Greenland:  A Laboratory For The Symptoms Of Global Warming

This week, the international community descended on New York City for the United Nations General Assembly’s 69th annual high-level meetings and general debate. For the first time in UN history climate change tops the agenda. In remarks at the Climate Week opening event, at the Morgan Library in New York City, US Secretary of State John Kerry established that climate change as a challenge for the international community transcends in a myriad of ways the traditional narrow ‘environment-only’ understanding and increasingly morphs into an international security challenge:

“Last month was the hottest August the planet has experienced in recorded history, and scientists now predict that by the end of the century the sea could rise a full meter. Now, a meter may not sound like all that much to a lot of people, but just one meter is enough to put up to 20 percent of the greater New York City underwater. Just one meter would displace hundreds of millions of people worldwide [see Internal Displacement Monitoring Center for latest data] and threaten billions in economic activity. It would put countless homes and schools and parks, entire cities, and even countries at risk. We all know that climate change also means heat waves, water shortages. I can show you parts of the world where people are killing each other today over drought and water. There’s a potential of massive numbers of climate – what we call climate refugees.”

Further, it culminated in US President Barack Obama’s call for a new ‘global compact’ to tackle climate change when President Obama addressed the UN Climate summit on Tuesday trying to build momentum towards an eventual successful outcome at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris:

“But we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation – developed and developing alike. Nobody gets a pass. (…) We have to raise our collective ambition. (…) It must be inclusive – because every country must play its part. And, yes, it must be flexible – because different nations have different circumstances.(…) And for the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward aglobal compact to confront a changing climate while we still can. (…) No nation is immune. In America, the past decade has been our hottest on record. Along our eastern coast, the city of Miami now floods at high tide. (…) A hurricane left parts of this great city [New York] dark and underwater. And some nations already live with far worse. (…) So the climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it.”

So, both statements do not fail to mention – among a plethora of other discussed climate risks – rising sea levels and coastal flooding as direct results of the changing climate.

In this context, the Association of Climate Change Officers (ACCO) hosts a Climate Week NYC event titled “Rising Seas Summit” on September 24-26, 2014 in support of the UN Climate Summit. It will highlight the nexus between climate change, sea level rise, and related extreme weather events.

Rising sea levels could potentially have the most devastating impact and this not only for small island states such as the Maldives. Note, even though these small island states are already negatively impacted and can be expected to be the worst hit by continued rising sea levels – potentially even losing their entire state’s territory to the ocean – they are far from being the only current and certain future victims of a changing climate if no timely countermeasures are initiated globally.

The following graphic illustrates that rising water does not discriminate and simply gets everywhere with both developed and developing countries to incur substantial financial losses over the next decades.

roman climate march

Source: Tim McDonnell/Climate Desk via Mother Jones

These figures are staggering and may even – by now – be obsolete given that projections based on constantly ‘new’ climate data tend to change frequently but rarely in humanity’s favor. Therefore, always expect to be behind the curve or in the words of President Obama: “[T]he climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it.”

Already back in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR4) described in its assessment impacts and vulnerabilities as follows:

“Some studies suggest that sea-level rise could lead to a reduction in island size, particularly in the Pacific, whilst others show that a few islands are morphologically resilient and are expected to persist. Island infrastructure tends to predominate in coastal locations. In the Caribbean and Pacific islands, more than 50% of the population live within 1.5 km of the shore. Almost without exception, international airports, roads and capital cities in the small islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the Caribbean are sited along the coast, or on tiny coral islands. Sea-level rise will exacerbate inundation, erosion and other coastal hazards, threaten vital infrastructure, settlements and facilities, and thus compromise the socio-economic well-being of island communities and states.”

IslandsFirst nicely adds to the litany of problems including “saltwater inundation of agricultural land, which threatens food security (…); saltwater intrusion into vital ground water supplies, which threatens water security and decreases the availability of fresh water for drinking, sanitation, and irrigation; amplification of damage from intense storms due to the weakening of natural barriers.” Most importantly, in addressing the potential displacement of large percentages of coastal populations, IslandsFirst notes that this can cause “stress for not only the displaced, but also for the receiving communities.”

This opens the door to an interesting legal question in the realm of international refugee law. Currently, the contentious determination of “climate refugee” entails no recognized protective legal status and it is hard to see a change in the legal status quo given the ramifications in terms of international migration patterns and predominantly national government policies of discouraging immigration around the globe. Internally displaced persons (IDPs), in turn, have fled their homes without crossing an international border. Prima facie, it therefore seems that referring to ‘victims of climate change’ – determining this is obviously already problematic – in general as “climate-induced displaced persons” (CIDPs) is more in the interest of the international community because it keeps the responsibility of protecting those citizens where it currently is; namely, with the government of the country of citizenship with the climate risk materializing on its sovereign territory.

So, what should be done?

Due to overall global urbanization trends – i.e. towards coastal mega-cities – and the fact that globalized economic activity – with the operation of ‘global supply chains’ – will continue to hinge on seaborne global trade with coastal port cities as gateways to markets, a larger proportion of the world population will live near the coast. And this is why in an interview with Andrew Revkin of the New York Times, former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg – now a UN climate envoy – calls for increased efforts to protect the waterfront. He reasons:

“[We] cannot and will not abandon our waterfront. It’s one of our greatest assets. We must protect it, not retreat from it. (…) The future of waterfront cities, whether it’s New York or Miami ,or anywhere else – and most of the world’s major cities are coastal cities – depends on our ability to adapt to rising sea levels and climate change. You can’t pick up Manhattan and move it inland, but you can adopt policies that better protect it from storms.”

The operative word here is ‘adaptation’ – with adapting now being economically less costly than procrastinating. Check out, for example, this Deutsche Welle (DW) piece on how the low-lying Netherlands is preempting a rising sea level by building floating homes and redirecting rivers.