According to SkepticalScience, “rising sea levels are widely considered to be the greatest threat posed by climate change.” For the purposes of this argument, we will ignore any kind of disagreement within the scientific community about other causes, or the extent to which humans have driven this warming, and treat the theory of anthropogenic climate change as scientific fact. Due to the complex nature of the debate, we will also ignore any other adverse impacts of climate change, and focus specifically on what is “widely considered” to be the greatest threat posed by climate change — sea level rise.
So, what does the science say about sea level rise? According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which broadly represents the scientific consensus on climate change, sea levels will continue to rise for the next century no matter what, but the rate at which they do depends on several factors. Under the best case scenario, where governments take active measures to aggressively combat CO2 emissions, we can expect .28-.61 meters of sea level rise. Under the worst IPCC projection, they expect .52 to .98 meters of sea level rise. In other words, 1-3 feet by 2100.
Now there are, of course, other projections which show higher rates of sea level rise due to Antarctica and Greenland contributing more in the next century (up to 2 meters in the worst case scenario), but these projections can hardly be described as the “consensus” of the scientific community. Anyone familiar with even the basic fundamentals of the scientific method knows that outliers always exist and do not form the consensus. If we’re gonna base our understanding of the issue on outliers, we would have to include those who don’t think the Earth will warm that much, or those who say the climate is less sensitive to human inputs, or that it won’t be that bad; not just those who believe the IPCC estimates are too conservative. Until the scientific consensus is actually 2 meters of sea level rise (it isn’t), I will treat these studies as outliers. That being said, I don’t mind running thought experiments and imagining the possibilities of 2 meters of sea level rise, I just want to make it clear that this goes against the current scientific consensus just as any study which says it is less than the consensus. We can’t pick and choose which outliers to use based upon their agreement with our beliefs and then pretend as if this is part of the “consensus.” That’s intellectually dishonest and damages the public’s trust and confidence in the scientific community.
So what is the IPCC’s RCP8.5 “worst case scenario?” First of all, it assumes that Earth’s population will double to 12 billion people, that technology will not improve in the next century, that poverty will somehow increase during that time period, that coal will become the dominant fuel source for some unexplained reason, that we will burn absolutely all the oil that we know to exist, that governments take no steps at all to reduce emissions, and that the world will have basically gone completely mad before the full effects of climate change even begin. Assuming that this bizarre and hilariously unrealistic scenario plays out for the entirety of the 21st century, we can expect the sea levels to rise by about 1 meter by 2100.
THE IPCC’s RCP8.5 “business as usual” scenario (aka worst case scenario) actually requires us to ignore everything we know about the world today, like the exponential rate of technological change and progress being made. Let’s assume that, for some reason, technology does not improve in the next 100 years, and we decide to live in a coal-powered world for the next century (maybe we go full Steampunk?). For some reason, the unprecedented, dramatic elimination of poverty in the modern world is completely reversed, and poverty actually starts increasing for unexplained reasons. Also, for some bizarre reason, scarcity of fossil fuels does not lead to the development of new technologies that were previously uneconomical as has always been the case in the past. Inexplicably, Africa’s population continues to increase dramatically despite a doubling of per capita wealth in that country. And, for some unexplained reason, they don’t follow the same trends as literally every other place on Earth, despite substantially greater access to sex education, pregnancy prevention, and opportunities for women that are created in modern, wealthy, industrialized societies.
Assuming all of that to be the undeniable truth, which the “latest studies” showing 2 meters of sea level rise do, the IPCC predicts that in such a nightmarish, unrealistic scenario, the sea levels will rise by about 1 meter in the next century. That’s it. That’s the worst case scenario for the next century according to the scientific consensus on climate change. If the Earth goes full retard, we can expect the sea levels to rise by 1 meter. So what does 1 meter of sea level rise look like? This is what the island of Oahu in Hawaii looks like today:
Here is what it will look like in 2100 under the absolute worst projection of the IPCC:
Notice anything? Me neither. Aside from a few specks of extra water here and there, I’m just not seeing the dramatic, life-altering, catastrophic changes that climate change is supposed to bring to us. Maybe we ought to bump it up to 2 meters, which is double the scientific consensus.
Zillow claims that at 2 meters many million dollar beach homes near the water would be underwater (Note: 2 meters of sea level rise is not supported by the current scientific consensus, I’m just pretending that it is for argument’s sake ). But honestly, how many beach homes do you know that are over a hundred years old? In a centuries time, why couldn’t they just, you know, move? If you build your million dollar beach home in a place that you know might be underwater within your lifetime, can you really blame others for that poor decision? After a few decades and a couple feet of sea level rise, I think any reasonably intelligent person would start building a little bit back from the shoreline.
