FROM THE FIELD
The Paris Climate Agreement

Climate Denial and Sea Level Rise

by |September 6, 2016

Like those who do not think the Holocaust took place, men landed on the moon, or President Obama is an American, there are equally deluded people who think that climate science is a hoax or some kind of left-wing conspiracy. As the New York Times reported last week, parts of Florida are already having ‘sunny-day floods’ due to the impact of sea level rise during some high tides. Last weekend I left my Long Island summer home early to return to the safety of Morningside Heights, a full 121 feet above sea level. The south shore of Long Island is no stranger to flooding, but where we once saw a 6-12 inch storm surge last weekend we saw a surge of 1-3 feet, from a storm that did not really come close to my summer home.

Scientists at Columbia’s Earth Institute in our Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, International Research Institute for Climate and Society, Center for Climate Systems Research, Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, and Center for International Earth Science Information Network have been studying each aspect of climate change for decades. They study tree rings, geology, soil sediments and arctic ice melts among many other forms of research to understand the human impact on climate change. They have analyzed historical data and have built models to project our possible climate future. The problem is real, and now the impacts have begun. The time for denial is over. But the political power of climate deniers continues.

The worldwide alarm over climate change was demonstrated last week when despite a great deal of disagreement on many issues, President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping signed the Paris Climate Accord in a ceremony in Hangzhou, China. According to New York Times reporters Mark Landler and Jane Perlez:

“At a ceremony in this picturesque lakefront city, the two leaders hailed the adoption of the Paris agreement as critical to bringing it into force worldwide. Though widely expected as the next step in the legal process, the move could provide a boost to those who want to build momentum for further climate talks by bringing the December accord into effect as soon as possible. Countries accounting for 55 percent of the world’s emissions must present formal ratification documents for that to happen, and together, China and the United States generate nearly 40 percent of the world’s emissions.”

In the United States, our federal legal and political system represents places as well as people. We are very good at responding to local problems that can be seen, touched and smelled. Toxics, air pollution and water pollution are obvious and undeniable and much easier to act on. Climate change is a global problem that is caused everywhere and much of the impact will take place in the future. But in an excellent report in last week’s New York Times, Justin Gillis reported that some of the impacts of climate change have already started to affect some of our coastal cities. According to Gillis:

“Federal scientists have documented a sharp jump in this nuisance flooding — often called “sunny-day flooding” — along both the East Coast and the Gulf Coast in recent years. The sea is now so near the brim in many places that they believe the problem is likely to worsen quickly. Shifts in the Pacific Ocean mean that the West Coast, partly spared over the past two decades, may be hit hard, too…Local governments, under pressure from annoyed citizens, are beginning to act. Elections are being won on promises to invest money to protect against flooding. Miami Beach is leading the way, increasing local fees to finance a $400 million plan that includes raising streets, installing pumps and elevating sea walls. In many of the worst-hit cities, mayors of both parties are sounding an alarm.”

The need to adapt to the current impact of climate change is already obvious in many cities and work is already underway to make cities more resilient to extreme weather events. New York City has begun to implement a resiliency plan that will cost at least $20 billion over the next decade. My hope is that the need to adapt to current climate impacts will lead to the deep understanding needed to develop political support to mitigate climate change.

The path to political understanding is not always direct. We often require visible, direct impacts to delve deeper into an issue. To John and Robert Kennedy, civil rights initially concerned them because they were worried about losing the votes of southern white democrats. Then television brought us the images of African American peaceful protestors and bystanders being attacked by dogs and fire hoses. JFK thought more deeply on the evils of segregation and gave a live TV address defining civil rights as a moral issue. The mere presence of racism and segregation should have been enough to foster change, but it required a dramatic visible image to bring the point home. Visible local impacts are often a prerequisite for action in our political process.

Climate adaptation may well be the path to climate mitigation. You don’t need to understand or agree with climate science or computer models to invest in infrastructure to reduce damage from extreme weather events. This is a little ironic. When scientists at Columbia’s Earth Institute and throughout the world first started studying climate adaptation, some scientists and activists considered it a distraction from the more important work of preventing human induced climate change. Like many other political issues, dealing with immediate visible impacts can lead to an attack on the causes of the problems we are addressing. We may provide food stamps to prevent starvation, but then some people start to look at the causes of poverty. This leads to an emphasis on education and job opportunities. I think we are seeing this political dynamic with climate change as well.

If we are going to make the transition to a renewable resource based, sustainable economy we will need a sophisticated partnership between government and the private sector. That will need to be informed by an understanding of ecology, earth systems science, and climate science. When your streets keep getting flooded you first work to stop the flood, and then you ask: Why is this happening?

The ideology of denying climate science does not prevent investment in resiliency infrastructure, but does prevent an objective search for causes. Just as civil rights are still subject to political struggle, we can expect a long battle with climate deniers in the United States. Fortunately, climate denial is mainly an American problem, and in a global economy other nations matter a great deal.

The way around climate denial has been carved out by the Obama team: Use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases. The next step will be to do the basic research needed to develop renewable energy technologies that will drive fossil fuels from the market place. Even climate deniers will buy energy that is cheaper but as reliable as fossil fuels. This R&D must include dramatic increases in funding for renewable energy technology research by our national labs and research universities, along with substantial tax breaks for companies bringing this technology to the market and for individuals who replace fossil fuels with renewables.

Climate denial is an ideology based on the fear of losing the benefits of our energy intensive economy. It builds on the fear that government will take away our SUVs and air conditioners. Taking climate denial on directly is necessary but futile. The end run is to make climate denial irrelevant. The key is energy efficiency, distributed generation through microgrids and smart grids, and renewable energy. These are realistic and feasible updates to our aging energy infrastructure. They are also a stimulator of employment and economic growth. If we are able to develop a more modern and cost effective energy system, climate denial and sea level rise should slowly recede into history.

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