The reality of rising sea levels will soon reshape human geography, including the millions of people living in urban areas close to the seas.
We know that Earth is changing in dramatic ways on a daily basis. Our Earth, the only place we have to live, is being altered by fossil fuel driven industries. We are creating a planet where flooding will become more commonplace and more destructive for the world’s coastal cities. By releasing carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, the Earth's average global temperature has risen by 0.8℃ since the 1880s. Decades of data have shown that the long-term build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is trapping heat and warming up lands and oceans, causing sea levels to increase. As a result, global sea level has risen 16–21 cm between 1900 and 2016.
Global sea level rise is one of the more certain impacts of human induced global warming. If all the ice in Greenland melts, it would elevate sea levels by seven metres. Antarctica has enough water to raise sea levels to 65 m! You only need to melt a few percent of the Antarctic ice sheet to cause devastating impacts. Satellite-based measurements of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets indicate they have respectively lost about 286 and 127 billion tons of ice respectively. In the short term, scientists are still uncertain about how fast and how high seas will rise. Estimates have repeatedly been too conservative. Many think sea levels will be at least 1.3 m higher than today by 2100 in many parts of the world. Even that figure may be too low.
Up to 216 million people currently live on land that will be below sea level or encounter regular flood levels by 2100. 12 nations have more than 10 million people living on land at risk from sea level rise, including China as well as India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and Japan. Bangladesh is especially vulnerable. Once the ocean rises by 1.3 m, it will affect 16% of Bangladesh's land area and 15% of its population. The amount of sea level rise will vary from place to place as the sum of global, regional and local trends will lead to certain areas of the Earth having far higher rates of sea level rise. Singapore is one such hot spot.
If every country meets its current commitment under the Paris Agreement, the Earth will warm about 2℃ by the end of the century. It is believed that the tipping point is somewhere between 2 and 3℃ of temperature rise, after which the Antarctic ice sheet will slip into rapid and shattering collapse. If the Antarctic ice sheet collapses, it will have catastrophic consequences for cities around the world.
But meeting the Paris Agreement depends on whether we can live sustainably. Sustainability is one of those rare issues because of its magnitude and scope. If we do not get it right, we may not be able to reverse, or adapt sufficiently. Fortunately, in the last 15 years, attitudes across the world toward the environment have shifted. Where once there was ignorance, inattention, and disbelief, now there is concern, a modicum of political will, and a growing understanding of the causes of environmental problems and their solutions. Asia has been lagging in this shift but is starting to catch up. The Singapore Budget 2019 included policies to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. Policymakers, scientists, and the thinking public now have a will to find solutions – be they engineering, financial, or institutional — that can be brought to bear to solve climate change.
I am commonly asked what an individual can do to live sustainably and combat climate change. We must make sacrifices and break our habits. Every political, business and lifestyle decision needs to be taken with an understanding of how it affects the environment. For example, we could pose a very simple question such as, “Will this action increase greenhouse gas emission?” Consider how you get around. Do you really need that fossil-fuelled car? What you buy and where you shop; who supplies your energy and does it come from renewable sources? What do you eat? If your diet is based on animal produce, then reduce your intake. Shop based on need, buy second-hand, and limit how often you wash your clothing; reduce waste, boycott environmentally abusive companies, live responsibly and encourage family and friends to do likewise.
The decisions we make today and in the coming years will affect all of life on Earth.
About The Writer
Benjamin Horton is a professor at the Asian School of the Environment, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research concerns sea level change. He aims to understand the mechanisms that have determined sea level changes in the past, which will shape changes in the future. Professor Horton has won a number of research awards from the European Geosciences Union, American Geophysical Union and Geological Society of America. He is an editor for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report and has published over 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including Science, Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
This article was first printed in MillionaireAsia Issue 52 - July 2019