Sea Level Rise is No Joke


President and Senior Scientist Dr. Eric A. Davidson

Last year I wrote in this space about a presidential candidate who claimed that scientists were manipulating data about climate change in order to bring in research dollars, suggesting that climate change is a hoax. This year, we have witnessed the nominee of one of the major parties make a joke about the rising oceans.

Concern about the environment and recognition of the importance of good science to find ways that both environmental and economic issues can be addressed for the benefit of humanity should not be partisan issues. There was a time in the 60s and 70s when both Democratic and Republican presidents and Congress supported environmental science research and seriously deliberated on policy recommendations emanating from science. Some of our nation’s strongest environmental laws were enacted during the Nixon era, based on scientific understanding of the importance of clean air and water for human health as well as ecosystem health. Sadly, we now live in a different time, when a major party candidate decided that it was politically advantageous to appear before a nationally televised convention and not only belittle one of the most important challenges of our time, but also thereby infer that science can and should be ignored.

While everyone is entitled to an opinion, no one is entitled to his or her own facts. So, first, let’s get straight the facts by which we must all live:

  • Sea level is now rising at an increasing rate for two reasons: first, the oceans are getting warmer, and water expands as it warms; second, on average, the world’s glaciers are receding and the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are melting.
  • The rate of increase in ocean and land temperatures during the last century cannot be explained by natural climatic variation and is entirely consistent with what we know of the physics of how heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, like carbon dioxide coming from burning gas, coal, and oil, are resulting in warming of the Earth.
  • As sea level rises, the effects of storm surges grow, including loss of human life, damage to property, and damage to coastal ecosystems.

Whether these facts should be the subject of grave concern or dismissive joking is a matter of opinion, I suppose, but one needn’t dig very deep to see how unwise the joking is. I’ve witnessed my homeowner’s insurance premiums triple here on Cape Cod during the last decade, because the insurance companies reached the opinion that grave concerns are warranted about the increasing frequency and intensity of storms and storm surges with sea level rise and climate change. Their decision to increase premiums was not based on political ideology, but rather on clear-headed analysis of the recent trends in storm damage costs. Worse than the increased cost of insurance is the suffering caused by storm surges and flooding.

Related effects of climate change, such as extreme drought and heat waves that reduce agriculture output and increase forest fire risk, the spread of vectors of diseases like West Nile virus, imperiled supplies of potable fresh water, and ocean acidification that threatens coral reefs and fisheries, also do not strike me as laughing matters.

The best ways to help people live prosperous and fulfilling lives is also a matter of opinion, for which there should be vigorous debate. My science background makes me think first of how much of our health and prosperity comes from sound, science-based management of the Earth’s resources. Employment and GDP are clearly important, but let us not forget that you can’t eat GDP, or drink GDP, or hide behind GDP during a storm. Our wealth ultimately arises from how cleverly we extract the food, fiber, water, and other resources needed to support our economic enterprises without spoiling those resources for future generations. Properly managing our soils, fresh water, oceans, and forests is essential to our health and economic well being. Maintaining a hospitable climate and avoiding sea level rise are also basic essentials for helping people find and maintain a prosperous future for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren.

Regardless of election outcomes this year, we need to re-establish respect across the political spectrum for the value of science and to rekindle the bipartisan recognition of previous eras that environmental and economic well-being share a common, not antagonistic, basis.