Cities vs. Rising Seas
Around the world, tens of millions could lose their homes in the coming decades. Planning is the key to protecting them.
What does a country do when rising seas threaten to swamp its coastal capital?
In the case of Indonesia, the country’s leaders are building a new capital city, from scratch, on higher ground. That monumental endeavor was recounted in detail this week by my colleague Hannah Beech, who has covered Asia for more than two decades.
The project poses a big question, Hannah wrote: What happens to the millions left behind in the old capital, Jakarta, once the government moves?
That question resonates well beyond Indonesia. Rising seas are a challenge for two-thirds of the world’s biggest cities, including New York, Mumbai and Shanghai. The U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, has warned that higher sea levels could result in “a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale” if not addressed.
Today, I want to talk about what leaders around the world are doing about the problem and what the future might hold for people in these cities.
How big is the problem?
Global warming raises sea levels in two ways. First, it melts glaciers and ice sheets, adding water to the oceans. Second, higher temperatures make all that water expand, increasing its volume. Sea levels have already risen about 9 inches, or roughly 23 centimeters, since 1880.
How much more will the seas rise? That depends on how much we let global temperatures rise. If climate change is left unchecked, ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland could eventually shift from gradual melting to collapse. Scientists aren’t sure exactly where that tipping point lies in the future.
Research reported by my colleagues Denise Lu and Chris Flavelle showed that some 150 million people now live on land that will be below the high-tide line by midcentury. That number is expected to rise as people seeking better lives move to big cities, many of them on the coast.
There are ways to adapt.
A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware who focuses on climate adaptation, told me there are various strategies cities can use to cope with rising seas.
First, officials can avoid building in flood-prone areas. They can also try to hold the water back by building levees and sea walls. They can accommodate higher water levels by, for example, elevating homes.
Another option is to retreat, or move homes and infrastructure out of harm’s way. That’s what Indonesia is doing, though, so far, only for government buildings, not for Jakarta’s more than 10 million residents.
Municipal leaders will have to use their judgment to decide what mix of strategies is right for their cities, Siders said.
Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, uses permanent sand dunes and dikes, as well as water storage spaces. Ho Chi Minh City, in Vietnam, wants to improve drainage systems and relocate freshwater reserves to protect them from encroaching seawater.
Projects like those, of course, need a lot of money. That’s one big reason developing countries are demanding that rich nations, which are largely responsible for causing climate change, keep their commitments on climate aid.
Are we doing enough?
“I think most people’s gut feeling, in this area, is that it’s not enough,” Siders said. “My suspicion is that doing something that is enough in the long term requires something more radical.”
My colleague Chris, who covers adaptation, told me a big challenge is “how to move people so, wherever they end up, there is still a sense of community.”
There are examples of small communities that have done that. Valmeyer, a town of about 1,000 in Illinois, is generally seen as a successful case.
Perhaps the biggest effort to relocate entire cities happened after the 2011 tsunami in Japan, which displaced half a million people. The Japanese accepted a tax increase to, among other things, help pay for tens of thousands of new homes for those who lost everything.
But even that ambitious project doesn’t come close to the challenge of relocating millions.
Planning, and timing, are crucial.
If past experience is any guide, successful relocation requires time. It took four years to move and rebuild tiny Valmeyer, for example.
Understandably, Chris told me, people tend to want to stay in their homes. And in developing countries, where money is short, planning can be shaky and distrust of officials abounds, moving people is even harder.
Finding the right time to propose a move is often key, Chris told me. Do it too early, and people won’t sense danger enough to buy in to a retreat solution. Wait too long, and the community that the government is trying to save may no longer exist in any meaningful way.
“The people who have means to leave will have already left,” Chris said. “And people with less money will end up even worse.”
A lot will change, and a lot will be lost.
Through the process of reporting this newsletter, I couldn’t help thinking of the park by the beach near my home in Rio de Janeiro. It’s one of my favorite places in the world. Decades from now, the sea may swallow it.
Many of you may be mourning the places you love in advance, too. I can’t imagine the pain that people who live in island nations must feel when they think about this future. That’s another level of tragedy.
No doubt there will be loss. There already is. But big cities change all the time. We can, too. It’s really about coming together to choose how.
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Want to go birding with The Times?
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Claire O’Neill, Chris Plourde and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward