The Paris Agreement Isn't Enough to Stop the Seas From Devouring Our Coasts

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A new study shows us that the Paris Agreement won’t be enough to stave off rising sea levels—even if world leaders actually step up to the task of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday, the study shows that our efforts will lock in a meter of sea-level rise (that’s more than 3 feet for the metric-illiterate among us) come 2300 if everyone sticks to the pledges they set forth in the Paris Agreement. In other words, even if our best efforts to prevent the climate crisis won’t be enough to protect coastal cities and low-lying islands.

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And if we continue to do nothing, as appears to be the case, sea-level rise will be much worse than a single meter by 2300.

Our oceans respond much more slowly to the increasing amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. After all, ice sheets and glaciers don’t just melt overnight. That can take anywhere from decades to, potentially, millennia. The present-day actions countries take will dictate what the world will look like—literally—for centuries to come. And, as this study found, about 25 percent of this potential rise in sea levels can be attributed to five big, stupid emitters: China, the U.S., the European Union, India, and Russia.

The international team of scientists behind this study used a sea-level emulator that took into account the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, glaciers, thermal expansion, and land-water storage, which includes dams. This model includes emissions data that goes as far back as 1750 to properly project what the world will look like come 2300. Unfortunately, what the study has found is that we should be more ambitious in our climate goals.

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The Paris Agreement aims to keep global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and, if possible, even 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s through specific pledges each signatory puts forth. This feels especially timely as President Donald Trump has sworn to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement. Monday marks the day the president can formally begin this process, and the New York Times reports his administration is doing just that.

So if world leaders don’t even stick to the pledges this international agreement sets forth, the situation will look a lot grimmer. Maybe Trump will start to care once rising seas drown his beloved Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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