In the movie “Superman” (the original 1978 one with Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor), the plot revolves around a scheme to transform property in California that’s miles inland into the new West Coast. Luthor plans to make this happen via a missile launched at the San Andreas Fault.
If he’d been a little more patient, though, he might have saved himself the trouble.
That’s because the world’s coastlines, according to an alarming series of new reports, are going to be inundated by rising sea levels earlier than once predicted. Vast sheets of ice in Antarctica and polar regions like Greenland are melting at rates that may be irreversible at this point as the waters around them heat faster than expected. As things stand, the roughly 40% of the U.S. population that lives in coastal counties will need to abandon their homes in the coming decades. And we’re not at all prepared for the economic disaster that will come along with that.
A leading cause of that sea rise will be the increasing speed at which ice shelves like the West Antarctic shelf melt. That’s particularly bad, The Washington Post explains, because “unlike relatively thin and floating sea ice, the ice shelves are thicker and hold back massive glaciers that contain far more ice.” According to a recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change, there may be no way to avoid the collapse of the West Antarctic shelf, precipitating up to 10 feet of sea-level rise. That alone would see beach cities like Miami reduced to a series of islands in projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Another report from the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative released last week was even more bleak. If things continue as they are, “the planet could be committed to more than 40 feet of sea-level rise — a melt that would take centuries and reshape societies across the globe,” NBC News reported. That’s far beyond the estimated 3 feet of sea-level rise that a 2021 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated would happen by 2100. The new research on melting ice sheets has scientists pretty sure that things are worse off than we’d thought.
“We’re displacing millions of people with the decisions being made now,” Julie Brigham-Grette, a geosciences professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an author of the report, told NBC News. Rob DeConto, the director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Earth & Sustainability and another co-author, said that the current rate of climate change would mean we’d be “facing rates of sea-level rise way outside the range of adaptability.”
Those dire predictions are based on a presumption that the global temperature will rise at least 2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial average. It’s a number that has been at the forefront of the world’s attempts to curb the threat of climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement, which 195 countries have signed on to, aims to cap the warming of the planet at that level or, even better, 1.5 degrees Celsius. In striving for that goal, countries agreed to curb global carbon emissions, thus ensuring that fossil fuel production and consumption peak and then swiftly decline.
As you might have guessed, that is not what has been happening. Earlier this month, the United Nations Environment Programme, alongside the Stockholm Environment Institute nonprofit and several other institutions, issued a report that looked at the policies surrounding oil, coal and natural gas production in the world’s top 20 energy-producing nations. Together, these nations, which produce 80% of the planet’s energy, “intend by 2030 to extract double the amount of fossil fuels that would be consistent with the threshold needed to keep warming in check,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
We know the cause of the rise in temperatures, and we’re very clearly seeing its effects, yet we keep trundling along toward disaster. It’s a disconnect spelled out in unflinching terms in a new UNEP report issued on Monday, “Emissions Gap Report 2023: Broken Record.” As of the beginning of October, 2023 saw 86 days with temperatures over 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, making it the hottest year on record. “Not only was September the hottest month ever, it also exceeded the previous record by an unprecedented 0.5°C, with global average temperatures at 1.8°C above preindustrial levels,” according to the authors.
If — and that’s still a big “if” — the levels of commitment to reduce carbon emissions continue at the same rate, Monday’s report says, we’re still on pace to hit 3 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. As you may recall from a few paragraphs ago, that’s still a whole degree warmer than what will cause the catastrophic ice shelf collapses that’ll render most major coastal cities accessible only by boat.
It’s not a coincidence that all of these reports are coming out at roughly the same time. In just a few weeks, a major annual climate conference, COP28, is being held in the United Arab Emirates. And as the scientists and experts publishing these reports make abundantly clear, it is beyond time for the world to get serious about the threat we are facing. Even setting aside the devastating impact on people and their communities, leaders should at least consider the havoc this will wreak on the world economy.
Closer to home, the United States needs to start planning for the worst. It’s already harder to get home insurance in places like Florida and California thanks to the effects of climate change. And it’s only a matter of time before they’re literally underwater and coastal properties become liabilities rather than the luxury accommodations they are today. So as the U.S. weans itself off fossil fuels, it also must consider what to do as some of the most coveted plots of land in the country become uninhabitable.