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Fighting the long defeat

July 29, 2017

The Union of Concerned Scientists has put out a great interactive map that shows which coastal areas are likely to be flooded in the next hundred years under a variety of global warming scenarios.  Living far from the coast as I do, I started out just idly playing around with it. The ocean is enormous, and so is our continent; for all my thorough understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change, the spread of a handful of colored pixels on a map only felt like an abstract catastrophe until I started zooming in on the cities where my friends and family are from. Then it started feeling personal.

By 2100, my father’s birthplace will look out on the ocean.  That’s the one that really stood out. The town where my father was born is decently inland now, but it’s up against an estuary lowland. That lowland is packed full of homes, schools, and businesses. Without construction of massive levees it will be a drowned city in 2100, and my father’s birthplace will look out on the wreckage.

That is true regardless of how much we manage to reduce our fossil fuel use in the future. We have already locked ourselves into a certain amount of warming, and the area around my father’s hometown will be a casualty. I remember when climate scientists started being more public about that.  “We can’t avoid global warming,” was how some reporters spun it. “We had our chance, and now it’s too late.”

Pandora’s Box is open. Evil has been unleashed upon the world. We will not succeed at stuffing it all back in. So why keep fighting? Because it was never actually either/or — it’s all a matter of degrees.

One degree of warming would have been better than two.

Two is better than three.

Three is better than four.

Four, perish the thought, is still better than five.

Even if we fail entirely, in the end, any delay in fossil fuel consumption that we win buys more time for adaptation.

Degrees aren’t just measured in an expansion of mercury. They are measured in human suffering. They are measured in farms that turn to desert, rain that fails to fall, floods that wash out roads, heat waves that shut down cities, and seas that creep to your doorstep.  When it comes to rising sea levels, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ map illustrates this well; you can especially see it under the “Climate Choices” tab. Many communities, like the area around my father’s birthplace, are already doomed without robust water control engineering. Many others are not. Their fate is in our hands, and their lives are worth fighting for.

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