Now I suppose that Oahu may be a special case and that other places might be worse off (take the first picture in this article, which is supposed to be London after 2 meters). Then again, 100 years is a long time. It’s not as if the entire world is being hit by a 6-foot tsunami overnight. Why couldn’t we just build levees or simply move within that timeframe? We have large cities today that weren’t even cities 100 years ago. If our predecessors could do it with fewer resources, technology, and a poorer scientific understanding, why wouldn’t we be able to?
A Fossil-Free Future?
This is perhaps the biggest problem that I see with the entire climate change “debate.” It’s not the science that is the issue for me. If climate scientists say the Earth is warming and humans have caused it, I’m not in a position to refute that. As a reasonably intelligent non-expert, I must defer to what the experts have to say on the matter. It would be foolish for me to assume that I have an equal knowledge level as the collective assessment of thousands of experts in the field. If they say they are confident that the sea level will rise by up to a meter by the end of the century, fine, I’ll accept that.
But by that same logic, it would also be incredibly naive for any climate scientist to actually believe that they know what the world will look like in 2100 in terms of human society and technological/economic development. I don’t know that, climate scientists don’t know that, and the governments of the world most certainly do not know that. This is all just a big guessing game of how much CO2 we are going to produce in the future, and there really is no way for anyone to know with any degree of certainty.
The point is that 1 meter of sea level rise over the course of a century really isn’t that much, especially when we consider the other ways in which the world has changed (and will change) within that same time period. Sure, it’s rising faster than what has occurred in the recent past (.20-.26 meters since the Industrial Revolution), but our rate of technological improvement is increasing at an exponential rate. That is WAY faster than we are changing the climate or affecting the sea levels. Exponentially faster, in fact. For climate change to catch up with our current rate of technological progress, the sea level would have to have risen close to 1 million times the amount it was rising in 1970. And Moore’s law doesn’t only apply to transistors. Computational capacity, cost of technology, electrical efficiency (computations per kilowatt-hour), computer memory and storage capacity, rate of new discoveries, etc. Even though our population has exploded in the last hundred years, we actually have more resources now than we started out with. Isn’t that remarkable? Some theorists even believe that we will hit a technological singularity within the middle of the century, and their models are no less accurate than climate models.
Pushing the time scale back further (in order to increase the sea level rise and make it sound scarier) only increases the technological disparity (exponentially, I might add). Sure, you could say “but in 400 years we could get 2-4 meters of sea level rise,” which would be catastrophic! But that utterly depends on the RCP “emissions scenarios” playing out for the next 4 centuries, which at this point wouldn’t even be scientific. That would be more akin to crystal ball reading and guessing. Climate scientists predictions of CO2 Emissions 400 years from now will be about as accurate as the predictions of cave men guessing what life would be like in 2016. We literally don’t have a clue what the heck will be going on 400 years from now. Technologies we haven’t even thought of will likely exist.
The rate of technological improvement and scientific discoveries that we are experiencing today is historically unprecedented. By 2100, coal and fossil fuels could be totally obsolete. And why wouldn’t they be? We’re already bioengineering cleaner fuels and other products traditionally produced from fossil fuels, growing meat in laboratories, engineering algae to clean waste, making plastics without fossil fuels, super-capacitors to replace batteries, a bike that can power your home for 24 hours, modular water desalination machines, self-driving cars which substantially improve fuel efficiency, electric cars, a scientifically “impossible” electromagnetic drive that uses no fuel and utterly defies the laws of physics but works anyway, solar, wind, tidal power, geothermal, and these are just a handful of technologies that already exist right here in 2016.
If history is any indication, these technologies will only improve and become much cheaper and more efficient over time. It will probably be more economical at some point in the near future to genetically engineer microorganisms to produce cleaner energy than to pump oil from the ground and refine it into gasoline and other products. Furthermore, what exactly would stop them from engineering organisms to eat and breathe the pollution that they produce? They could create new lifeforms whose sole purpose is to convert CO2 into oxygen or some other byproduct, and they could make them highly efficient at this process.
Capitalism, not anthropogenic climate change, has completely transformed this planet
Consider just how much the world has changed since 1916. Think about the tools and information we have at our disposal compared to someone living in 1916. There are still people alive today who were living in 1916. If you were to ask them what they think has changed the most about the world in the last 100 years, do you think it would be the climate? The sea level? I doubt it. Humans have made such dramatic improvements over the last century that the world is largely unrecognizable. Many people think the current lives that we live of abundant wealth, high literacy and education levels, modern medicine, longevity, instant communication, ease of travel, and incredible amounts leisure time are perfectly normal.
But this isn’t normal, this is an entirely unprecedented era of human history. The world as you know it was completely built upon fossil fuels. They got us to this point. Fossil fuels will allow us to reach the point where we no longer need them, ironically, just as whales did. In the future, we’ll be using virtually limitless forms of energy in highly efficient ways.
Most of these lights would not have been visible 100 years ago. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the single most transformative event in human history, everyone was poor. And not just “relatively” poor or “federal poverty line” poor, we’re talking about extreme poverty. Africa poor. Bangladesh poor. All humans used to live like that (even worse). For the entirety of human history prior to the Industrial Revolution, 97% of the human population was living in abject or “extreme” poverty. Starvation was a common way to die, child mortality was through the roof, diseases were rampant because most people were living in their own filth, and life was more or less miserable for the vast, vast majority of humans. Today, only 10% of the human population is living in extreme poverty; all of them in poor countries because extreme poverty has been completely eradicated throughout the Western world. In fact, you can actually see poverty from space. Take a look at the difference between North Korea, who reduced their carbon emissions by 2/3rds in the last 25 years due to a depression which caused widespread starvation, and South Korea, one of the wealthiest countries in Asia, and a big carbon emitter. One billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty in just the last 20 years thanks to capitalism and fossil fuels.
Here in 2016, we’re progressing at an even faster rate than we have been for the last 200 years. It is entirely plausible that extreme poverty could be completely eliminated from this planet within your lifetime. That is something that humans have dealt with since the very beginning of human history. If we can solve problems that have plagued us from the beginning of our species existence, why would relatively minor problems like sea level rise stop us? The sea level has risen over 120 meters just in the last 20,000 years, and that has done basically nothing to seriously affect the human population in any measurable way as far as scientists can tell. How could 1 more meter possibly be the “greatest threat humanity has ever faced?” That is an utterly preposterous notion.
Mitigating the negative impacts of sea level rise (assuming we don’t reverse it) seems like a relatively easy problem to solve for 21st-century humans compared to all of the other problems we have solved in the past. This is particularly true when we observe that climate change is going to impact the poor much more than the rich. It seems like the single best thing we could do to mitigate the effects of climate change on humans would be to eliminate poverty as quickly as possible. If people have the means and ability to simply move, we’ve already eliminated the worst effects of climate change (sea level rise).
Progress comes naturally for mankind. It’s what we do. It is who we are as a species. Nature dealt us a good hand (our brains) in a deadly game and we flipped the table over. Our ancestors were born into abject poverty, misery, death, and suffering, and out of those ashes we created a better world; far better than they ever could have imagined. The stakes were always high in the game of life on Earth. It has always been survive or die, and that’s been true for every life form that has ever existed on this planet. We modify our environment to suit our needs and make our lives more comfortable and worth living — just as every living organism adapts for survival. We build dams and fish ponds. We cut down trees to make houses and ships. We hunt buffalo and raise cattle because we like the way they taste. We decided that smallpox has no right to exist on this planet because we don’t want to share this planet with them, so we banished them to extinction. We eliminate threats to our safety and comfort. We decide which species get to live because they are useful to us and we enjoy their presence on this planet, and which species need to go, like HIV, Ebola, and Measles. We’re very selective. We don’t want “nature” making those decisions for us.
And “nature” doesn’t care either. “Nature” doesn’t have a preference for or against humans. The Earth has existed long before we came here and will continue to exist long after we’re gone. We can’t even come close to changing this planet as much as nature has over the course of Earth’s history. This planet has gone from being completely covered in lava to having poles with no ice at all to being a complete snowball and everything in between. Nature has utterly ravaged this planet several times with supervolcanoes, asteroids, microorganisms, glaciation, supernovae, and who knows what else. Humans can’t even hold a candle to nature in terms of changing this planet. Nature kills off the planet whenever it wants every so often, with or without the permission of whoever happens to be living here at the time. Humans are just a passing phase in this planet’s existence, certainly not the worst the Earth has ever seen. If anything, we should be afraid of nature. Mother nature could utterly wreck our world overnight with massive earthquakes, tsunamis, asteroids, volcanic explosions, etc. We have no realistic way to predict or even mitigate these terrifying realities. We just have to accept them as an unavoidable consequence of life on Earth, just as we should accept climate change as a natural consequence of us eliminating poverty and human suffering in this world and making our experience on this planet a more humane and happy one. It was absolutely, positively, unequivocally, worth it. Billions of humans can testify to the fact that extreme poverty sucks more than anthropogenic climate change.
So relax, things are gonna be just fine. Unless nature intervenes, your descendants are gonna be smarter, richer, more technologically advanced, scientifically literate, and a LOT more capable than you. They will inherit a better much world than you or I did. They will not know abject poverty (you certainly haven’t, but your ancestors did), and they may not even know war. And hopefully, if they’re not stupid, they won’t know about climate alarmism either. Your job is to enjoy life and help society progress to that point. So let’s begin by eliminating poverty from the face of the Earth! After that, we’ll figure out how to end war and the governments that promote them.