Do you remember back when owning ocean front property was a good thing? Most of us had the dream of looking out our windows and seeing endless waves lapping at our doorstep. That’s one of the reasons 39% of Americans live near the ocean. 123 million of us call coastal counties home. Now we’re learning that ocean front property might not be such a good thing. Rising sea levels are rapidly turning that ocean front view into a front row seat for a looming disaster.
The current issue of Rolling Stone paints a bleak picture of the future facing Miami. With a population of 430,000, Miami is looking at the same rising waters of many coastal cities, but its particular geography is making the problem more acute. First of all, it’s flat. I mean really flat. Most of the city is no more than 5 feet above sea level. The highest point in the city is a ridge, only 12 feet above sea level. On top of that, Miami residents not only have to worry about water coming from the Atlantic on the East, they also have to worry about it coming in from Biscayne Bay on the West.
“Why not just build dikes like the Dutch do?” It’s a good question, but the answer isn’t that simple. First, building what amounts to a wall to hold back the sea is hideously expensive. In some ways, Miami is similar to the Dutch resort city of Scheveningen. Engineers there created an elaborate dike to protect the city; at a cost of $100 million dollars, but that project is only a half-mile long. Miami is closer to 7 miles, and that’s just on the ocean side. If you want to protect the bayside too, double it. The other problem is that Miami is not Schheveningen. The two cities have radically different geology. The Dutch city sits on impermeable bedrock. Miami sits on very permeable limestone. It’s a porous layer that water flows easily through. No matter how high you build the wall, the sea water will just seep under it and flood the city anyway. Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami summed up the situation. “Miami, as we know it today, is doomed. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.”
That dreary prognosis is shared by a lot of cities, particularly those farther north along the East Coast. According to a report titled Nature Climate Change by the U.S. Geological Survey, sea level rise is increasing three to four times faster along a heavily-populated 600-mile stretch from Cape Hatteras, NC to north of Boston than it is globally. There are several reasons. First, the Gulf Stream that runs off our Atlantic seaboard pulls a considerable volume of water along with it, and away from our coast. As the climate changes, we’re seeing evidence that the Gulf Stream is slowing down. The slower it gets, the less water is pulls away, and the higher the sea level rises along our shores.
The second factor brings us back to geology again. The land along the East Coast was pushed up dramatically during the last ice age by the weight of the glaciers pushing southward. When the glaciers retreated, the land began to slowly return to its original elevation. It’s been doing this ever since, and it’s still sinking. Rising sea levels and sinking land do not equal a happy future for the millions of Americans who live in this region.
We’re already seeing the effects. Scientists are still debating how much of Hurricane Sandy was caused by global warming, but no one is arguing the fact that sea level in New York is a foot higher than it was a century ago, and that the damage wouldn’t have been as severe if the storm surge hadn’t come on top that. In my home state of Maryland, between the ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, we’ve got over 3,000 miles of coast line that are vulnerable. Our southern neighbor, Virginia, is just as vulnerable. All up and down much of the East Coast, the story is the same.
That’s why many of us were cautiously optimistic when President Obama made his most recent climate speech. He spoke forcefully about the need to reduce our carbon production, and laid out concrete steps his administration has taken. He also condemned those standing in the way, saying. “I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.” Along with this, he proposed ways to get around the flat earthers in Congress by using regulations and executive orders to increase our fuel efficiency standards, invest in alternative energy sources and dramatically lower our carbon production.
It was a good speech, but follow-up is everything. Even as he was laying out his dramatic goals, Obama left some things conveniently vague. For instance, he pledged that within the next 7 years, the U.S. government would generate 20% of its electricity from renewable sources. It’s a noble goal, but he neglected to mention that he’s only going to be around for the first half, and if his successor is a Republican it could all be easily undone. He’s also still playing coy on the issue of the Key Stone pipeline.
Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.
It sounds good, but he left himself an easy out if someone in his administration can satisfy him that it won’t exacerbate carbon pollution. The State Department has already said as much.
Now that the president has made a public commitment to reducing carbon emissions and fighting global warming, it’s up to voters to hold his feet to the fire and see that he actually does it. If he tries to satisfy both the environmentalist and the climate deniers by making pro-environment pronouncements in public, but privately letting projects that make the problem worse, like Key Stone, go ahead, Americans have to make it clear that they won’t stand for it.