As forecasts for rising sea levels tied to climate change become increasingly dire, cities such as New York and Miami are developing expensive, large-scale solutions to hold back or adapt to encroaching waters. Even for these cities, the solutions pose financial and logistical challenges, but solutions such as raising entire buildings and city streets could be the only way to safeguard these cities in a century in which sea levels are expected to rise considerably. Already, Miami’s mayor has proposed spending 192 million on fighting rising waters and flood prevention, and city administrators anticipate eventually needing 900 million for drainage, road elevation, and water pumps.
Whether this will be enough to hold back rising seas is unclear, with estimates still rising as scientists begin to fully comprehend the disintegration of glaciers, and to better understand data from the planet’s past. Until fairly recently, estimates of sea level rise by the end of the century hovered around three feet. Newer estimates have suggested the possibility of up to 9 feet or more in increases, according to 350.org founder Bill McKibben, writing for the Washington Post.
Yet, as cities in the richest parts of the world craft elaborate, multimillion dollar plans to address the problem, vulnerable and highly populated areas in the developing world are already reeling from the effects. The ultimate irony is that many of those who are suffering from this loss of farmland and internal displacement are populations who have contributed little, if at all, to the global emissions of carbon dioxide that have precipitated the current crisis. Solutions need to focus on global efforts, in which the populations responsible for carbon emissions reduce or ultimately eliminate the use of fossil fuels. This possibility seems increasingly feasible given recent reductions in the price of wind and solar power. It may still be possible to keep sea level increases to a minimum.
As long ago as 2007, economists predicted that even just 39 inches (1 meter) of rising sea levels could create as many as 56 million refugees in developing nations. Already, Bangladesh, which contributes only 0.4 metric tons per capita to global carbon emissions (compared to 17 from the US) is already feeling these effects. The World Bank estimates that 400,000 people move from the rest of the country to the capital Dhaka each year, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has estimated that 70 percent of the city’s slum-dwellers are escaping environmental changes. One study found that many of these families were facing difficulties finding fresh drinking water, as rising sea levels spilled saltwater into coastal watersheds.
The current problem extends beyond Bangladesh. Low-lying Pacific islands such as Tuvalu and Kiribati are among the most threatened places in the world when it comes to sea levels. As of May this year, 17 people, 11 from Tuvalu, and five from Kiribati, have claimed official refugee status in New Zealand, with climate change as part of their claims. 13 had already been rejected, while four of the claims had yet to be determined. In response, a paper from the World Bank argued that Australia and New Zealand should allow open migration from Pacific nations whose populations are threatened by climate change.
On these islands, especially low-lying coral atolls and ring-shaped reef islands in the Central Pacific, high-tides can create difficulties for local populations. These encroaching waters can contaminate drinking water, destroy crops on which locals depend to survive, and can even disturb graveyards.
In coastal Vietnam, particularly the Mekong Delta region with a population of 17 million people, saltwater is encroaching on farmland, and leading to increases in coastal erosion. The area has also seen more frequent typhoons and worsening floods.
Of course, the effects already faced by the developing world are just the tip of the iceberg, as it were. A report earlier this month suggested that climate change could force tens of millions of people to abandon their homes in the next decade alone, creating the largest refugee crisis in the history of the world.
Expensive solutions that seek to adapt to these changes, such as floating architecture, are impressive and hopeful ideas for residents of cities like Miami. But they do little for people in places such as Bangladesh and Kiribati, who have barely played any role at all in global greenhouse gas emissions. The world’s richer nations, responsible for the overwhelming majority of these emissions, need to take action to reduce them while it could still slow rising sea levels. With cheaper renewable energy, this may be an increasingly feasible option without slowing the world’s economy to a grinding halt. The only thing standing in the way is people’s hesitance to change, fueled by regressive politics and a focus on short term profits.