Human caused greenhouse gas pollution is heating the Earth and causing the planet’s polar ice caps and other glacial ice to melt. This, along with simply heating the ocean, has caused measurable sea level rise. Even more worrisome is this: the current elevated level of CO2 in the atmosphere was associated in the past with sea levels several meters higher than they are today. Even if we slow down Carbon pollution very quickly, we can expect sea levels to be at least 8 meters higher, eventually. How soon? Nobody knows, nobody can give you a time frame on this because the rate of melting of the major glaciers in Greenland and the Antarctic is hard to measure. All we know for sure is that the rate of melting is speeding up, and that in the past, the current level of atmospheric CO2 has typically caused a very large amount of melting.
Bangladesh is low country. A very large percentage of the country is on the Bangladesh Plain, which is almost entirely below 10 meters in elevation. This is where a large portion of the population in that country lives, and where a large portion of the food is grown. The greenhouse gas pollution we have caused so far is sufficient to virtually guarantee that Bangladesh will become a very small country over the next generation or two. Much sooner than that, though, sea level rise in the region will affect, and is already affecting, freshwater reserves. We expect the largest tropical storms to become larger and more intense as an effect of human caused global warming. Sea level rise makes the storm surges from those events worse. So of immediate concern and becoming more of a problem every year is the threat of deadly and damaging tropical storms exacerbated by warming of the seas and increased sea levels.
The deadliest tropical cyclone on record occurred in Bangladesh; that was the Great Bhola Cyclone of 1970, which killed up to one half of a million people. The second deadliest cyclone known hit Bangladesh and India in great antiquity. Eight of the ten deadliest known tropical cyclones hit the region. So, tropical cyclones are already a problem in Bangladesh, and sea level rise and increased cyclone strength are going to make that much much worse.
Bjørn Lomborg, in a recent interview, told Bangladesh, the country, not to worry too much about global warming, and instead, to focus on other problems. He equated concern over sea level rise in a country where sea level rise is a very significant problem with immorality. While Lomborg may be correct to point out the obvious – that Bangladesh has a lot of problems in public health and other areas to worry about – he is wrong to suggest that sea level rise in that low lying country can be addressed just as the Dutch have managed the sea in The Netherlands.
Lomborg seems to not know much about sea level rise. He once noted that sea level rise had stopped, or even decreased, by referring to a single year’s worth of data (see graphic above). That statement and his suggestion that sea level rise should be a low priority in a country that may be the most threatened by sea level rise in the world (aside from island nations) is reminiscent of a statement by J.R. Spradley, a delegate at an international conference on climate change in 1990, speaking about sea level rise in Bangladesh. He was quoted in the Washington Post as saying “The situation is not a disaster; it is merely a change. The area won’t have disappeared; it will just be underwater. Where you now have cows, you will have fish.” (Washington Post, December 30th, 1990.)
Part of Lomborg’s argument is typical for him. He generates a straw man by equating concern over climate change with concern over a meteor about to smash into the earth. In the interview he said,
Projecting scary scenarios are probably unhealthy to deal with real issues. Now, if there was a meteor hurtling towards earth, we should tell people. If there was really something destroying the earth we should definitely be telling people and doing something about it. My point is if you, for instance, look at climate change, it is often portrayed as the end of the world. But if you look at for instance the UN climate panel, they tell us by about 2070 the total cost of global warming is going to be somewhere between 0.2 and 2% of the GDP. And that emphasises what I am trying to say – global warming is real, it is a problem, it is something we should fix, but it’s not the end of the world.
The problem with this is that sea level rise is, essentially, the end of the world, if you are Bangladesh.
The most troubling part of Lomborg’s statements is that he equates the Netherlands with Bangladesh. The Netherlands is about 25% below sea level, but the sea is kept back by dikes. Other than their cheese, chocolate, love of splitting the restaurant tab, this is probably what the Dutch are most known for. Indeed Dutch engineers were drafted into managing water related problems around the world for centuries. So maybe the Dutch can help Bangladesh keep the Indian Ocean off it’s turf when that ocean is 8 meters above the present level. Lomborg looks to the Dutch to do just this:
… how much of a problem is [sea level rise in Bangladesh]? The Dutch has shown us 200 years ago, you can handle sea level rise fairly, easily and cheaply, you can do the same thing here and you will do the same thing here. Remember when people say, global warming is a big problem and we need to put a wind turbine here – any amount of wind turbine or solar panels that we are going to put in the next 50 years, are going to have absolutely no impact on the sea level rise that towards the end of the century. They may make a tiny difference towards the 22nd century, but if want to do anything about sea level rise, it’s all about adaptation. Globally there seems to be actually less ferocious hurricanes, one measure is accumulated cyclone energy, which is sort of a good global estimate and it’s actually been at some of the lowest levels since we started monitoring in the 1970s. There is a theoretical argument that you will see slightly fewer but slightly stronger hurricanes towards the end of the century. Again, this is not by any means the end of Bangladesh.”
The Netherlands is about 41,543 square kilometers in size with about 17% of that reclaimed from the sea, this and other land kept dry by dikes. Bangladesh is about 147,570 square kilometers. The Netherlands does not get tropical cyclones very often. Bangladesh gets the worst of them. There are geological differences between the regions that matter as well. Bangladesh is, essentially, a giant delta (I oversimplify slightly) which means that part of is is sinking all the time even while the sea level goes up. Flooding along rivers becomes a big problem with sea level rise. Both regions have rivers. Bangladesh, however, is a country made out of rivers, and among them is the Ganges, which is the world’s third largest river by discharge. Bangladesh probably has more problems with flooding than any other nation. In 1988, 75% of the entire country of Bangladesh was covered by a flood.
It is estimated that a 1 meter rise in sea level would take about 17.5%, or 25,000 square kilometers, of Bangladesh. I’m a little unsure of that estimate (and others I’ve seen) because different researchers count or don’t count large regions of the country that are already flooded by the sea. Another estimate gives 16% of the land to the sea with a 1.5 meter sea level rise. (You can explore various scenarios here if you like.) In any event, an 8 meter rise in sea level, which is expected long term, would take a very large part of the country, displace most of the population, and destroy most of the agricultural land. In case it is not obvious, let me note that as sea level rise threatens Bangladesh, it also threatens The Netherlands, which might keep the Dutch rather busy in their own homelands.
It is also important to note that sea level does not treat all coastlines equally. Some areas are being affected more than others. A report in CBS news recently noted, “Seas are rising more than twice as fast as the global average here in the Sundarbans, a low-lying delta region of about 200 islands in the Bay of Bengal where some 13 million impoverished Indians and Bangladeshis live. Tens of thousands … have already been left homeless, and scientists predict much of the Sundarbans could be underwater in 15 to 25 years.”
The Dutch reclaimed so much of the sea, and developed defenses against storm surges and flooding, over a period of centuries. During much of this time, The Netherlands was a major player in the European economic theater, acting as a center during the development of the world economic and colonial systems of the 17th and 18th centuries. To suggest that somehow Bangladesh can do what the Dutch did while the entire world is also busy adapting to sea level rise is absurd.
Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute has done quite a bit of research on the potential effects of sea level rise, focusing on California (see, for example, Heberger M, Cooley H, Herrera P, Gleick P, Moore E (2009) The impacts of sea level rise on the California coast. California Climate Change Center, Sacramento, California. Paper CEC–500–2009–024-F). I asked him what he felt about the Lomborg interview. He said, “So a rich Dane tells poor Bangladeshis to stop whining and just ‘handle’ sea level rise, because that’s what the rich countries do? The reality, of course, is that even in rich countries, the poor will suffer most from sea-level rise. In our analysis of the risks to California from even modest SLR over the coming decades, nearly 500,000 people – disproportionately communities of color and low-income people – will be affected. And the cost of protecting them far exceeds the money available for coastal protection.”
There is also an absurdity to Lomborg’s assertion that we (our species) and Bangladesh (the country) should put off the global project of keeping the Carbon in the ground. We don’t know how long it takes for a warming planet to melt polar glaciers, but we do know that there is a pretty well established relationship between CO2 levels and global temperature, and between global temperature and sea levels. We know this from looking at numerous case studies from the past. It turns out that the relationship, ultimately, between CO2 levels and sea level rise is sigmoidal. Below about 400ppm, as CO2 levels rise, sea levels rise rapidly. Then, between about 400ppm and 650ppm, they rise more slowly, then above that level, the rate increases again.
Now, I want to pause for a second and clarify a very important point. We are now at 400ppm. This does not mean that sea levels will start to rise slowly. The expected sea level stand for 400ppm is probably close to 8 meters above the current level. In other words, the adjustment of sea level to CO2 that we expect should be very rapid, as fast as it generally goes (or nearly so) over coming decades. Once that level is reached, and CO2 continues to increase (and it will), then there may be a slowing down as we approach but have not yet reached about 650ppm.
