Rising Sea Levels Will Prompt "Brutal" Choices

Adapting to a changing environment will require hundreds of billions in infrastructure investment.

SHARE
In this Jan. 11, 2006 file photo, American and Dutch politicians visit the Maeslant Barrier gates near Hoek van Holland, Netherlands to study flood prevention techniques. With the world losing the battle against global warming so far, experts are turning to nature about what to do next: Adapt or die.


(American and Dutch politicians visit the Maeslant Barrier gates near Hoek van Holland,
Netherlands to study flood prevention techniques)

Associated Press logo

By SETH BORENSTEIN


AP Science Writer With the world losing the battle against global warming so far, experts are warning that humans need to follow nature's example: Adapt or die.

That means elevating buildings, making taller and stronger dams and seawalls, rerouting water systems, restricting certain developments, changing farming practices and ultimately moving people, plants and animals out of harm's way.

Adapting to rising seas and higher temperatures is expected to be a big topic at the U.N. climate-change talks in Copenhagen next week, along with the projected cost - hundreds of billions of dollars, much of it going to countries that cannot afford it.

That adaptation will be a major focus is remarkable in itself. Until the past couple of years, experts avoided talking about adjusting to global warming for fear of sounding fatalistic or causing countries to back off efforts to reduce emissions.

"It's something that's been neglected, hasn't been talked about and it's something the world will have to do," said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Adaptation is going to be absolutely crucial for some societies."

Some biologists point to how nature has handled the changing climate. The rare Adonis blue butterfly of Britain looked as if it was going to disappear because it couldn't fly far and global warming was making its habitat unbearable. To biologists' surprise, it evolved longer thoraxes and wings, allowing it to fly farther to cooler locales.

"Society needs to be changing as much as wildlife is changing," said Texas A&M biologist Camille Parmesan, an expert on how species change with global warming.

One difficulty is that climate change is happening rapidly.

"Adaptation will be particularly challenging because the rate of change is escalating and is moving outside the range to which society has adapted in the past" when more natural climate changes happened, U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist, told Congress on Wednesday.

Cities, states and countries are scrambling to adapt or are at least talking about it and setting aside money for it. Some examples:

  • England is strengthening the Thames River flood control barrier at a cost of around half a billion dollars.
  • The Netherlands is making its crucial flood control system stronger.
  • California is redesigning the gates that move water around the agriculturally vital Sacramento River Delta so that they can work when the sea level rises dramatically there.
  • Boston elevated a sewage treatment plant to keep it from being flooded when sea level rises. New York City is looking at similar maneuvers for water plants.
  • Chicago has a program to promote rooftop vegetation and reflective roofs that absorb less heat. That could keep the temperature down and ease heat waves.
  • Engineers are installing "thermal siphons" along the oil pipeline in Alaska, which is built on permafrost that is thawing, to draw heat away from the ground.
  • Researchers are uprooting moisture-loving trees along British Columbia's coastal rainforests and dropping their seedlings in the dry ponderosa pine forests of Idaho, where they are more likely to survive.
  • Singapore plans to cut its flood-prone areas in half by 2011 by widening and deepening drains and canals and completing a $226 million dam at the mouth of the city's main river.
  • In Thailand, there are large-scale efforts to protect places from rising sea levels. Monks at one temple outside Bangkok had to raise the floor by more than 3 feet.
  • Desperately poor Bangladesh is spending more than $50 million on adaptation. It is trying to fend off the sea with flood control and buildings on stilts.
  • President Barack Obama and Congress are talking about $1.2 billion a year from the U.S. for international climate aid, which includes adaptation. The U.N. climate chief, Yvo de Boer, said $10 billion to $12 billion a year is needed from developed countries through 2012 to "kick-start" things. Then it will get even more expensive.