The huge and endless cost of rising seas

Protecting coastal infrastructures is just the beginning of our battle to survive the rising tide.

Coastal erosion, Pacifica, California. The apartment block was subsequently demolished. PHOTO Terry Chea/Associated Press

Coastal erosion, Pacifica, California. PHOTO Terry Chea/Associated Press

Rising out of a coastal swamp, medieval Venice became a maritime power with a global reach. Now, that glorious relic of empire is being reclaimed by the sea.

It doesn’t help that the city is sinking – around 25 cm in the past 100 years – but the real problem now is that the sea is rising at a faster rate. For many years autumn and winter tides have flooded city pavements and buildings; now flooding can happen at any time of year.

On most days of the year Venice accommodates more visitors than residents, testament to the world’s great love of this beautiful city. No-one wants it to disappear, so in 2003 the Italian government launched a massive project to save it.

Construction of flood gates capable of holding back Adriatic tides by closing off the three coastal entrances to the Venetian Lagoon is now well advanced. Dogged by corruption, the massive project is still at least a year from completion and is expected to cost over $A8 billion.

Venice is not alone. The capital cost in today’s currency of works for London’s storm surge protection was $A2.6 billion; for St Petersburg’s, $A4.85 billion; and for the Netherlands’ main North Sea defence project, $A7 billion. Add to that many millions each year in running costs.

Holding back the sea is very expensive. It happened in these cases because protecting the cities of London, Amsterdam, St Petersburg and Venice was deemed to be worth the effort and the country concerned was rich enough to pay for it.

For most cities, that’s not possible. A report last week by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Asian Development Bank found that three-quarters of vulnerable coastal cities are to be found around Indonesia, the Philippines and the coasts of East and South Asia.

In Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta, rising seas, increased river flooding and sinking land have already forced people from their homes. In Jakarta’s case, Indonesia has grasped the folly of spending big on coastal defences and now plans to relocate its capital to a safer place.

Residents of these cities and coastal communities will mostly have to fend for themselves. We are seeing just the beginning of the slowly unfolding saga of rising sea levels, affecting huge numbers of people – as much as half the world’s population – living on or near sea coasts.

Subsistence farmers in Bangladesh, the Mekong delta, Java, Torres Strait, the Solomons and other oceanic islands are already losing homes and livelihoods to the sea – a miserable, dispiriting experience. The resulting refugee crisis will affect our own country.

Australians eventually displaced by rising seas can reasonably expect help in finding new homes and communities. But they won’t give up without a fight. Waterfront property has always been highly prized and comes at a premium price, so stakes for landowners are very high.

That makes for some hard bargaining with land authorities, much of it about protecting existing coastlines and meeting the high cost of coastal protection. In the end a lot of that cost will be carried by individual landowners. They will have to ask themselves, is it worth it?

Chris Sharples is a Tasmanian geomorphologist who has won a national reputation for many years spent studying shorelines’ shape and composition and how a rising sea level will affect them.

Sharples was a key contributor to what I think may be the world’s best tool for understanding the processes affecting our coasts – the CoastAdapt website (, now up and running – developed by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.

Even in times of stable sea level, shorelines can be a moving feast. Sharples is careful to note that some of Australia’s vulnerable coasts have receded and recovered in the past, like Tweed Heads and Old Bar (northern NSW) and Collaroy on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

But retreat due to higher sea level is becoming clear in many places. In Tasmania these include Ansons Bay, Roches Beach, Pittwater and (irony of ironies) Coal Mines Historic Site on Tasman Peninsula. Others include Port Campbell and Western Port (Victoria) and Nightcliffe (Darwin).

From here it’s only going to get worse. Three independent studies looking at discrepancies between satellite and surface measurements of sea level have just confirmed that sea level is rising at an accelerating rate.

The studies identified an error in satellite measurements of sea level rise in the 1990s which had indicated a flat or even decreasing rate of rise, despite contrary indicators from warming and melting ice. Resolving this was a satisfying scientific outcome, but it’s not good news for the world.

There are some huge uncertainties in projections of future sea level rise, varying from less than a metre by 2100 to more than 2 metres, and much more beyond then. That’s because we don’t know quite how, or at what rate, the big ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica will decay.

But we can be sure of several things. The sea is now rising by an average of well over 3 millimetres a year and that rate will rise substantially through this century and beyond. Dealing with it will be horribly expensive, and we need to start planning now.

