Friday, February 27, 2009

Changing climate, changing coasts...

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and New England Aquarium brought together a group of climate experts, business leaders, policymakers, and marine biologists this month to discuss global climate change. The interdisciplinary group gathered at the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston for Changing Climate, Changing Coasts, a symposium on the local impacts of climate change and the marine environment.

NEAQ President Bud Ris moderated the proceedings and authored an op ed on climate change earlier in the week. “With sea level now expected to rise about 1-2 feet by the end of this century, and much of that now irreversible, we will see dramatic changes in our coastline. The 100-year flood zone will move inland and what was previously a 100-year zone will become more like a 30 or 40 year zone,” he wrote in the Boston Globe. “The current estimates of sea-level rise are now believed to be fairly conservative.”

Daniel Schrag of Harvard's Center for the Environment noted that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has not been higher than 300 parts per million in the past 650,000 years, but today is climbing higher than 385 ppm. He warned that scientific models may be underestimating the sensitivity of the earth to climate change, that scientists tend to underestimate risk when there is uncertainty, and that there is a tremendous amount of momentum in the global climate system.

Under a business as usual scenario, scientists are expecting atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to rise to 550 ppm, which will have tremendous impacts on climate and human life. In response, experts agree that all available solutions will be necessary including switching to less carbon intensive energy, carbon sequestration, and adaptation measures. Given the magnitude and urgency of the problem, Prof. Schrag proposed an emerging geo-engineering innovation as the best available solution. Acknowledging the risk of releasing aerosols into the atmosphere to deflect heat from the sun to prevent global warming, he described it as “the worst idea except for the alternative.”

Many of the presenters focused on the impacts of climate change on coastal New England and the marine environment, with many scenarios showing the New England Aquarium in Boston and other coastal areas impacted by anticipated sea level rise. The 2007 study initiated by Union of Concerned Scientists, Confronting Climate Change in the US Northeast: Science, Impacts, and Solutions, was widely cited along with estimates of the economic and environmental impacts of climate change.

Steps to be taken include revisiting zoning requirements and development regulations along the shoreline, bolstering waterfront property with seawalls, bringing insurance premiums in line with new levels of risk, and advancing alternative energy solutions. Many of the speakers emphasized that we can’t afford the costs of doing nothing when it comes to climate change.