Briefing Overview

Title: Sea Level Rise: retreat or defeat?
Author: Peter Kingsley
Approx. Reading Time: 5 minutes


Sea Level Rise: retreat or defeat?

The threat of rising sea levels has gone from a weak signal to the mainstream. Most recently, we wrote about how many of the world’s major cities are vulnerable in “To Higher Ground”.

Recent reports that the Western Antarctic shelf is melting faster than anticipated suggest that global sea levels may rise between three and eight feet by 2100. Estimates of ocean temperatures, which have a direct impact on the global climate and marine biology, have been revised upwards. The direction of travel is clear, but given the complexity of the global system, these estimates may turn out to be over-optimistic.

A widely accepted signal that over the long-term extremes are likely will deliver shocks to the global financial, economic and political systems. Shocks emerge long before events themselves (as we describe in ‘Inventing the Big Hedge’).

Sea level rise is only one factor. Natural subsidence and wide variations in local conditions, with some regions rising and others falling are making the situation worse. Add to that, urban planning has often created subsidence and so increased vulnerability.

More than half the world’s population live within 120 miles of the sea. Urbanisation is accelerating so fast that this is expected to rise to 75 per cent by 2025. Cities are vulnerable not just to sea level rise, but extreme temperatures, in part due to the ‘heat island’ effect and to air and water pollution.

The geographical picture may be clear and theoretical answers may sound rational. The simple answer is to head to higher ground.

Politics Shapes the Future

However, the political, economic and financial uncertainties run deeper. The barriers to urgent action are, above all, cultural. As we have said before, they raise profound questions for the international community about how to think long-term:

“How human cultures think about time is the critical, yet largely ignored issue. Resilience over the next twenty or thirty years is quite different to resilience to 2218. The primary issue is whether governments should think in terms of centuries, not decades, in the face of possible existential risks to the world’s coastal cities. The answer is yes.”

There are fundamental questions about the weakness of the language and narratives surrounding the now fashionable yet flawed concepts of ‘resilience’. The decisive factor is not urban redesign, resettlement of vulnerable areas, sea defences or ‘natural solutions’ that extend wetland areas by creating ‘sponges’ to counter coastal flooding. It is political will and vision.

Cities are not only at the front line of climate change, sea level rise and flood risk but at the forefront of cultural divisions.

On the one hand, we have growing numbers of young people, environmentalist lobbies, liberal democrats and multilateralists. Each group shares a long-term perspective and concern that the current underlying structures of the geopolitical economy cannot be reconciled with a sustainable future. At the extreme, some of these groups argue that civilisation has little hope without radical cultural and structural change.

On the other, large groups of corporations, wealthy individuals, urban developers, investors and regional leaders who share a reluctance to give up control. They are, literally and metaphorically, invested in preserving their asset portfolios. Generalisation is dangerous: yet each country and region has groups that stick to these positions. To many of them, changes to the status quo are by definition against their vested interests. They may be well aware of the systemic risks to the natural world and both the economic and political systems but have yet to imagine a future world in which they can protect their strategic advantage. Any structural change signifies a loss of control and a loss of power.

This philosophy has deep roots, particularly in the US. As David Nye argued in The American Technological Sublime, the underlying cultural assumption held by many Americans is the idea of human power over nature. This sense of sublime is attached to the narratives of technological dominance and American exceptionalism that go back to the construction of the Lake Erie Canal, the Empire State Building and the Boulder Dam.

The outcomes of the battles that are now beginning will shape the future for millions.

Language Shapes Politics

Culture and language are inseparable. Words like ‘resilience’ and above all, ‘retreat’ have vital importance. ‘To Higher Ground’ means retreat from areas and even regions that are vulnerable to even the best-case scenarios.

These might include, for example, Miami, which will likely face economic and social collapse long before sea levels rise substantially. San Paolo is already experiencing water shortages, linked to the deforestation of the Amazon.

‘Letting nature shape the coast’ is emerging. Retreat means stepping back from vulnerable areas, recognising that there are limits to the economic argument for investment in conventional defences.

Language matters, both in general and at a local level. As Ashley Dawson argues in ‘Extreme Cities’, scientific generalities about climate and sea level rise mean that the possible fate of individual cities has only recently entered the scientific literature. To some, this may be too late.

His point is simple: cities face specific challenges. They are vital in the aggregate, not least because of the risks of mass migration. The shape of the future will be determined by how each city responds to the local risk landscape. Cities are leading economic indicators. Soon, under pressure from regulators, investors will frame their support in a new context: long-term scenarios. These may undermine confidence as imagined futures suddenly become today’s cultural realities. Vulnerable cities may become a dominant narrative.

Retreat, however, has different meanings to different groups. To environmentalists, growing numbers of academics and scientists, it is seen as a positive, creative, long-term response to an inevitable crisis.

To developers, investors and some city leaders, many deeply invested in the status quo, retreat means accepting defeat. Ashley Dawson quotes Liz Koslov, who says that politicians “tend to discourage retreat. It is not a viable adaptation option for them, but rather a useful threat to encourage alternative courses of action, such as mitigation or building levees and seawalls”. It means that humans must admit that they do not have control over nature.

Peter Kingsley
March 2019

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Briefing Overview

Title: Sea Level Rise: retreat or defeat?
Author: Peter Kingsley

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