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Timid Policy Thinking
on December 11, 2010
I was disappointed, though perhaps I am not the ideal demographic for
this book. It seems to be written either for people who doubt that
sea levels are rising, or for people who like to see people who so
doubt beaten up by experts. I am not in either audience. Myself, I
hoped to see more, much more, about adapting to that rise.
The authors do offer seven feet over the next century as an estimate
of the amount of rise that seems prudent to plan for, but they never
explain where they get that number. The ghost of a much greater rise
runs through these pages. If all the ice melts, as it did in the
Carboniferous, ocean levels would rise by 200 feet, and there seems
to be no very good reason why something much more like that than seven
feet might not happen. The authors keep talking about a "tipping
point," a measure of warming past which ice melting turns auto-
catalytic, spiraling off without waiting for further increases in CO2.
The concept of a tipping point suggests that once this point is passed
that melting will not stop until all the ice is gone, and there is nothing
in this book to contradict that inference. Even if you don't believe
in this "tipping point", it takes no very great sense of fatalism
about the world's politics to think that CO2 levels (which now are at
about 400 ppm) are not likely to plateau out much short of 750 ppm.
Either way we end up at the same place.
The looming sense of a major melt undermines much of text here, very
much including the authors' discussion of policy adaptations. It is
clearly not prudent to plan for a seven foot rise if that rise occurs
as part of a runup to 200', such that we get to seven feet by the end
of the century, but fifteen feet ten years after that, etc. We do
not want to waste resourses on one Maginot line after another. The
author's favorite policy recommendation is moving people inland (as
opposed to sea walls, etc), but it is not obvious that this idea will
scale when the populations involved number in the millions and tens of
millions. I would like to have seen more analysis of the point.
Clearly the politics would be brutal. Almost certainly a considerable
amount of upland real estate would have to be seized by force.
If you believe there is a chance that melting and warming will push
sea levels significantly higher than ten feet, let alone 200', the
only response that seems to work is floating cities. Floating cities
scale with both sea level and population size. They can be handed
over to third- world countries facing inundation, like Bangladesh.
They do not require the confiscation of property. Quite possibly they
can be manufactured at reasonably low costs per square mile. I don't
know. I would have liked to see some analysis on the point.
In a line, the policy thinking in this book was way too timid given
its geochemical and meteorological thinking.