The New Yorker’s “The Siege of Miami” reveals a serious problem

Summary: Today’s post examines a recent example of climate fear-mongering. Not only is this misleading (at best), but it shows how this propaganda makes it more difficult for us to clearly see the world and respond to its many dangers.

AR5: projections of rising sea level

Today’s fear-mongering: “The Siege of Miami

By Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker
“As temperatures climb, so, too, will sea levels.”

The city of Miami Beach floods on such a predictable basis that if, out of curiosity or sheer perversity, a person wants to she can plan a visit to coincide with an inundation. Knowing the tides would be high around the time of the “super blood moon,” in late September, I arranged to meet up with Hal Wanless, the chairman of the University of Miami’s geological-sciences department. Wanless, who is seventy-three, has spent nearly half a century studying how South Florida came into being. From this, he’s concluded that much of the region may have less than half a century more to go.

… According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea levels could rise by more than three feet by the end of this century. The United States Army Corps of Engineers projects that they could rise by as much as five feet; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts up to six and a half feet. According to Wanless, all these projections are probably low. In his office, Wanless keeps a jar of meltwater he collected from the Greenland ice sheet. He likes to point out that there is plenty more where that came from.

“Many geologists, we’re looking at the possibility of a ten-to-thirty-foot range by the end of the century,” he told me.

Fear-mongering like this is the path to fame for journalists and scientists in today’s America. Let’s look at Kolbert’s well-written propaganda.

“According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, sea levels could rise by more than three feet by the end of this century.”

That is the high-end of the range to the worst of the four scenarios considered by the IPCC’s AR5 (RCP8.5; see the graph above).  Professor Wanless forgets to mention that the low-end for that scenario is only 21 inches, that RCP8.5 makes unlikely assumptions about population and technology (e.g., the late 21stC is a coal-burning world like the late-19th), and that the IPCC gives only “medium confidence” to their sea-level projections. See AR5’s conclusions here.

“…the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts up to six and a half feet.”

The relevant NOAA report is the 2012 National Climate Assessment “Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States“, which gives a 10-fold range between the high and low ends of the range (8 to 79 inches): “We have very high confidence (>9 in 10 chance) that global mean sea level will rise at least 0.2 meters (8 inches) and no more than 2.0 meters (6.6 feet) by 2100.” Drawing the public’s attention to only the high end of the range is misleading, to put it kindly.

Then Kolbert shows the essence of climate fear-mongering: scientists who make predictions more alarmist than the IPCC’s are sages, those who make more conservative predictions are either ignored or “deniers”.

“According to Wanless, all these projections are probably low.”

Now we get some hard-core fear-mongering. Big predictions, without any useful context.

In his office, Wanless keeps a jar of meltwater he collected from the Greenland ice sheet. He likes to point out that there is plenty more where that came from. “’Many geologists, we’re looking at the possibility of a ten-to-thirty-foot range by the end of the century,’ he told me.”

How many geologists believe this? What are the odds they give to a forecast that is 6x greater than the IPCC’s on the low end and 10x on the high end? How many scientists have forecasts lower than the IPCC’s? The article does not say, nor does it mention the wide range of opinion about the future of the polar ice caps, such as these two new papers about Antarctica…

The rest of the article is more of the same. For example, Kolbert conflates anthropogenic and natural climate change. The world has been warming during the past 2 centuries; the oceans’ rising has accelerated with that warming (see the graph below). The IPCC says that the warming since WWII is anthropogenic: “It is extremely likely (95 – 100% certain) that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in global mean surface temperature from 1951 to 2010.”

AR5: history of rising sea level

Kolbert gives no evidence that the flooding in Florida she describes results from anthropogenic climate change. Much of what she describes results from the top three factors affecting real estate: location, location, location.

The hard truth about Miami Beach

Its founders built Miami Beach on a barrier island. It — and perhaps much of South Florida — might be unsustainable no matter how climate changes (it’s always changing). Blaming anthropogenic factors diverts attention from these facts, just as the politicization of climate change often prevents us from preparing for repeat of past climate.

More broadly, 27 years of climate fear-mongering (since James Hansen’s famous Senate testimony) has not created strong support for policy action. Polls consistently show it near or at the bottom of the public’s policy priorities. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous (people who know all about dysfunctionality)…

Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

National Geographic
National Geographic, September 2013.

About barrier islands, like Miami Beach

From the Dept of Interior’s Report of the Barrier Island Work Group (1978), describing the fragility of these islands and their role protecting the mainland from storms. Especially note this — rising seas created some of the barrier islands and might eventually submerge some of them.

It is thought that many of the islands along much of the southern Atlantic Coasts owe their formation to a second cause, related to a rising sea level. According to this theory, as the sea rises, dune ridges form on the mainland shore. When this ridge is breached by the continued rise of the sea, the lowland section of the mainland behind the dunes is flooded, creating lagoons and leaving the dune ridge isolated as an island. The Outer Banks of North Carolina, Miami Beach, and Padre Island, Texas, are examples.

Other posts about rising sea levels

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14 thoughts on “The New Yorker’s “The Siege of Miami” reveals a serious problem

  1. In this article, you are making the same mistake that many “deniers” do. You are using facts to rubbish an emotive argument. That makes it all so boring and it won’t cut through the defensive screens of the original target audience.
    The urban liberal is in a state of near total affluenza. They want to worry about something. Then they are able to complain and protest, wanting to change the actions of other people. Even better, they want the government to do something, preferably spending money. As the demands are bound to be illogical and/ or impractical, nothing is done, which suits the protester. They can then seethe in righteous indignation.

    1. chrism,

      “In this article, you are making the same mistake that many “deniers” do.”

      I am uncertain what that means, but just to be clear: I am a somewhat dogmatic defender of the IPCC and major climate agencies. To call that being a “denier” is quite daft, although many alarmists do.

    1. chrism,

      Irony is largely an in-group form of communication.

      As for the alarmists, my guess is that they’re experiencing grief for the failure of the 27 year-long campaign for public policy action to fight climate change (and achieve some of their long-standing objectives to change the West’s society and economy). Odd behavior is understandable, especially as much of the failure results from their tactical and strategic errors.

    1. Richard,

      Thank you for mentioning that. The NY article mentions that, but does not well explain its role. The combination of a barrier island built on limestone makes for a poor foundation for a city. It’s a challenge to nature. Eventually nature seems likely to win.

  2. Closer to home but subsidence has been arrested. Interesting read.

    “Long Beach was once known as the “Sinking City”. Oil and gas production from the giant Wilmington Oil Field, where 3.75 billion barrels (42 gallons per barrel) have been produced, created a land surface “subsidence bowl” of up to 29 feet deep in and around the Port of Long Beach (Port) and along the coastal strand of the City of Long Beach.

    “Over 20 square miles have been affected adjacent to the shoreline from the Port to Seal Beach. Early 1940’s groundwater pumping contributed to the land sinking, but the majority of the subsidence resulted from oil and gas extraction. Damage to public and private property and the rebuilding of Port facilities have cost billions in today’s dollars.”

    About subsidence — at the City of Long Bearch website.

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