I read this article about the Maldives the other day and wasn’t sure if I detected two contradictory themes that the author presented (knowingly, unknowingly?) in it. I checked with a couple other friends and we all came away with the same interpretation. I’m going to go through it here and discuss what I think of it.
The undisputed theme of the article is adaptation to climate change. As usual, the devil is in the details. The Maldives are a collection of islands (atolls, really) in the Indian Ocean. Their average height above sea level is 4′ 11″. That means they’re in particular danger from melting ice sheets and glaciers, which is expected to happen as one result of our climate forcing. The Maldives’ President, Mohamed Nasheed, has proposed relocating all 350,000 inhabitants to other countries due to this threat. Much more was written about Nasheed and the Maldives in this Praer post by Wade Norris.
From the article:
But some recent data challenge the widespread belief that the islands are destined to disappear — and a few mainstream scientists are even cautiously optimistic about their chances for surviving relatively intact beyond the next century.
First off, I’m going to challenge the word ‘belief’. It has religious undertones, and that isn’t what scientists do. Without action, the polar ice sheets are forecasted to melt at increasing rates. Sea level rise could very well reach multiple feet by 2100, which would put the Malidives, among other locations, at risk of being submerged. Without action, the top of today’s islands will be under water. Those statements are based on our current understanding of physical processes. Scientists don’t have to believe in them in order for them to be true – they will be just as true if scientists don’t believe in them. So just who are the “mainstream scientists” who are optimistic for the islands’ chances for survival?
Paul Kench of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, who has published studies in recent years in journals including Geology and the Journal of Geophysical Research. Andrew Cooper, a professor of coastal studies at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, added his support [emphasis mine]:
“They have detailed geological evidence that this kind of growth has happened before in the past. … I think the question of the Maldives being completely wiped out may be overstated.”
Oh. Detailed geological evidence. Which means the Maldives have transformed themselves in geologic time-frames. What do the 21st century residents of the Maldives do? They can’t wait on a geologic time-scale for the atolls to change. The article makes mention of scientists’ assumptions of Maldive damage following the 2004 Asian tsunami event. Sometimes I don’t know why the corporate stenographers even try. Is it so hard to stretch one’s mind around the fact that a tsunami event is very different than polar ice sheet collapse? The effective time-scales for each are far, far apart. Tsunamis immediate impact last hours to days, with longer term impacts lasting years. Polar ice sheet collapse begin operating on yearly time-scales, with “immediate” impacts lasting decades to centuries and longer term impacts lasting centuries to millenia. The key here is polar ice sheet collapse is the kind of catastrophe that our race has never faced before. Comparing it to the 2004 tsunami, which was a catastrophe in its own right, doesn’t do it justice.
Which is where the article contradicts itself. The very next paragraph reads:
Kench warned, however, that while only a small number of Maldivian islands may not be able to adapt to rising sea levels, those are unfortunately the ones where many people live: Male, the nation’s capital, and Hulule. Residents of those islands will probably need to relocate to another country or move to other Maldivian islands that won’t disappear so quickly, he said.
Oops. The devil really is in the details, isn’t it? As geologic formations, all of the atolls will be affected in one way or another by climate change. As geopolitical formations, the most critical portions of the Maldives are facing the gravest threat. How then is the question of the Maldives being completely wiped out be overstated, as Andrew Cooper said? As usual, the corporate stenographers do a grand disservice to their readers.
I do want to point out the following:
While much global warming work aims to limit emissions, adaptation advocates argue for the need to combat the inevitable effects of climate change through forward planning and construction. That includes moving people, building sea walls, and new construction techniques.
This is actually a reasonable statement. Unfortunately, it is undermined by the lack of a reasonable question: why not discuss both solutions? Indeed, in an increasingly forced climate, resulting in widespread, intense heating and desertification over 1/3 of the planet, why should adaptation be the only viable solution discussed? If we take aggressive, attainable measures to reduce our emissions, it has been demonstrated that we can avoid the worst climate change effects in the next 100, 1,000 and 10,000 years. Realistically, some measure of adaptation will have to be enacted, that much is obvious and agreed upon. But we can limit the amount of adaptation required if we simultaneously reduce our forcing. The corporate stenographers missed another opportunity to discuss that fact.