Climate Risk Dispatches from the Future

World Leaders Meet to Consider Global Rescue Strategy for Cities

Shanghai, September 12, 2019: World leaders are meeting in Shanghai, China, this week to consider the latest data suggesting that the rate of sea level rise has jumped five-fold just in the last few years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reportedly will radically increase its sea level rise forecasts in its upcoming 6th Assessment Report. The Report is scheduled for release next year, in 2020; final forecast estimates are not yet available. Experts speaking off the record suggest that the IPCC will forecast almost 3 feet of sea level rise by 2050, and some 8 feet by 2100.

Just five years ago, in its Fifth Assessment Report published in 2014, the IPCC projected just 10-32 inches of sea level rise by 2100, a lower estimate than experts now believe is likely. Even in 2014, some scientists expressed concerns over what they believed was already happening underneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and in Greenland. Jason Box and Stephan Rahmstorf were among the scientists raising the alarm, arguing that the rate of ice melt could be accelerating dramatically. Well-known climate scientist James Hansen argued as early as 2011 that the worst-case for sea level rise by 2100 was 16 feet, not 32 inches.

Experts caution that sea level rise by itself is not the sole concern. What has scientists worried today is the combination of sea level rise even in the nearer term with increases in storm surges from more extreme storms expected in the future and King tides. Based on today’s information, many of the world’s largest cities appear to be at significant risk within just the next 2-3 decades, along with hundreds of millions of inhabitants living in those cities or close to the shore.

In Shanghai, several speakers today noted that there is no pot of money available to distribute to those facing the greatest risks. Countries around the world, from the United States to China, all face potentially catastrophic threats to major cities. In the United States alone, the list includes important port cities and financial centers such as New Orleans, Miami, New York, and others. Individual nations, and even individual cities, will likely be largely on their own in adapting to changing sea levels. Cities like New York will, no doubt, implement massive infrastructure projects that city officials have considered hypothetical until now. Such projects will be extremely expensive. It’s not clear who will foot the bill – but it is safe to say that many homeowners and business owners will have to choose between retreating from the coast altogether, or paying for expensive retrofits and funding the new tax districts associated with these infrastructure projects. After recently bailing out the National Flood Insurance Program, U.S. lawmakers from non-coastal states have made clear they will not pay for losses they say could have been prevented if coastal states had not ignored the risks.

Participants to the Shanghai discussions have accepted that there is little they can do to slow sea level rise in the near-term. Experts have presented projections showing that more than 200 feet of sea level rise has to be considered business-as-usual today, since it is likely that all of the world’s ice will eventually disappear in the face of climate change. The U.S. President, speaking today, urged other leaders to focus on changing that business-as-usual trajectory, and it appears that world leaders will finally be able to put their differences aside in agreeing on dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions going forward. Negotiations are expected to continue next week to agree on a final climate change treaty text.

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