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 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT