Greenhouse Effect and Sea Level Rise: A Challenge for this Generation
Greenhouse Effect and Sea Level Rise: A Challenge for this Generation (PDF, 238 pp., 4.9 MB), was edited by Michael C. Barth and James G. Titus, and published by Van Nostrand Reinhold Company Inc, 1984. Although the book was originally published by a private company, the content of the book is in the public domain. The book was was written by federal employees and EPA contractors, which meant that most of the book was never protected by copyright, and the federal government had a royalty-free license in the portion that was copyrighted. EPA has posted the entirety of the book on its web site since 1998.
"The human race is conducting a profound and largely irreversible experiment on world climate. Increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are expected to cause a global warming that could raise the sea several feet in the next century."
"Such a rise would substantially increase the risks from erosion and storms in most coastal areas and upset important wetland ecosystems. Should we wait for this experiment to unfold, or prepare now for its possible consequences?"
For additional reports focused on the implications of rising sea level, go to More Sea Level Rise Reports
Forward by William D. Ruckelshaus.
Chapter 1: An Overview of the Causes and Effects of Sea Level Rise (PDF, 42 pp., 1.1 MB) – James G. Titus and Michael C. Barth, with contributions by Michael J. Gibbs, John S. Hoffman, and Murray Kenney.
Chapter 2: Climate Sensitivity to Increasing Greenhouse Gases (PDF, 16 pp., 280 kb) – James E. Hansen, Andrew A. Lacis, David H. Rind, and Gary L. Russell.
Chapter 3: Estimates of Future Sea Level Rise (PDF, 20 pp., 200 kb) – John S. Hoffman.
Chapter 4: The Physical Impact of Sea Level Rise in the Area of Charleston, South Carolina (PDF, 35 pp., 1.5 MB) – Timothy W. Kana, Jacqueline Michel, Miles O. Hayes, and John R. Jensen.
Chapter 5: Coastal Geomorphic Responses to Sea Level Rise: Galveston Bay, Texas (PDF, 24 pp., 420 kb) – Stephen R. Leatherman.
Chapter 6: Control of Erosion, Inundation and Salinity Intrusion Caused by Sea Level Rise (PDF, 27 pp., 330 kb) – Robert M. Sorensen, Richard N. Weisman, and Gerard R. Lennon.
Chapter 7: Economic Analysis of Sea Level Rise: Methods and Results (PDF, 29 pp., 460 kb) – Michael J. Gibbs.
Chapter 8: Planning for Sea Level Rise before and after a Coastal Disaster (PDF, 12 pp., 180 kb) – James G. Titus.
Chapter 9: Implications of Sea Level Rise for Hazardous Waste Sites in Coastal Floodplains (PDF, 20 pp., 440 kb) – Timothy J. Flynn, Stuart G. Walesh, James G. Titus, and Michael C. Barth.
Chapter 10: Independent Reviews (PDF, 13 pp., 180 kb)
(By William D. Ruckelshaus)
Winston Churchill, whose output as a writer was so prodigious that one might reasonably wonder whether he was paid by the page, was himself put off by long works. As prime minister of Great Britain, he once pushed away a report from junior minister, observing "this paper, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read."
No doubt some laymen will glance at the study that follows and be deterred from further consideration by the fact that the study is a scientific one. If that is a hurdle for you, I hope you will join me in getting over it, because, if you do, you'll find that the authors have quite a story to tell.
That story is about change – the possibility that the climatic patterns of the world are in a transition to warmer weather that could lead to a rise in the sea level. You may not have thought much about the sea level previously; it was something we took for granted. But since we have taken it as a given for so long, the adjustments we may have to make will be profound. When you stop to think about all the areas of our lives that could be affected by climatic change, you will be amazed: we have planned our cities, developed our manufacturing techniques, and chosen our environmental protection strategies on the assumption of a stable sea level.
And even that is not the end of the story. Just as the potential effects of sea level rise will be societal, so the decisions whether to anticipate and how to respond to the new conditions will need to be to be made in large part by our government institutions. While the magnitude of the challenge is much greater than most faced by governments in the past, it is perhaps representative of many that we will face in the future. The question is, do we have the will to begin to face these questions today?
The question is a serious one, because we will find out whether a free, democratic society can respond to pressing needs in time to have maximum effect, while nonetheless not also changing its essential character. Bismarck's view that "God looks after fools, drunkards, and the United States of America" reflects his observation that our government has always functioned well, not necessarily by anticipating crises of great magnitude but by waiting for what political scientists call "an action-forcing event." Our system of government has traditionally been biased toward asort of institutional inertia, which eventually is broken by development of a massive consensus that sweeps through remaining barriers and ensures that the policies finely adopted will have lasting constituencies. The problem, of course, is that in our ultimate haste, we may not give adequate attention to all the options; Charles Haar calls this phenomena "the catastrophe theory of planning."
Whether we can continue in such a manner is subject open to question. For one thing, America's predominant place in the world requires that we act first on many questions; we can no longer depend on having the benefit of watching other Western democracies, then incorporating their experiences into our own. Another new development is that our representative institutions have become so responsive to so many groups that is often hard to get great deal done. Just imagine the government trying to set up the TVA today, in view of the legal, bureaucratic, and congressional barriers it would face!
Perhaps the most significant difference is in the nature of the issues themselves. In many areas, including the environment, government must act to anticipate problems in order to avert potentially serious consequences. In addition, it must act on the basis of knowledge that is often technical in nature (and thus hard to communicate an easy to distort – factors of no small consequence in democracies) and less certain than we would choose. Further, the costs of action, while presumably far less than those that would result from inaction, are often more than sufficient to arouse constituencies in opposition, while the dangers looking ahead lack the immediacy to easily animate support. The ultimate danger is that by remaining silent on "the catastrophe theory of planning" in an era producing catastrophes of a magnitude greater than in the past, we can place our institutions in situations where precipitate action is the sole option – and it is then that our institutions themselves can be imperiled and individual rights overrun.
It is in that broader context that I recommend your careful reading and consideration of the report that follows. I think you will find that the matter of sea level rise is not an issue of the sort that Anwar Sadat had in mind when he jocularly said, "These are questions for the future generation." Just as the nations of the world are inexorably becoming more interdependent, so are the fates of the present and future generations. The issues raised in this report and the implications I have suggested are so important that we must begin to consider them today.
Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
This document has been reviewed in accordance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Delaware River Basin Commission peer and administrative review policies and approved for publication. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute endorsement or recommendation for use. Please send comments to James G. Titus, Strategic Studies Staff, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C. 20460.