Even more urgently, we have to deal with the cause of all this – the growing amount of greenhouse gases that human activities have put up into the air. The toughest step of all is to stop chattering about meeting targets and to start actually reducing emissions.

Posted in Adaptation, Antarctic, built environment, carbon emissions and targets, coastal management, economic threat from climate, future climate, ice, land use, oceanography, science, sea level | Leave a comment

Doubt merchants and their self-inflicted blindness

The people obstructing our already difficult path to a low-carbon future

The video of Malcolm Roberts’ media conference last November, as it appeared in Andrew Bolt’s blog.

The video of Malcolm Roberts’ media conference last November, as it appeared in Andrew Bolt’s blog. Flanking Roberts are Tony Heller, a.k.a. Steven Goddard (left) and Ted Ball.

Want to know why power bills are so high? Look no further than South Australia’s battery project and other “make-believe solutions to a make-believe crisis”. That was Andrew Bolt’s advice last week in one of his Herald-Sun tirades.

Ignoring chief scientist Alan Finkel’s advice that high power prices are due to expensive gas, a malfunctioning electricity market, old technology, poor planning and business uncertainty, he chose to heap all the blame on the “fraud” of global warming.

Then, sidestepping recent record-breaking warming, he claimed that “leading global warming scientists” Ben Santer and Michael Mann “have just admitted in a paper in Nature Geoscience that the global temperature over the past two decades has not risen as their climate models predicted.”

“Admitted” implies that Santer and Mann were confessing to error, like defendants under cross-examination. But there was no error to confess; the paper was about the endless process of making climate models better able to account for the intricacies of Earth’s complex climate system.

A strange inclusion in the online article was a video captioned “Australian senator appears with American climate sceptic”, about a Canberra media conference featuring One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts. We aren’t told this, but the media conference happened eight months ago.

At the event Roberts introduced Canadian Tim Ball, calling him “the world’s most eminent climatologist” and Tony Heller, nom de guerre Steve Goddard (“a very devoted scientist”). Both men have tertiary degrees, but neither has a formal climate science qualification.

The 30-minute media conference – a string of tired old accusations of scientific fraud – highlights Andrew Bolt’s willingness to use every weapon to hand, regardless of currency or content, to hammer home his line that we’re being ripped off by “make-believe” science.

Meanwhile in Canberra, some noisy Coalition politicians are insisting there must be no price on carbon and that coal must be treated as “clean energy”. Like Bolt, they assert that high electricity prices are due to the pernicious influence of renewable wind and solar energy.

Government MP Craig Kelly went a step further last week, claiming that renewable energy is a killer. People will die from cold this winter, he told an ABC radio interviewer, because they can’t afford to pay for electricity to heat their homes – all because of subsidised solar and wind.

He’s far from alone in his Coalition party room. The Australian Financial Review’s Aaron Patrick reported at the weekend that more than half federal Liberal MPs and as much as 90 per cent of National Party MPs remain unconvinced about human-induced climate change.

Patrick cites the executive director of the conservative Institute of Public Affairs, John Roskam, saying that “more than 50 per cent are solid sceptics and more than 50 per cent feel they need to be seen to do something”.

That adds up to a massive headache for prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and his energy and environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, desperately trying to convince their colleagues to support Finkel’s recommended Clean Energy Target.

Their cause wasn’t helped by former prime minister John Howard last week when he told a Sydney audience that he had become “increasingly more of a sceptic on climate change”, adding that “I was never a paid-up enthusiast”.

All this is happening because some people (nearly all men, actually) in positions of power and influence have predetermined that the science underpinning climate change, the work of thousands of physicists and chemists and geologists and biologists around the world, must be wrong.

They join others of like mind – almost invariably not climate specialists – in the self-contained world of climate change denial, in a cause that has become an ideology. I could almost call it religious, a word deputy PM Barnaby Joyce often uses to describe people opposing new coal mines.

Now, the projections of decades of modelling showing high carbon dioxide levels leading to higher global mean temperatures, more energetic storms, warmer oceans and higher sea levels are coming to pass, and people are already suffering as a result.

We keep hearing from Joyce, Kelly, Bolt and their kind that we export coal because it helps the world’s poor. Try telling that to villagers from Pacific atolls or coastal Java who have become climate refugees because rising seas – a result of burning coal – have forced them from their homes.

This wouldn’t matter, except that time is running out to contain carbon pollution. We desperately need the weight, muscle and focus which only national government can provide, but with a fervour worthy of any evangelist, these people are preventing that from happening.

