Guest Column: The time to act on climate change is now

01/27/2019 5:51 AM |

The good news, we can save the planet if we act now, but if we fail to make a concerted effort today, climate change will overwhelm us.

This is not an opinion. Scientific evidence, based on experimentation, robust theory and observation, has established unequivocally that human activities, such as deforestation, cement production, and the burning of fossil fuels, are causing global warming. And global warming drives climate change. We already see the effects of climate change in the increased frequency and duration of wild fires, extreme weather events, droughts, melting glaciers and polar ice sheets, extreme floods, ocean acidification, species extinction, increasing intensity of tropical storms, and rising sea levels. But why should we care?

First, I’d like to think that all Americans have a sense of morality — that includes trying to ease human suffering. If we don’t act quickly to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the result will be human suffering on a scale humanity has never before experienced. A 2014 World Health Organization report estimated that by 2030 an additional 250,000 deaths worldwide per year would occur attributed to climate change. However, a Jan. 14, 2019, analysis of that report published in The New England Journal of Medicine concluded that the projected deaths are underestimated. And those who will suffer the most — people living in undeveloped regions — have done the least to create the problem.

Second, there are pragmatic reasons for East Enders to care about climate change — sea level rise and the increasing intensity of tropical storms.

According to a NASA study released in February 2018, global sea levels are projected to rise 26 inches by 2100, which the lead author of the study admits is underestimated and likely to increase due to accelerated melting of polar ice. A more realistic estimate would be a range of global sea level rise of between two and eight feet by 2100.

But the situation for the Middle Atlantic Coast and the East End is worse. Global sea levels are rising primarily because of the heat expansion of the oceans and melting polar ice sheets, but two additional factors are causing our region to see a significantly greater increase in sea level.

First, our coastline is sinking due to “rebound land subsidence.” During the last glaciation, up to two miles of ice pushed the center of the North American continent down, forcing the edges (our coastline) up. Rebounding from the weight of the melted glacier, the Earth’s mantle layer is slowly rising in the continental interior but sinking along the coast, returning the Earth to pre-glacial conditions. For us, the effect we see is an additional increase in sea level.

Second, the Gulf Stream is slowing, which allows more water to “pile up” along the coast. This slowing of the Gulf Stream is arguably caused by global warming, but the effect is an additional increase in sea level for the East End above the global average.

What does all this mean? According to SeaLevelRise.org, “The sea level off New York’s coast is nearly 9 inches higher than it was in 1950.” And, “In the last decade, the speed at which New York’s sea level is rising has increased and is now rising by 1 inch every 7-8 years. Around Battery Park, it took the sea level 48 years to rise by 6 inches. Scientists forecast that in just the next 14 years, the sea level will have risen by another 6 inches.” The same source states that Montauk Point will experience sea level rise of over 16 inches by 2050.

But these projections are misleading because the predicted increases in sea level will not stop by 2050 or 2100 and are likely to accelerate due to increased global warming unless we reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2030 (IPCC Special Report: Global Warming of 1.50 C). To put this in perspective, if the Greenland ice sheet melts entirely, sea levels will rise by six meters or about 20 feet. If the Antarctic ice sheet melts entirely, sea levels will rise by 60 meters, or almost 200 feet.

While those scenarios are not imminent, we know that both ice sheets are melting at an accelerating rate. A study published Jan. 14, 2019, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that ice loss on Antarctica has accelerated by 6.3 times in just four decades. And a study published Jan. 21, 2019, in the same journal reports that, by 2012, the Greenland ice sheet had lost ice at a rate four times faster than 2003.

Any projection of sea level rise for coastal community planning purposes would be incomplete without mentioning storm surge and the fact that tropical systems are increasing in intensity throughout the world. The relationship is simple: Increased storm intensity produces increased storm surge.

The combined effect of rising sea levels and the potential storm surge associated with the increased intensity of tropical systems require local governments to begin planning strategies of adaptation and mitigation. Adaptation refers to strategies that address the consequences of increased sea level and storm surge, such as elevating vulnerable roadways and constructing dikes to contain flooding. Mitigation attacks the problem directly by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Mitigation might include, for example, installing solar panels and electricity-generating wind turbines at the Southold landfill, erecting wind turbines around the perimeter of town parks, down the median of Route 48, and adjacent to the LIRR tracks.

Whether motivated by an ethical concern to save planet Earth or the more pragmatic desire to prevent economic losses, the time to act is now. The alternative is to sit back and watch as the East End slips inexorably beneath the waves.

Mr. Gibbons is a former U.S. Navy officer and Vietnam veteran. He taught social studies at Mattituck High School for 35 years and is currently an assistant professor of education at Long Island University.

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