Let’s have a worthy debate about sea level rise

Let’s have a worthy debate about sea level rise
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While there is a worthy debate to be had about what we do to address the threat to our coastlines posed by global sea level rise, there is no longer a worthy debate about whether that threat exists, or what is causing it. Global sea level rise is the direct result of human-driven global warming as planet-warming greenhouse gases build up in our atmosphere. And, yes — as much as all of us wish it were otherwise — our ongoing dependence on fossil fuels is a big part of the problem.

The basics are easy to understand. As the oceans warm, seawater expands. As glaciers and ice sheets warm, they melt. To deny these facts is not just to deny climate change. It is to deny basic physics. This is precisely what Fred Singer did in his June 8 commentary in The Hill entitled “There’s no need to panic about the rising sea level.” (Tell that, by the way, to those in Miami Beach or Hampton Roads Virginia, in New York City, North Carolina’s Outer Banks, or yes, Washington, D.C., itself.)

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Singer is arguably the granddaddy of modern-day climate change denialism. His latest commentary echoes the same misinformation as his recent Wall Street Journal commentary, “The Sea Is Rising, but Not Because of Climate Change.” It presents a virtual laundry list of discredited climate change denier talking points. No, sea levels aren’t rising at a steady rate — they are in fact accelerating. The rate of ice sheet melting in Greenland and Antarctica is also accelerating, in part due to warming oceans that erode the ice from beneath, destabilizing it.  

 

These observations fly in the face of those who try to argue that sea level will continue to rise at the same rate, which is why legitimate scientific conclusions are reached not in op-ed pieces such as Singer’s, but through careful peer-reviewed research.  

That research shows that sea levels are rising and human-caused climate change is the cause. Don’t just take our word for it; help yourself to the mountain of scientific literature demonstrating these inescapable conclusions.

Singer indeed knows that he doesn’t have the facts on his side, so he engages in distortion and diversion. For example, he takes a swipe at one of us as an “alarmist,” attacking the “Hockey Stick” curve published more than two decades ago demonstrating that recent warming is unprecedented in at least a thousand years. That work has been overwhelmingly reaffirmed and extended by subsequent work by numerous independent scientific teams. But professional climate change deniers continue to attack the curve because it is an iconic reminder of the profound impact that we are now having on this planet.    

Perhaps because of the images of flooding that now permeate news broadcasts around the world as the seas rise and invade our coastlines, we are seeing a renewed attack on climate science: this time to discredit the link between human-caused climate change and sea level rise. Yet, even wealthy stretches of coastal real estate are feeling the pain of increased coastal flooding, the incidence of which has doubled over the past 30 years.  

It is time to pivot and confront this head on. Even Singer’s opinion pieces do not deny the fact that sea level is rising. This is an issue that we can all get behind. Ensuring a secure coastal economy will benefit Americans of every stripe. If in doubt, just take in the symbolism painted inside of the dome of the U.S. Capitol building next time you walk through and note Minerva (science), Neptune (marine), and Mercury (commerce).

It is high time for all of us to roll up our sleeves and address the gradual yet persistent attack that is bearing down on our coastlines, an attack that unquestionably threatens the safety and security of the United States. Without strong policy to quickly slow and eventually eliminate fossil fuel emissions, the seas will rise faster and faster, resulting in trillions of dollars of economic damages and displacement of hundreds of millions of refugees from every coastal city in the world. That may sound daunting — and the implications of scientific research sometimes are — but scientific knowledge also can be incredibly empowering. Allow us to empower you to have the courage to pivot and confront.

Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center, and author of four books, including “The Hockey Stick and The Climate Wars” and most recently, “The Madhouse Effect” with Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles.

Andrea Dutton is an assistant professor of geological sciences at the University of Florida and a leading expert on rising seas. She was featured in a recent PBS NOVA documentary on climate change. Rolling Stone named her one of 25 People Shaping the Future in Tech, Science, Medicine, Activism and More.