More climate fodder to debate

By Walt Braun

It’s easy to dismiss warnings of climate-change-related havoc such as the trio of reports issued this week about the threat rising sea levels pose in the coming years.

It certainly was easy for Myron Ebell, a global warming skeptic at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. In an Associated Press story, he issued a counter warning that “as a society, we could waste a fair amount of money on preparing for sea level rise if we put our faith in models that have no forecasting ability.”

Forecasting ability is in the eye of the beholder. One of the reports was from Climate Central, which based its analysis in part on ocean tides data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, hardly an alarmist outfit. The other two reports were published in Environmental Research Letters, a peer review journal.

Their consensus on oceans doesn’t directly affect landlocked states like Kansas, though other aspects of climate change are expected to. But millions of folks who live along U.S. coastlines, particularly in cities, might be interested.

Sea levels are rising as a result of melting glaciers and ice sheets and because of the expansion of ocean waters as they warm up; most scientists who’ve studied climate data attribute warming primarily to emissions of greenhouse gases, most of which are associated with human behavior.

Forecasts vary. Based on a temperature increase of 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit, most call for a sea level rise of 3 or 4 feet this century; other forecasts project a rise of 2 feet and even as much as 7 feet. Since 1880, by comparison, sea level has risen 8 inches.

A rise of several feet matters because, Climate Central reports, in almost 300 U.S. coastal cities, more than half of the population lives within 4 feet of present sea level. More than 100 of these communities are in Florida. Louisiana has 65 at-risk communities — and anyone wondering about the effect of high seas and storm surges need only recall Hurricane Katrina’s effect on New Orleans.

Rising sea levels, of course, become a greater problem during storms. Researchers say the odds of 100-year floods will double by 2030 because of the effect of global warming. Ben Strauss, an expert on ecology and evolutionary biology who heads Climate Central, likened rising sea levels to “an invisible tsunami.”

Maybe he’s wrong. Maybe South Florida is not “indefensible” against flooding from rising sea levels and ever-more-dangerous storm surges.

But the simple fact that forecasting models might not be perfect seems a poor reason to deny existing evidence and to simply watch as sea levels rise.

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