IPCC global warming report underscores need for urgent estuary climate action

By Rob Shane

Today, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a dire warning on the status of human-induced climate change. The latest report, the Summary for Policymakers, is the first in a series under the Sixth Assessment Report that was produced by the world’s leading climate scientists, representing 195 countries. The Summary collates and synthesizes the latest climate evidence from over 14,000 resources and makes clear the link that the burning of fossil fuels has led to unprecedented changes to our climate.

For the first time, the group of scientists can unequivocally say that the observed rise in global temperatures is due to human influence. Previous iterations of the report have explained that it is highly likely, but the data is finally clear enough to for the IPCC to make that determination with absolute confidence. The time for equivocation is over.

The Summary warns louder than ever that the timeline to enact meaningful change and avoid further damages from global warming is right now. While some of the climate impacts and tipping points are irreversible at today’s warming of 1.1C, there is still time to act to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and keeps the world on a 1.5C trajectory. At current rates, we are on pace to exceed the carbon budget set for 2050 by the end of this decade – a full 20 years ahead of schedule. What this actually means:

In addition to the report, the IPCC also released their World Governance Indicators (WGI) Interactive Atlas. This new tool allows us to see regional based models of climate change out to the year 2100. 

First of all, we can expect seas to rise at least 6-10 feet by the end of this century, no matter what. This stands to be devastating for all low lying coastal communities and spells catastrophe for coastal infrastructure, including ports and military installations, and the over 40% of Americans that live in coastal counties. We may not be able to stop seas from rising at this point, but by enacting nature-based solutions to protect our shorelines, we can combat at least some of the damage. 

Wondering what 6 feet of sea level rise looks like? Check out this helpful tool from NOAA

Next, we can expect storms to continue getting more severe and those severe storms will happen more regularly. Flooding in coastal regions has doubled since the 60’s, according to the report, and once-in-a-century coastal surges are on pace to happen annually by the year 2100. This means we can expect storms like Katrina, Harvey and Sandy to become the norm – with thousands of people displaced and killed, and a multi-billion dollar economic cost.

Lastly, in addition to more severe storms, we can also expect more severe drought to become the norm. Many coastal or semi-coastal cities, such as Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ, rely on freshwater from tidal rivers (the Delaware River, in this case). Without a steady flow of freshwater to push back the salt line, in addition to already accounted sea level rise, salt water will begin to intrude upon municipal drinking water and wastewater systems, potentially rendering millions of people without clean water and causing billions, if not trillions, of dollars in damage or infrastructure upgrades. The drought that has afflicted the American West and the ensuing fires and agricultural devastation will become “normal.”

Aside from infrastructure damages, drought and warming water temperatures are already spelling disaster for anadromous fish such as Pacific salmon who rely on rain and snow melt to lift river levels and allow for safe migration upstream.

The pathway to mitigate this damage is clear, and it is not too late. In addition to a swift transition to a clean energy future, Congress can make the largest investment in coastal resilience and improvements to our nation’s infrastructure in the 21st century. Luckily, the Senate infrastructure plan which is nearing finalization, includes more than $47 billion for climate resiliency and $17 billion for upgrading ports and waterways. 

This is a good start, but RAE estimates that we need federal investments of at least $500 billion in dedicated funding to coastal resiliency and restoration to protect us against the worst of what’s to come. We are hopeful that upcoming budget negotiations will include many of the coastal and climate investments laid out in the President’s draft budget from earlier this year.

“This is just the latest proof that immediate action is necessary,” says Daniel Hayden, President of Restore America’s Estuaries. “We look forward to advancing policies that demand an immediate energy transition, smarter land use planning and agriculture, and invest in climate-resilient, nature based solutions.”  

Rob Shane is the Communications Manager for Restore America’s Estuaries. He is based in Northern Virginia.
His home will be under water with 10 feet of sea level rise.