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The Truth About Rising Seas

By John James

31 October, 2008

In June I attended a conference in Canberra on “Imagining the Real: Life on Greenhouse Earth.” Many of the great men of the Australian scientific community were there to tell us of the latest research. I understand the situation well, having researched it myself for so long. I knew much of what was presented – and it was still depressing!

I ask you, dear reader, to stay with me a little longer and follow the key information with me, for we are all going to feel the consequences quite soon, and only the actions you do right now are going to make the outcome any better.

The sad truth is that the dissolution of the atmosphere is moving faster than anticipated. The key indicators are exceeding most of the computer projections. Nowhere have the remedial actions already taken made things better.

This is because 80 percent of global warming comes from burning fossil fuels, and none of the wind farms or hybrid cars has made the slightest dent in its use.

As more people and nations acquire more wealth, consumption rises and emissions increase – all exacerbated by the growing world population. This combination is increasing world temperatures, especially in the northern hemisphere where the ice in the Arctic sea is fast disappearing.

In “Footprints” (December 2006) I reported the US Navy calculation that there would be no summer sea-ice in the Arctic by 2012, whereas the international IPCC study had earlier calculated this would not happen until the end of the century.

Last year it was reported that ice-melt was exceeding expectations by 30 percent. At the Canberra Conference a number of speakers said they “would not be surprised if all sea-ice will be gone within a year or two.”

The great glaciers of Greenland are supporting the sea-ice nearby, but these too are melting. Speaker after speaker produced evidence that the Greenland ice sheets were “unstable”, seriously melting around the edges and being undermined by melt-water rushing through crevasses and literally putting the skids under the glaciers, so they slide faster towards the sea.

One large glacier on the west coast, 3 miles wide and a mile deep, is now slipping into the sea at 2 meters an hour, when the normal rate was around 90 meters per year.

We know that were all the ice on Greenland to melt, sea levels would rise over 7 meters. The question is how long may this take? The IPCC estimate of hundreds of years is being contradicted by studies of past glaciations. Andrew Glickson and Bradley Opdyke showed that at the end of earlier ice ages the glaciers collapsed suddenly.

Suddenly does not mean over a century or two, but within a decade.

We all saw the speed at which this can happen in 2002 when 2,600 square kilometres on the Larsen B ice shelf in the Antarctic disintegrated and disappeared in less than five weeks.

This could happen with Greenland.

We are already feeling the consequences in Australia. The day before the conference it was reported that low-lying coastal areas like Cairns and Narrabeen will be at serious risk.

The Sydney Morning Herald had earlier reported the IPCC study that showed that 700,000 houses lie within 3 kilometres of the coast and less than 6 meters above sea level, most of them in NSW and Queensland (July 19, 2006).

It looks like the government is beginning to recognize what a monumental problem this is going to be. We are a coastal civilization. Most of us live within either sight of the sea or just a short drive away. Our beaches and our beach culture help to define us.

In August the Federal Department of Climate Change warned that a one metre increase in sea levels would push the waterline inwards by an average of 100 metres. Combined with storm surges and king tides the consequent coastal flooding could affect double this area.

Experts working for the Victorian State Government have warned that suburbs such as Elwood, St Kilda and South Melbourne are at risk, while towns like Lakes Entrance and Cottesloe will probably need to be moved to higher ground. The situation is similar in other states.

Will Steffen of the ANU told the Coast to Coast conference in August that “we (meaning scientists) have underestimated. We see change happening much faster than we thought,” and went on to warn that devastating rise in sea levels is now inevitable. It means that close to a billion people will be displaced around the world – this is not just a local problem.

These warnings do not address the most important ethical issues: If your house was on the beach, or just a street or two away, how would you feel being forced to move? Where would you go? Who would take you in? It could not be sold, so how would you repay your mortgage?

These warnings are based on a sea level rise of just one metre.

Britain is a step ahead of us, for their Environment Agency is planning to evacuate parts of the coast. The Daily Mail (19 August) reported, with astonishing photographs, that houses and farming land are already being washed away.

Early in the year the UK government promised that no seaside villages would be abandoned. Since then it has faced reality and now proposes to let the sea breach part of the Norfolk coast.

Understandably the reactions have been swift. Especially in Norfolk where much of the land is only a few meters above the North Sea.

The locals were horrified. In just this one area six villages, 300 properties, thousands of acres of farmland and a section of the Norfolk Broads would be wiped off the map, while much of the Suffolk coast would be inundated shortly afterwards.

We have not faced this issue in a public way in Australia, not yet, though there is an indication in a recent ruling by Victoria's Civil and Administrative Tribunal that vetoed the approval for six buildings in Gippsland because of threats from rising sea levels.

Here is the most potent political problem. How will we who live on or near the sea react? What is the political fall-out? Will we demand sea-walls and expensive protective measures? This has already been demanded by some wealthy Byron Bay and Cottesloe residents. If not built, or not affordable, and if our houses do get washed away, who will recompense us for our mortgages? Let alone our loss of wealth?

Dr Jo Mummery of the Department of Climate Change has estimated that 270,000 houses in NSW alone are currently under risk, many very expensive. If their mortgages were only average, the unrecoverable loss would be close to 100 billion dollars.

It is unlikely that insurance will cover it. It is also unlikely that the Federal Government will either. When asked by the Victorian Premier whether Canberra would pay to hold the sea back, Senator Wong pointed out that "matters of land ownership and land development reside with state and territory governments".
The buck will be passed, and a million Australians will be at imminent risk of being swamped or undermined by the sea. What will happen to the value of their properties over the next decade or so? There is no compensation available for that.

This scenario assumes that only insignificant portions of Greenland and the Western Antarctic will melt. But we know this is unrealistic. The one metre rise being considered in most public discussions will be exceeded.
How do we know?

It was agreed at the Conference that two degree rise in global temperatures is now inevitable from the pollution we have already put into the atmosphere, though it may take us until 2025 to get there. We also know that in the historical past every degree rise in temperature has quite rapidly produced a minimum 4 metres rise in sea levels.

So, the past tells us that 8 meters is on the way, though none know when. This is not the one meter assumed in our government’s discussions.

Also, there are the international implications: The mere 2 percent of the world's land that is less than 10 metres above sea level is home to more than 10 per cent of the world's population - 680 million and counting - and much valuable property and vital farmland.

Without mega-engineering protection, many cities would be inundated - including New York, London, Sydney, Vancouver, Melbourne and Tokyo - and leave surrounding areas vulnerable to storm surges. In Florida, Louisiana, the Netherlands, Bangladesh and elsewhere, whole regions and cities would vanish. China's economic powerhouse, Shanghai, has an average elevation of just 4 metres.

We need to address the full enormity of this issue before it is foisted on us. No government will face the unpalatable unless we push them into it. So, this is what you can do:

Personally visit your local members, state and federal, and your local councillor, and tell them what you want them to do. It is confronting, even for a politician, to be faced with your strong opinions, your real worries for the future and your determination to have them act in our interests.
Do it! And do it today, please.

John James is a therapist, architect, philosopher and medieval historian. With his wife Hilary and partner Marg Garvan he founded the Crucible Centre to train therapists in sandplay and in Transpersonal Psychology. Their exploration into soul and energy work has just been published as The Great Field. He assembled the site to share information on Climate Change.

Published in Living Now Magazine November 2008

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