They might accuse me in return of being a zealot, but there’s a crucial difference. Every major scientific institution including all national science academies and all but a handful of the world’s professional climate scientists are on my side of the argument, not theirs.

Their behaviour seems crazy, but to me it’s more like a kind of blind anger – obdurate, ego-driven, self-inflicted. I hope for all our sakes it’s curable.

Posted in Australian politics, batteries, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, coal-fired, contrarians, energy, extreme events, fossil fuels, future climate, human behaviour, modelling, renewable energy, solar, wind | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Trump-Pruitt war on science and the environment

The Trump administration’s anti-science campaign is a threat to us all.

US Donald Trump with Scott Pruitt in the White House Rose Garden on 1 June, announcing the Paris Agreement withdrawal. PHOTO: Bloomberg

US Donald Trump with Scott Pruitt in the White House Rose Garden on 1 June, announcing the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. PHOTO: Bloomberg

We love America and we hate America, which is another way of saying we can’t ignore it. For better or worse, the United States determines much of what happens in Australia.

Now we are forced to watch Donald Trump’s administration at war with his own country, savagely cutting public school resources, eviscerating the US diplomatic corps, rolling back civil rights and trying to repeal laws controlling health care costs.

It has also taken aim at science. In a war in which we are all victims, the main agent is the man appointed by Trump to lead the country’s Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt.

With a strong scientific complement and a cabinet-rank administrator, the EPA has evolved over 47 years into a powerful protective shield for natural America against the excesses of modern life.

Except in George W. Bush’s second term and under Barak Obama, EPA leaders have lacked specialist knowledge, but that has not prevented them from heeding scientific advice and supporting strong action to protect natural values.

Until Pruitt. Like all his predecessors except the most recent ones he is a lawyer by training, but unlike them he is sticking to predetermined views and taking advice from no-one.

In March, for instance, for reasons of “regulatory certainty”, Pruitt repudiated an EPA scientific finding that a pesticide and neurotoxin called chlorpyrifos should be banned. The main beneficiary of that decision is Dow Chemical, whose CEO Andrew Liveris is a Trump advisor.

A fortnight ago, Pruitt announced the rescinding of rules identifying waterways subject to the Clean Water Act, which had effectively protected the drinking water of a third of Americans. It was done, said Pruitt, to “provide regulatory certainty to the nation’s farmers and businesses.”

But the Pruitt decisions that have really pressed buttons among scientists and educators have been the shelving of the agency’s climate change website and his dismissal of EPA specialists.

In April it was announced that the world’s most visited climate educational website, set up and operated for 20 years by the EPA, was to be archived and “updated” to “reflect the agency’s new direction under President Donald Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt”.

Late last month, on top of news that more than 1000 EPA employees were to be sacked, the Washington Post reported that Pruitt had terminated the employment contracts of 47 EPA scientists and cancelled meetings of the agency’s Board of Scientific Counsellors.

Pruitt is fond of litigation. During Obama’s presidency he used his position as Oklahoma attorney-general to launch multiple lawsuits – all unsuccessful – against EPA climate measures.

Soon after taking over as EPA leader, Pruitt told a television interviewer that there was “tremendous disagreement” about the degree to which humans affected climate, and that in his view carbon dioxide was not a primary contributor to global warming.

As the EPA website would have affirmed, those statements flew in the face of two centuries of greenhouse science. Among practising climate scientists there is now no disagreement that rising carbon dioxide levels come from human activities and are the main cause of warming.

Far from heeding that science, Pruitt seeks to undermine it with his lawyer’s argument that climate scientists are left-wing extremists hell-bent on destroying everything we hold dear.

It was Pruitt who pushed Trump to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement to cut emissions, and at last week’s G20 summit in Hamburg Trump stood alone, against all the other 19 leaders, in refusing to support the agreement.

Incidentally, Malcolm Turnbull was one of those affirming leaders, but his position was undermined by last week’s reluctantly-released official data showing Australian emissions rising by 1.4 per cent in 2016.

It’s reassuring to see G20 leaders repudiating Donald Trump’s denial of science, but we should bear in mind that two of those pro-Paris G20 countries – Turkey and Saudi Arabia – prohibit the teaching of evolutionary science in schools. The battle for science has a long way to go.

Posted in atmospheric science, Australian politics, bureaucracy, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, climate politics, climate sensitivity, contrarians, education, future climate, international politics, leadership, science, temperature | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment