The Little Mermaid to Offer Swimming Lessons in Shanghai
This article was written specifically for the Shanghai Daily who were not interested; it derives in part from "The Economic Wave". The photograph of the Little Mermaid is courtesy of Microsoft Clipart.
Denmark is due to despatch the Little Mermaid to the Shanghai Expo next year; on her return to Copenhagen will they consider re-siting the statue to ensure her tail does not hang in the water?
The Danes play host to the Copenhagen summit on climate change next month and they have always been active participants in the calls for action on environmental issues; setting an example to some of the more recalcitrant members of the process. On the other hand, Australia, like the USA, was one of the most reluctant of nations when it came to the recognition of climate change and its impact. By delaying ratification of the Kyoto Protocol these two wealthy states significantly impacted the world’s ability to take concerted, collective action on a global crisis that was already upon us. The then leaders of these two countries, John Howard, George Bush and to a lesser extent Bill Clinton deserve vilification for their actions and we all deserve an apology.
In the last few years Australia’s people and government have come to realise that the environmental consequences for Australia are already dire, just as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 finally provoked the USA’s government to act, Australia is now on board. In the last few years Australia has faced rampant bush fires, extreme drought and horrendous flooding, some of which are normal events in its unique environment, whilst others are a definite indication of climate change. Now Australia is finally recognising its exposure to the rise in sea level.
As reported in this newspaper last Wednesday (“Australia needs to gird itself for rising sea levels: report” 28/10/2009) press releases from an Australian parliamentary climate change committee indicate that 80% of its population is coastal and that a new national policy is required to counter the threat. The impact of rising sea level is not regarded as the main issue, but that the expectation of more frequent extreme events, such as cyclones, flash flooding and storm surges, are regarded as the matters in need of more immediate attention.
Whilst there is a certain logic to these conclusions, in reality they do not hold water. Planning to cope with disasters in the short and medium term will attract scarce resources and attention away from the longer term problems, thus exacerbating these more important issues many years in the future.
Try as they might, next month in Copenhagen the world’s leaders will prove largely impotent; the processes of climate change and rising sea levels are too far developed to be halted by humans in less than a century. Stefan Rahmstorf, a scientist at Germany's Potsdam Institute said, “...the sea level issue starts very slowly but once it gets going it is practically unstoppable...there is no way I can see how to stop this rise, even if we have gone to zero (carbon) emissions."
Rahmstorf estimated that if the world limited warming to 1.5 degrees then it would still see two meters sea level rise over centuries. His best guess was a one meter rise this century, up to five meters over the next 300 years. "There is nothing we can do to stop this...once the ice is on the move, it's like a tipping point which reinforces itself." (Reuters)
The Pacific island nations are among the first to feel the impacts of sea level change, which increased by some 20cm over the course of the C20th. Taito Nakalevu, Project Manager for the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change Programme, said, “The Pacific countries have continued to indicate...the problems they are already facing from climate change, like salination of underground water, inundation of low lying areas and coastal erosion. Climate change is an important issue, it just won't go away. We have to adapt, we don't have any other option." (Solomon Times Online)
This rise in sea level is not only making the impact of typhoons worse in the Philippines, as another one strikes Manila this weekend, it almost certainly added to the problems faced by Samoa in the recent tsunami. Out of the Pacific arena the fact that storms have lashed every continent with greater than usual ferocity, excessive rainfall has caused the worst flooding in living memory and drought has stricken areas with previously reliable rainfall, are all indications of the unpredictability of the changes to come. However sea level rise is predictable; some of the consequences are foreseeable.
In Copenhagen our leaders will argue and grapple with the difficulties of reaching an agreement. Realistically this should be over whether the developed nations are prepared to accept declining living standards and/or whether the developing nations are prepared to accept a slowdown in their rate of growth. Of course new technologies such as carbon sequestration will be discussed, of course carbon trade-offs will be on the table, but at the end of the day it will not matter; there will not be agreement in Copenhagen, decisions will be postponed and the most fundamental issue will be ignored. Surely the leaders did not miss the footage of their comrade President Mohammed Nasheed and his government holding the Maldives cabinet meeting underwater; what PR exercise will be required for them to sit up and take note!
Whilst most nations will attempt to comply with the existing restrictions of the Kyoto Protocol, many will fail. Some states will without doubt abandon their targets in an attempt to ensure the security of their populations; Bangladesh has already indicated it will take this step if necessary. Each nation will instead focus on protecting their lands, with sea walls, artificial reefs and other devices, to prevent the despoliation of their sovereign territory. In the long run mechanical resistance is futile; the sea and the storms will always get their way. Short term measures, such as those enshrined in the constitution of the Netherlands, may keep the water at bay for a time; but for how much longer?
