Skip to main content

Rising oceans will be unstoppable

By Carl Safina
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Thu May 15, 2014
Penguins on an ice block in Antarctica.
Penguins on an ice block in Antarctica.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Scientists say Antarctic's ice land melting 'appears unstoppable'
  • Carl Safina: Who cares if sea level rises and wipes out coastal cities?
  • He says either we have a moral responsibility to others or we don't
  • Safina: But given our track record, we might as well hit the snooze button

Editor's note: Carl Safina is an award-winning scientist and author, founding president of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University and host of the PBS television series "Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Have you heard the news? Because Antarctic ice sheets are melting, the sea level is likely to rise "unstoppably" by at least 10 feet, dooming many coastal towns and displacing millions of people. And it's all going to happen—within several centuries.

Well.

Who.

Cares.

Carl Safina
Carl Safina

This is news you can snooze. So go ahead and hit that snooze button.

Could we plan for what will happen centuries from now if we wanted to? Should we plan for what will happen? Will there even be people centuries from now? If there are, do we owe them anything? The next 200, 500 years, are not for us to worry about.

The future isn't what it once was, but their business isn't our business. Unimaginable technology has always come to the rescue and always will. Like, we will invent giant, cost-effective floats for New York City and all the other cities and towns on the world's coasts, or something.

NASA video shows ice melt in Antarctica
See time-lapse of glaciers vanishing
U.N. climate report: Time running out

The announcements about the collapsing ice sheets came from two teams of scientists with different approaches, focused on different parts of the Antarctic. "A large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has gone into irreversible retreat," according to Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at the University of California, Irvine, who led one of the teams. "It has passed the point of no return." His team measured shrinkages of 10 to 35 kilometers in several retreating glaciers since the early 1990s. Those glaciers are also thinning.

Warming air is intensifying the winds that sweep round the Antarctic, but it's not warming air that is melting the glaciers there. Those winds are drawing warm waters to the surface. The warm waters are eroding the ice.

Causes? Seems to be mainly the warming caused by the greenhouse effects of increasing carbon dioxide from burning gas, oil, and coal. But the ozone hole, also human-caused but having nothing to do with greenhouse gases or fossil fuels, might also be intensifying the winds.

So far, sea level rise worldwide has been caused mainly by the heat-caused expansion of seawater, much more than melting ice. But melting land ice will have a big effect on sea level rise.

Ian Joughin, leader of the other research team, said that nothing can stop the collapse of the ice sheet, adding, "There's no stabilization mechanism."

But, again, it will be slow. Centuries. John H. Mercer of the Ohio State University was first to predict this way back in 1978. He died without seeing the Antarctic glaciers break up. And so will we all.

So, back to bed. People 200 years from now? Not our problemo.

The only wrinkle in that thought is that centuries ago, about 225 years ago to be more precise, some people wrote a Constitution and Bill of Rights that affect our lives every day and that we refer to daily to guide us legally and morally. Those people could have said, "Screw it, let's make money." I think about my debt to them for wanting to be better than that. I often wish we wanted to be as good.

Global warming? More like global weirding
Media's global warming fail
Cruz: Data doesn't back global warming

Closer to home, closer to now, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that in this century, sea levels could rise as much as 3 feet.

And that is our problem. Some of us will be alive then. Many of us will have children who will live to this century's finish line. Between then and now, there will likely be more devastating Sandy-like hurricanes as winds intensified by warmer waters devastate shores.

While reading about the Antarctic ice melt, I noticed three side articles, and clicked.

One talked about flooding-related displacement already affecting people in low-lying areas around the world, from the natives of Kiribati to the people of Florida. Another speaks of misery caused in Bangladesh by rising seas, where 18 million people will be displaced in the next 40 years by rising seawater or having their well-water and farms ruined by salt.

The third article talked about our dysfunctional Congress's new defeat of yet another energy bill. Voice of America says, "A bill with strong bipartisan support to make the United States more energy efficient has been blocked in the Senate." Efficiency is bad; we need wastefulness. Thank you, senators.

Either we have a moral responsibility to others or we don't. It doesn't matter whether they live around the block or in the next state or in the future. Morally there's not much difference between a person flooded out by Superstorm Sandy and a person flooded out 200 years from now by our collective, willful inaction.

But some days, I'm not even sure how willful it is. When I was in high school in the 1970s, I learned that we were too dependent on other countries for energy, and that oil and coal are non-renewable and polluting, and that we needed to begin a shift to harnessing clean renewable energy sources. The shift to petroleum-based economy had taken a century. The shift to clean renewables would be my generation's most important task.

A lot has happened but, bottom line, there's been very little progress.

Technology advanced, but it hasn't been embraced. It's been outmaneuvered by denial and inertia backed by entrenched big-energy lobbying and campaign money. Globally, we're not exactly coming together to stabilize climate and institutionalize clean energy.

I think we could do what's needed. But collectively we simply aren't. Sometimes I don't see humanity as being capable of fixing the problems we're creating. We'd have to agree to fix them. Before that, we'd have to care. We're not doing enough of any of those things. Too often, we're in denial. And we feel fine. Our main solution is that snooze button.

So, let's not worry about the people of Bangladesh, Kiribati, New York and Miami, or the 23rd century. Pleasant dreams.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT