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Let's Talk About Sea Levels

Updated: Mar 15

Bipartisan consensus on sea level rise is becoming just a little more realistic. Let's capitalize on that.


The ocean is creeping up on us. This isn’t an ominous premonition, but an empirical fact. No, North America isn't going to become Atlantis. But sea level rise presents a massive infrastructural challenge to America; we can't just ignore it. 


We all know about climate change. The release of carbon causes global warming. Many of us are also aware that global warming's complex web of consequences includes sea level rise. This happens in two ways.


First, because oceans absorb about 90 percent of carbon emissions and atmospheric heat, water temperature increases. A cascade of ecological effects results, including melting ice caps and glaciers. Naturally, the Arctic and Antarctic lose a percentage of their ice sheets during the Summer months but recover during the Winter. But global warming reduces the rate at which ice and glaciers are recovered. As more and more ice is lost, the volume of the oceans increases. 


Second, water expands as it gets warmer. Although a lesser cause of sea level rise, heat expansion is significant. 


In the United States alone, 30 percent of the population lives in densely populated cities along the coastlines. According to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the coastlines of the U.S. are expected to experience a sharper increase in sea levels than the global average. The evidence suggests this increase could be between 10 and 12 inches by 2050. That doesn't sound like much, but it is, especially when flooding and storm surges are considered. 


Coastal cities in the United States aren't equipped to handle the projected rise in sea levels. The infrastructure in place today to stop flooding is in serious need of an update. 

Investment should be directed at projects that help mitigate the damage caused by sea level rise. Preventing people from displacement should be our top priority in this regard. 


Seawall construction is a tried and tested method, though its effects on local ecology can be quite damaging. One innovative policy proposal is the construction of "living seawalls," made of 3D printed materials designed to mimic marine habitats and added to existing seawalls like a puzzle, rehabilitating local marine ecosystems.


But seawalls can fail. Even if they succeed, they may end up just directing thalassic torrents elsewhere. 


Some argue for "soft defenses" against sea level rise, such as the creation of more absorptive shorelines to reduce flooding. This can be accomplished with artificial or natural materials. 

Restoring wetlands, salt marshes and mangroves may help a great deal, as these environments absorb water and reduce the force of waves. They also inhibit the erosion of coastal soil, providing another buffer against sea level rise. 


There are numerous ways to combat sea level rise. We just need the political will to exercise them. 


Climate change is becoming increasingly bipartisan. Resources for the Future's 2020 report on partisan divides over climate change showed that an overwhelming portion of Democrats and a strong majority of Republicans agreed that climate change is real, human-caused, and should be addressed.


Per a Pew Research Center report, there's still a stark divide over energy policy, with a particularly significant division between older and younger Republicans. And, of course, there's still a sizable segment of the American electorate that cheered when Vivek Ramaswamy called climate change a "hoax" in the recent primary debate. (Though, rousing boos seemed to illustrate growing Republican discontent with this sort of rhetoric.) 

As environmentalist waves continue to gain traction in both parties, hopefully, we can reach some bipartisan consensus on climate change. Informed by the environmental zeal of Democrats and the pragmatism of Republicans, we can improve our coastline infrastructure and give sea level rise the policy attention it deserves.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Sources


Bennington-Castro, Joseph. "Walls Won't Save Our Cities From Rising Seas: Here's What Will." NBC News, 27 July 2017. https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/walls-won-t-save-our-cities-rising-seas-here-s-ncna786811


Brown, Tyson. “Sea Level Rise.” National Geographic Society, National Geographic, May 2022. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/sea-level-rise.

Lindsey, Rebecca. “Climate Change: Global Sea Level.” NOAA Climate.gov, NOAA, 22 Apr. 2022, https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-sea-level.


MacInnis, Bo and Jon A. Krosnick. "Climate Insights 2020: Surveying American Public Opinion on Climate Change and the Environment." Resources for the Future, 2020. https://www.rff.org/publications/reports/climateinsights2020/


Tyson, Alec, Cary Funk, and Brian Kennedy. "What the Data Says About Americans' Views of Climate Change.” Pew Research Center, 9 Aug. 2023. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/08/09/what-the-data-says-about-americans-views-of-climate-change/

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