Why Rising Sea Levels Don't Get Enough Attention
By GABRIEL MORAN | June 4, 2017
It is clear that we have a national ideological problem when the issue of rising sea levels can only conjure up fantastical images of Kevin Costner’s nineties dystopian aquatic flick Water World. Americans have trivialized the notion of rising sea levels, partly due to how we are exposed to sea level rise through the media.
Americans consistently hear about sea level rise in two very problematic contexts. For one, the issue of sea level rise is often discussed in the context of the Polynesian Islands, an exotic landscape that is geographically and intellectually far removed from the American perspective. Furthermore, we are encouraged to think of rising sea levels, like climate change, as a slow process that will not have real effects until some distant, far off year like 2100. These sorts of perspectives are problematic because they diminish the severity and proximity of the effects of climate change and sea levels. This is the sort of mindset that could get US President Donald Trump in deep water as he withdraws the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement that had been signed by former President Barack Obama and other leading world powers in 2015. How did we reach this point?
During the Paris Climate Conference meetings that took place in December of 2015, most of the headlines were dominated by the numerous high-profile politicians, businessmen, and dignitaries who had come to the negotiation table. However, the media outlets did not provide the same degree of coverage to the dignitaries and leaders who had come from the Polynesian Islands of Kiribati, Fiji, and Tuvalu. At face value, it is understandable that the New York Times would not necessarily focus on an island like Kiribati whose population is ten thousandth of a percent of that of the United States. However, if there was anyone whose fate would be determined most urgently by the Paris Climate Conference, it would be the people who live in the Polynesian Islands.
During the climate talks in Paris, leaders from a number of Polynesian Island nations met with then US President Barack Obama to discuss his negotiations with the other leaders of the industrialized nations. The leaders of the islands of Fiji and Kiribati had long argued for a cap of 1.5 degrees celsius with regards to overall warming; many of the leaders of the Pacific Islands were relieved to see that the Paris Climate Agreement had agreed to this cap. Despite this apparent victory, the damage and effects of climate change are still actively impacting the Pacific Islands.
Even during the Paris Climate Agreement, the minister for disaster management in Fiji, Inia Seruiratu, noted that the Fijian government already had to relocate forty communities on the island and had identified eight hundred other communities that needed to be relocated in the near future.
The islands of the Pacific are quickly approaching the brink of a humanitarian crisis as they seek to acquire funding to build infrastructure to slow the effects of sea level rise, as well as the financial and logistical support for the relocation of its populations. These islands do make the news on occasion as emissaries appear in the United Nations calling for action and help. However, due to their remoteness within the cerulean expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the islands scarcely reach the attention of Americans as an early warning flag of climate change. Since they are so physically removed from the United States, it is even easier to ignore their existence and the tangible effects of climate change being played out today in real time.
Motivation to address climate change too often falls prey to gradualism, as we tend to view the issue of effects of climate change as something that will occur far off in the future, potentially when the current generation has passed on. As the United Nations releases climate reports and environmental estimates regarding the precarious course the world is running, it is easy to minimize these results as projections of a far off future that do not account for technological progress and a plethora of other factors one can theorize about in order to characterize the content of reports as exaggerated.
This belittling of the climate change science only serves to increase the apathy of citizens who can now view the reports as merely giving estimates for effects coming into fruition in another century or so. Perhaps it is simply due to our nature, but humans often do not act until they perceive the urgency of the problem at their doorstep. Furthermore, the layperson’s perception of climate change is often tied to the notion of melting glaciers and arctic poles that slip into the ocean.
Much of our knowledge of the progress of climate change comes in the form of data regarding the ebb and flow of the ice sheets in Antarctica. With regard to the issue of sea level rise, it is clear where people fail to recognize the immediate effects that a warming climate has on seawater. Thermal expansion of seawater, or the change in volume of seawater due to increased temperature, has already initiated a rise in sea level.
It may be that since we have not seen the sudden disappearance of a Pacific Island that we continue to avoid facing the current reality and the inevitability of a gradual but steady disappearance of these islands. It is time for Americans to wake up to rising sea levels as a problem that is staring us in the face.
During Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Washington Mall, he famously said in midst of a Civil Rights victory that it “is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”. As humans and inhabitants of the Earth, we must heed this advice with regards the effects of climate change and the rising sea level.
In order to be compelling to Americans, the effects of a changing sea level have to be more accessible and more proximate to the United States. Discussing sea level in the context of the Fijian islands is not nearly as compelling as talking about the effects of the rise of sea level that the state of Florida is already facing. South Florida has started to feel the effects in coastal cities like Miami, where the municipality is asking state government for funding to build flood infrastructure to combat rising sea levels.
It is important for Americans and the world to realize that sea level rise at the hands of climate change is occurring now and already poses a threat. It is important that the conventional media begins to cover these issues within a domestic framework so that Americans can see that the United States is not immune to sea level rise and the effects of climate change.
As President Trump’s appointed EPA head Scott Pruitt begins to dismantle American environmental protections, the administration must remember the example they are setting for the world, and the responsibility they carry as one of the leading industrialized powers and economies. Maybe President Trump will act in his own self-interest and think twice about his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement once he realizes that his hotel Mar-A-Lago is one of the expected areas that will soon be affected by disappearing shorelines.