when all added up. Assuming this is true — not to mention even accurate, considering these are such minuscule measurements for a vast swath of geography — that’s hardly what we would call a crisis, and it’s worth noting too that the way this stuff is measured has been revolutionized over time. That said, both poles are experiencing higher-than-average ice melt today, which presumably will affect this rate. But just how much?

In the same report, NOAA went on to estimate “that there is very high confidence (greater than 90% chance) that global mean sea level will rise at least 8 inches (0.2 meter) but no more than 6.6 feet (2.0 meters) by 2100.” And that’s taking into account rather extreme scenarios. Some people, particularly those along the coast, understandably worry about this (though a significant number of Americans actually enjoy the more pleasant effects of global warming, like milder winters). The question isn’t so much that global temperatures — and to a smaller degree the oceans — are rising, but why. Furthermore, how do we respond?

This is where policy disagreements come in. The bottom line is that this debate could come down to whether we want to adapt to climate change or instead attempt to mitigate its effects. NOAA says the rate at which seas are expected to rise “depends mostly on the rate of future carbon dioxide emissions and future global warming.” We contend there are very legitimate reasons to embrace CO2. Though for the most part temperatures and carbon dioxide emissions have risen in tandem, emissions alone can’t explain the periodic temperature drops and stagnations. And completely eliminating those emissions would be futile — and immensely expensive. But economic control, after all, is the real climate agenda.

As The Daily Signal’s Katie Tubb observes, “[C]limate sensitivity modeling used by the EPA shows that totally eliminating all carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. would reduce warming by only 0.137 degree Celsius by the end of the century, and only 0.278 degree Celsius if the entire industrialized world totally eliminated all carbon dioxide emissions.” Moreover, the greening of deserts and an abundance of food for trees and vegetation are surely welcome benefits.

Whether the globe is warming or cooling, there are benefits and setbacks to both, as history demonstrates. And humans who expect to have the ability to balance the climate are significantly less realistic than those who advocate adapting, like we always have, to what comes next. Americans didn’t abandon certain areas altogether because of earthquakes; they figured out how to create stronger and more flexible structures. The same goes for places prone to tornadoes and hurricanes. Remember, temperatures have not risen at the rate at which they were projected, and the future of sea levels are equally uncertain.

Game-changing global cooling didn’t happen like the CIA and Time magazine and others warned in 1974, nor will an ice age happen by 2021, as The Washington Post forecast in 1971. On the flip side, the New York Times’ 1969 warning “that the ocean at the North Pole may become an open sea within a decade or two” didn’t happen either. So take predictions with a grain of salt.

In any case, even if the threat is real, adaption creates far more economic opportunities than forcing hundreds of millions into destitution through costly taxation and regulation. So go ahead and build your beachfront home. We’ll figure out, through innovation, how to protect it if we ever reach that point. Or maybe we could just get Barack Obama to finally cash in on his 2008 promise about the “moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow…”

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