Slouching towards Atlantis

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In a story full of surprises, the most staggering notion in Kennedy Warne’s rising seas feature is that all the world could stop burning fossil fuels today, and it wouldn’t make a shred of difference to sea levels for at least 100 years. The chemical changes that we have wrought in our atmosphere and seas since the Industrial Revolution have set our course, and the consequences are baked in. We are, as Warne puts it, “slouching towards Atlantis”.

Other elements of climate change can be mitigated—even reversed—in the medium term, but the seas will keep rising. We may keep carbon dioxide under 400 parts per million. We may keep warming to a figure around the average of 2o°C warming to avoid the worst effects of a high-energy atmosphere, but our coasts will erode, seas will over-top barriers that have withheld the waves for generations, and saltwater will leach into our groundwater and bubble up through low-lying areas as surely as the Earth turns about the Sun.

In his book Climate Change and the Coast, Massey University professor Bruce Glavovic suggests that our coast is the “frontline of the sustainability struggle in the Anthropocene, and the primary arena in which humanity must learn to adapt climate change”.High seas and Violent weather humanity will survive.

In the fullness of geological time, these changes will define the human epoch to the same degree as the social forces of population and consumption.

Critics of the public discussion around climate change have noted the themes of catastrophism in statements such as this. It’s a fair observation, but the scientific support is compelling. The International Energy Agency has concluded that meeting the 2o°C target will require leaving two- thirds of the Earth’s known reserves of oil, gas, and coal in the ground. That would require most countries to write-down the $40 trillion value of those fossil fuels, and switch, almost entirely, to renewable and carbon-neutral fuels for energy and transport within the next 30 years.

Yet we’re burning more fossil fuels than ever, and increasing the rate at which we’re burning them.

This, and the long-standing political gridlock, led a team of scientists from the respected Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research to model our current trajectory, one in which we burn all available fossil fuels. The results, published in the journal Science Advances, were neatly summarised by the paper’s lead author Ricarda Winkelmann, “If we burn it all, we melt it all.”

And if we melt it all—the Arctic ice cap (already well on its way), the Greenland ice sheet, the east and west Antarctic ice sheets—the sea level will increase some 70 metres. That would inundate all of Auckland, cutting it off entirely from Northland and swamping the city’s isthmus to a depth of more than 50 metres. The sea would surge up the Hauraki Plains and allow one to sail a yacht inland as far as Te Kuiti. Carterton would be a seaside town, Palmerston North and Hamilton sunk. Wellington would be underwater, Miramar awash, the Hutt Valley a long, deep harbour. You could safely navigate a container ship across the Canterbury Plains inside of Banks Peninsula, and half of Southland (including all of Invercargill) would join an expanded Foveaux Strait.

This result didn’t particularly surprise the scientists—after all, Antarctica was once covered in lush rainforest—but what did alarm them was the timeframe. Half of this melting could happen within 1000 years, on the order of a foot of sea level rise per decade; about ten times the rate at which it is rising now.

This is not catastrophism, but a consequence of our current consumption.

Switching to eco lightbulbs isn’t going to stop the juggernaut, and the problem has now become too large for the consumer to fathom, too complex for one country to solve. We are, as a species, trapped in the headlights of the oncoming train.

Do we pretend it’s someone else’s fault? Do we hope that the train might just be a figment of scientific imagination, or look for a ‘technological solution’ that might stop it in its tracks? Do we run, or just watch in awe, and brace for impact? Do we demand political action, or wait for failure?

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