So, what is absurd about Lomborg’s assertion? If we forestall efforts to keep the carbon in the ground for now, we will power through that range of decreased (but continuing) ultimate increase in sea level rise between the 400 and 650 levels of CO2, and nearly guarantee returning to the higher rate, and ultimately, seeing sea level rises in the tens of meters in coming centuries.
In his interview, as well as in a brief Twitter exchange we had, Lomborg made another error, one we often seen made by lesser informed people engaged in the climate or energy conversations. Lomborg seems to think that there is a fixed amount and class of resources and that one problem must be addressed at a time. But that is not how it works. First, there are resources primarily available for one thing such as public health, while other resources may be more generally applied. Also, we can in fact address more than one problem at once. I asked Professor Michael Mann, climate scientist, what he thought about Lomborg’s interview, and he told me, “Bjorn Lomborg is a master of the false choice, often claiming that dealing with climate change will somehow detract from our ability to deal with other societal problems. In reality, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can and must work on solving numerous societal problems. In reality, climate change exacerbates most of those problems. It is a threat multiplier. Lomborg conveniently ignores that!”
Speaking of the same problem, Peter Gleick told me, “Lomborg’s classic argument that other problems like disease are far more important than climate change and sea-level rise is a common Lomborgian false dilemma. Society can, regularly does, and must tackle multiple problems at once. This is like saying that because a patient has a broken arm the doctors shouldn’t treat her life-threatening pneumonia. Patently nonsense.”
I would add that increased flooding, decreased food supply, the mass exodus of people from inundated regions, etc. will create far more disease and starvation related public health problems than Bangladesh has at the moment. Forestalling or reducing the extent of this sort of disaster has to be a high priority.
Which brings us to the question of development. Bangladesh, like so many other countries, is likely to become more and more electric over time as it develops. Lomborg seems to want that to happen with the use of fossil fuels rather than clean energy sources. But, one of the obstacles to switching from fossil Carbon based energy to clean energy in the developed world is that our infrastructure is already set up to exploit mainly fossil Carbon based sources. In nations or regions where the use of energy is being developed every effort should be made to ensure this is done with clean energy. That is independent of any local or regional issues with sea level rise. This is what makes sense and this is what we have to do.
Lomborg is often wrong. I’ve noted this before (see: Are electric cars any good? Lomborg says no, but he’s wrong. and Bjørn Lomborg WSJ Op Ed Is Stunningly Wrong). Climate Hawks critiques Lomborg’s Bangladesh strategy here noting issues I did not cover above. Scientific American published a stunning takedown of Lomborg’s book here. Recently, Steven Newton of the National Center for Science Education expanded on that critique in a note about the support of Lomborg’s approach by the anti-science Discovery Intitute.
And in his statements on Bangladesh, he is wrong again.
ADDED: I’m adding a note to address, collectively and once, a number of comments that have been posted (some moderated) about scales of time.
This post is not about reconciling geological time with day to day time. I make as an assumption, in dealing with sea level rise, the idea that all recent estimates of polar glacial melt are at best minima, and fail to get at the real problem. I feel this is true because of my bias towards paleoclimate. I see in the ancient record changes in sea level stand that seem to occur over time periods that don’t look like a few mm a year of melting. I may be wrong, but the paleo record is pretty hard data while the melt estimates are a very preliminary stab at a very large problem that we are only starting to get a handle on.
This is not the point of the present post, but several commenters, who generally deny the importance of climate change and would prefer that we do nothing about it, seem to feel a) it does matters if large proportions of Bangladesh or other low lying countries are obliterated in 30 years or 300 years. The people who will be affected ten instead of 2 generations from now don’t matter; b) the ultimate multi meter rise in sea level, which will happen, is beyond their level of credulity, so they argue from that position that therefore a one meter rise in a region that is mostly about one meter above sea level does not matter; and c) feel that our ignorance of how to reconcile geological time scales of climate change in paleoclimate (mostly) is somehow evidence that there is not change; d) as usual, failure to accept the muddled yammering that arises from these starting points constitutes a lack of true scientific rational thinking, or a liberal bias, or some other such hogwash.
There is a handful of other annoyances that come with this group of deniers, but that’s mainly it. So, now, the questions you have had, are having now, or may have in the future, have been address in this area.
If you want a higher resolution copy of the graphic at the top of this post, click through to HERE then click on the graphic.
Other posts of interest:
Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, set in the Congo.