As East Coast residents board up their windows and sandbag their property in preparation for Hurricane Irma this weekend, the impact of rising sea levels may well be on their minds. Irma’s wallop, which packed sustained winds close to 200 mph for some 24 hours in the Caribbean is worry enough for homeowners overlooking Florida and South Carolina’s spectacular beach fronts.
But steadily rising sea levels, which scientists widely attribute to global warming, will make Irma’s potential impact all the more concerning for areas like the Florida Keys and Miami, where the hurricane could “buzz-saw” its way up the coast. On Thursday Florida Governor Rick Scott acknowledged that storm surges from Hurricane Irma, bolstered by already high sea levels “could cover your house.”
Sea level rise: Study doles out responsibility
And now scientists say they have further proof highlighting that that sea level rise and temperature rise are tied to human behavior. In fact, say the researchers, who include investigators from Columbia University, the University of Oxford and North Carolina State University, the cause of the sea level rise can now be linked to specific industrial players that contribute the majority of the world’s carbon emissions.
“The question of responsibility for climate change is central to public and policy discourse over actions to curb greenhouse gas emissions and limit adverse impacts,” say the authors They point out the the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recognizes the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities,” which, in essence, acknowledges that those countries that have contributed a larger share of carbon emissions bear a larger responsibility for finding ways to prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate.”
The study, which was supported by the Union of Concerned Scientists, investigates the link between the world’s largest carbon producers and specific environmental impacts, like sea level rise and atmospheric temperature changes. Most importantly, says the UCS, it quantifies those changes, allowing scientists to show that there is a direct correlation between, say, summer flooding in South Miami and the continued investments into carbon-based manufacturing industries.
For example, say the researchers:
- Emissions traced to the 90 largest carbon producers contributed approximately … 30 percent of global sea level rise since 1880.” The researchers attribute their findings to what they call “a simple climate model approach,” in which they analyze data about major carbon producers published in 2014 and link it “in a way that is consistent with major climate- and impact-relevant Earth processes”
- They also found that emissions tied to the top 50 investor-owned carbon producers (Exxon, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Total, Peabody and others) correlate with 16 percent of the global temperature rise and 11 percent of the global sea level rise that occurred between 1880 and 2010.
- And private companies aren’t the only producers under the magnifying glass in this study. Approximately 15 percent of the world’s temperature increase and 11 percent of the global sea level rise between 1880 and 2010 has been attributed to major state-owned industries like Coal India, Pemex, Gazeprom, Saudi Aramco, Petroleos de Venezuela and others.
Benefit of study
Will a study that names-names when it comes to the largest carbon-fuel producers and their impact on sea level rise have a transformative effect on global industries?
The study points out that companies and countries have known for years that carbon-based emissions linked to fossil fuel industries cause global warming and related impacts on glaciers and sea levels. The lawsuit launched by Kivalina, Alaska against ExxonMobil and other petroleum and utility companies in 2008 failed to force the courts to recognize the company’s cumulative responsibilities. The U.S. District Court dismissed the suit in 2009, saying that global warming was a political matter. Both the Ninth Circuit of Appeals and the Supreme Court declined to advance the case.
But newer challenges against fossil fuel companies may find weight in the UCS-backed study. The 2017 lawsuit by the City of Imperial Beach and Marin and San Mateo Counties strive to do what Kivalina wasn’t allowed to do in court: hold fossil fuel companies responsible. And this study, which delves in to the issue of just what percentage of responsibility a company (and an industry) has when it comes to the destruction leveraged by climate change, may be just the data that litigants will need in court.
Still, there are those who will likely argue that the data is partisan-driven. In an age where climate change and global warming still receive spirited debate as politically hot topic, it may take a few more studies (and regrettably, a few more hurricanes like Harvey and Irma) before nations — and the courts — will be willing to recognize the compelling message of today’s climate research.