Battles against nature may be won but the war with nature can only succeed when it ceases to be a war and becomes a pact; such a pact can only be brought about by compromises on our side. As the global economic crisis appears to be fading, many commentators have pointed to other issues, such as the world’s water and food crises, as well as climate change, and have suggested that these issues are either unimportant or can be conquered relatively easily. This is not the case.
Sea level will rise and it is this that will have the greatest impact in the long run. There will be a mixing of salt water with fresh, an inundation of low-lying farmland and the salination of some fresh water aquifers on which some of our major cities depend. Of endangered cities, Shanghai is the largest and most exposed, the Chinese coast is already experiencing one of the fastest rates of sea level rise and the subsidence caused by the massive structures of Pudong can only add to the problem. The vast farming areas on deltas, amongst them Vietnam and Bangladesh, are most exposed to the salination of farmland and are least able to cope, having coastlines that are too long to be protected easily. In time, the Yangtze flood plains will suffer the same fate. For nation states with manageable coastlines, the labour force and/or the necessary finance to do so, the construction of substantial sea defences would appear to be the only option.
For those commentators who dismiss the sea level issue an interesting observation can be found on the website of Wetlands Watch, an organisation established to protect and conserve the coastal wetlands of Virginia, USA. This group is primarily interested in a very local issue, of little importance to the world at large, but they are clearly aware of what is coming and have no doubts as to its frustrating responsibilities, “...mitigating the damage from the 2-foot (60cm) rise that is certain to come. Wetlands Watch is concentrating on preparing for the sea level rise that we know is coming...As a result, most of our marshes will drown in place.” It is evident that this small group with their small-scale concerns were streets ahead of their previous president and have no doubt as to what is around the corner.
It may be possible to protect our coastal cities, but as Bangladesh is finding, protecting low-lying farmland is another proposition. An immediate consequence of large scale salination or inundation of farmland will be a massive number of refugees; this is already starting to occur. Some residents of Tuvalu, which could be drowned by 2050, are already moving to New Zealand. The climate refugees represent small numbers and New Zealand has plenty of room, but whilst 10 million refugees would present a major problem for the Kiwis, they would hardly pose a problem when scattered globally.
It is more illuminating to consider what would happen to the residents of Bangladesh or Vietnam. As farmland becomes too saline for production, where do these people go? Logically the answer is away from the coast, to higher land, but this land is already occupied by people who rightly claim ownership and is often across international borders. Without doubt an unregulated movement of people would occur and if major flooding were to happen in a single catastrophic event, perhaps a sea flood which could then not be drained, this may not be a process that takes place over many years; it could happen in a week.
In 2007 Christian Aid forecast that there could be as many as 1 billion refugees by 2050; currently there are 10 million refugees and 25 million internally displaced people around the globe. A billion refugees may sound extreme but simply plotting sea level rise against existing contour lines gives an indication of the scale of the problem.
Around Shanghai there is a tract of land stretching from the Yangtze, through the lakes around Suzhou, almost to the Hangzhou Wan, which is less than 3 metres above sea level. A rise in sea level of less than this could cause the Yangtze to divert, not only causing severe flooding to farmland but also making an island of Shanghai. A far flung fantasy perhaps, but it should be remembered that when rivers do change their course it is generally sudden and catastrophic, usually brought on by a combination of severe weather conditions. It is these potential problems that require the urgent investment of our time and money.
Returning to the Australian report on climate change, their government spokeswoman said, “This is an issue of national significance.”
In this she is completely wrong; this is an issue of international significance. The Summits of Kyoto, Rio, Johannesburg and other sub-summits have signified a recognition of the problem and, to be fair, some nations have committed to and undertaken, significant advances in combating global warming.
Copenhagen may herald a new realisation, one with frightening consequences; our environmental actions are not going to prevent climate change, they are not going to prevent sea levels from rising, they are not going to prevent the misplacement of large numbers of people and massive losses of hugely fertile farmland.
At Copenhagen the world’s leaders must grasp that this is potentially the greatest disaster to befall mankind that has ever occurred. They must find agreement on carbon emissions to be sure but these policies will only bear fruit by the twenty-second century; what is needed is some commonsense emergency planning for the twenty-first century while we still have time.
The Little Mermaid may well look thoughtful.