Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr
From Tangier to Shishmaref, coastal residents have joked with me that Donald Trump shouldn’t build a wall on the border — he should build it on their beaches. Building a barrier will stave off the worst impacts of the next storm. But walls aren’t long-term solutions. Like immigration reform, combating sea level rise will take a lot more than concrete blocks from our next president to protect America from the rising tides.
As Americans head to the polls in November, fall storms will be at their worst. Dozens of coastal communities will be inundated and hundreds of American citizens will be forced to evacuate to higher ground. For these Americans, the biggest threat to their safety isn’t border control or religious extremism. It’s an encroaching ocean that threatens their economies, cultures, and lives.
I know because I’ve witnessed these changes first hand.
Since January, I’ve been traveling across the US as a Principle Investigator of a research project partially funded by the National Geographic Science and Exploration Committee to document the scale of loss to sea level rise along our most fragile coastlines.1)For in the field updates, please see savingplaces.org/americas-eroding-edges On Tangier Island, backyards regularly wash out into the Chesapeake Bay; in American Samoa, farmers are facing costly saltwater intrusion; and along Alaska’s western coast where I’ve been traveling for the past month, vital infrastructure like fresh water and electricity lines are being compromised.
Over the past year, President Obama has been working hard to visually show the American public these changes. Where climate change in America once resembled a chart of greenhouse gas emissions, it is now photographs of President Obama speaking against backdrops of a changing American landscape – a saltier Everglades, a drier Yosemite, and now after his visit to Midway Atoll, a shrinking island.2)For speeches, please see President Obama Visits the Everglades at www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DF3yrq-EeQ; Happy 100th Birthday to the National Parks Service at www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YpTdSptd4k; and President Obama Delivers a Statement to the Press at www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8xM1nzHqIs
The President’s effort to make climate change real began in September 2015, when he became the first sitting President to visit the Arctic. Photos of disappearing glaciers and shoreline erosion were a wake up call to America that climate change is more than abstract statistics—it is already having a profound impact on places like Alaska, where temperatures are warming twice as fast as the continental US.
Changing America’s climate change story has paid off.
One year after President Obama journeyed north, concern in the US about global warming is at its highest point since he took office, with 64 percent of the country worrying a “great deal” or “fair amount” about the consequences of a warmer world.3) Lydia Saad and Jeffrey M. Jones (March 16, 2016). “U.S. Concern About Global Warming at Eight-Year High.” GALLUP. Accessed on September 8, 2016. www.gallup.com/poll/190010/concern-global-warming-eight-year-high.aspx The importance of this jump cannot be overstated. Having a climate conscious public is necessary to garner support for any policy that seeks to that address the tremendous changes our country will face as global temperatures rise.
But changing the story isn’t enough. Despite the increase in public concern, Alaskans living on the front lines of climate change are still struggling to adapt.
In the Northwestern Alaskan village of Teller, leaders have been trying to find funding to fix a broken seawall for three years. Met with no support, the fall swells will soon wash through the fragmented barrier, flood their sewage lagoon, and inundate their roads with contaminated water. In Shaktoolik, the city council has gotten tired of waiting for help and has taken adaptation into their own hands. The council used private funds to build a gravel berm last year, giving the village a temporary defense from increasingly dangerous storms. And two weeks ago, the community of Shishmaref reluctantly voted to relocate inland, questioning what will be saved and what will be left as their village disappears below the Chukchi Sea.
President Obama has changed America’s climate story. It’s now up to the next president to change America’s approach to climate policy.
For three decades the overwhelming focus of American climate policy has been mitigation. And rightly so; the US is second only to China in its contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions.4)EPA (August 9, 2016). Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data. US Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed September 8, 2016. www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data
Through national policies and international agreements, President Obama has put America on a low carbon path to limit global temperature rise. And in a recent New York Times interview with Coral Davenport and Mark Landler, President Obama has announced he will continue to work on climate mitigation after he leaves office in 2017.5) Julie Hirschfeld David, Mark Landler, and Coral Davenport (September 8, 2016). “Obama on Climate Change: The Trends Are ‘Terrifying’.” The New York Times. Accessed September 8, 2016. www.nytimes.com/2016/09/08/us/politics/obama-climate-change.html?_r=0 America’s next president will need to uphold Obama’s climate legacy and support his continued efforts, but they can’t stop there. Whoever wins the White House this fall will need to create a national framework for dealing with the effects of climate change we can no longer avoid.
The first step towards the creation of an adaptation and relocation framework is simple: hold a high-level policy meeting, the first of its kind, to initiate a dialogue on how the federal government will handle the mass migration of citizens away from fragile coastlines.
That first meeting will need to be based on strong communication channels between the federal government and town officials to ensure that the future national framework matches local needs. To do that, it should bring the sub-national stakeholders represented in the together with the national policymakers of the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force during their first year in office.
Eventually, the policy ideas introduced at this meeting will need provide a guideline to help localities decide when it makes most sense to protect in place, relocate, or otherwise adapt to rising tides. And then it must empower local leaders with ownership, dedicated funding, and technical assistance to implement a shared community vision on how to relocate in a way that not only rebuilds critical infrastructure, but also sustains and encourages local economies, traditions, and heritage for a more resilient future.
The process will take dedication, perseverance, and vision by the next president — it won’t be easy, but we cannot afford to wait any longer. The residents of Shishmaref are only the first of millions of coastal Americans that will make the decision to leave their history and homes behind in search of safer land.6) Mathew E. Hauer, Jason M. Evans, and Deepak R. Mishra. March 14, 2016. “Millions Projected to be at Risk from Sea-Level Rise in the Continental United States.” Nature Climate Change. Accessed at www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate2961.html
By the end of this century, at least 400 towns, villages, and cities in America will be partially underwater no matter how much global carbon emissions are reduced.7)Strauss, B. H., Kulp, S., & Levermann, A. (2015). Carbon choices determine US cities committed to futures below sea level. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(44), 13508-13513. www.pnas.org/content/112/44/13508.full.pdf It’s high time America’s leaders support citizens already affected by rising seas and prepare for the great inland migration of the 21st Century.
A version of this commentary was first published in the Huffington Post.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||For in the field updates, please see savingplaces.org/americas-eroding-edges|
|2.||↑||For speeches, please see President Obama Visits the Everglades at www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DF3yrq-EeQ; Happy 100th Birthday to the National Parks Service at www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YpTdSptd4k; and President Obama Delivers a Statement to the Press at www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8xM1nzHqIs|
|3.||↑||Lydia Saad and Jeffrey M. Jones (March 16, 2016). “U.S. Concern About Global Warming at Eight-Year High.” GALLUP. Accessed on September 8, 2016. www.gallup.com/poll/190010/concern-global-warming-eight-year-high.aspx|
|4.||↑||EPA (August 9, 2016). Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data. US Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed September 8, 2016. www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data|
|5.||↑||Julie Hirschfeld David, Mark Landler, and Coral Davenport (September 8, 2016). “Obama on Climate Change: The Trends Are ‘Terrifying’.” The New York Times. Accessed September 8, 2016. www.nytimes.com/2016/09/08/us/politics/obama-climate-change.html?_r=0|
|6.||↑||Mathew E. Hauer, Jason M. Evans, and Deepak R. Mishra. March 14, 2016. “Millions Projected to be at Risk from Sea-Level Rise in the Continental United States.” Nature Climate Change. Accessed at www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate2961.html|
|7.||↑||Strauss, B. H., Kulp, S., & Levermann, A. (2015). Carbon choices determine US cities committed to futures below sea level. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(44), 13508-13513. www.pnas.org/content/112/44/13508.full.pdf|