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New Study: Sea Level Rise Will Be Worse than Previously Believed

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A.W. Strawa, Co-Chair
Catholic Green Initiative
Office of Social Ministries

“If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof.” – Pope Francis

In his encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis says that there is ample evidence that certain human activities are endangering the planet and its inhabitants. He links environmental degradation and the plight of the poor and marginalized. “It is my hope that this encyclical letter … can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face” [15].

So it was heartening when members of the international community met in Paris last December at the Community of Parties (COP21) to negotiate an agreement to take action to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius above the baseline temperature set in 1880, even though these actions are non-binding.
The question is “What will a 2-degree warmer world look like?” New research from Dr. James Hansen and 18 eminent scientists attempts to answer that question. (Hansen et al., Atmos. Chem. Phys., 16, 1–52, 2016.) Dr. Hansen is on staff at the Cornell University Earth Institute and former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Sciences. He and his colleagues used a combination of paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and observations to examine what effect of a 2-degree Celsius global warming might be on ice caps and sea level.

They found that melting ice from Greenland and Antarctica could not only result in sea level rises but could also alter local climate through increases in severe storms. These factors in turn could lead to more rapid ice melting. In science, this is called positive feedback. (In this case positive feedback is not a good thing.) They conclude that “multi-meter sea level rise would become practically unavoidable, probably within 50–150 years.” Previous estimates of the sea level rise due to melting ice did not consider this feedback and underestimated the amount of sea level rise. This latest report confirms many other recent studies showing that most models are underestimating future sea level rise.

The immediate impact of sea level rise is that coastal cities like Miami, New York, and New Orleans will flood more often and more severely, endangering and displacing millions of people. As seawater reaches farther inland, it can cause destructive erosion, flooding of wetlands, contamination of aquifers and agricultural soils, and lost habitat for fish, birds, and plants.

This research is only the latest example of science telling us that the effects of global warming are occurring more quickly than previously thought. As Pope Francis points out in his encyclical, it is the poor who will bear the brunt of these effects and future generations who will have the burden of fixing the problems. It is time for us to heed the Saint Francis pledge to pray, act, and advocate to stop the burning of fossil fuels and combat climate change.

For more information please visit: www.dsj.org/social-ministry/our-programs/environmental-justice.