“A crime is something someone else commits.”
As I implied in my last piece, our passive, sluggish response to the climate crisis is in fact the natural result of evolution. Or the lack thereof. The brain of the human animal is simply not equipped to handle the reality that homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”) has become an immense, powerful, Earth-altering, geologic force. Our ego is arrogant enough to believe it, of course, but lacks the emotional maturity to fully accept the catastrophic implications of the power we now wield.
Our species evolved to cope with immediate threat or danger, not this slow, steady, strangling death; not this collapsing, world-wide disintegration that is properly characterized as “climate chaos.”
Most of us understand the fact of human-caused climate change as a geographically and temporally distant abstraction. We process it intellectually as if we are an exonerated bystander or an actor in a play; as if we are not as guilty as anyone of a lifetime of fossil crime; as if we have a choice whether we participate or not; as if our children and future generations won’t remember our complicity in the ecological genocide unfolding on Earth’s verdant stage; as if there is another planet for us once we have righteously ruined this one; as if this – all of this – isn’t deeply personal, emotional, real; and weirdly much more immediate than our senses are willing to admit.
Even though it is global and threatens all life on Earth, to our brains, it just doesn’t feel as real as a toothache, broken leg or even a papercut in the present moment. Thank the human brain.
Bryan Walsh made this point in a Time Magazine article earlier this year when he noted that even though the problem is obvious to most of us, “The whole world is doing little to slow the pace of climate change.” He wrote, “We know—at least those of us not in the grips of outright climate denial—how bad it is. But we can’t seem to act to save the future.”
The “biggest reason,” Walsh wrote, “is found within our own minds.” How do we know this? How do we know anything? Science. Some of us trust science.
In this case, we can turn to “the narrow metal tube of a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine,” where we discover that when we think about ourselves, “a certain part of your brain, called the medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, will light up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve.” However, if we think about a close relative, “the MPFC will still light up, though less robustly.” And if we think about strangers, people who we have never met, “the MPFC will light up even less.”
Furthermore, and this is absolutely key to understanding my point, if we think about ourselves in the future, our brains light up as if we were thinking about another person. To you and me, our future self (and yes, our children’s future self) is as important to us as a stranger on the other side of the planet. We don’t really care. Sorry, future self. Sorry, future selves of all children alive today, including our own. And the further out in the future we project, we care even less about that person, even though it is us, and our precious progeny.
Jane McGonigal, the research director of the Institute for the Future, explained, “Your brain acts as if your future self is someone you don’t know very well and, frankly, someone you don’t care about.”
Damn brain. But at least that means we’re off the hook, right?
Walsh helps us see why this explains our failure to treat the climate emergency as, well…an emergency. Why should we care about our children, grandchildren and future generations? Why should we care about billions of poor, black and brown people? Why should we care about whether most plant and animal species go extinct or not? Yawn. Not our problem. Not our fault.
Our brains simply aren’t wired for that level of compassion, social concern and empathy. We just don’t care. We are primarily wired to care for ourselves in the present moment. We are wired to care for our partner, our children and family, our tribe or our community today. In this time. In this place. And that’s it. We are willing to sacrifice for someone or something of value here and now but, sadly for our species, it seems we seems we won’t sacrifice for someone else in the future, even if that someone else is us.
Jesus Christ might want us to love everyone but our biology objects. Christ might want us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves but tragically for our children and grandchildren in the future, they just don’t make the cut. They are not included in our neighborhood of concern.
We appear to identify with our family, team or nation now and exclude other tribes, teams or nations even if it is our own lineage in the future. Are we willing to sacrifice now to help others later? We might “think” the answer is yes but evidence suggests otherwise.
Take sea level rise. This isn’t a new concern. Scientists have known for decades that our greenhouse gas emissions (yours and mine) are warming the planet and that causes sea level rise for two reasons. A warmer ocean expands (bigger water molecules) and as the planet grows hotter, glacial ice melts into the sea. That water has to go somewhere and that is why it is now regularly flooding the streets of Miami and homes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
It has also been obvious for just as long that islands and coastal communities will not survive sea level rise and that many millions, if not billions of people, will be affected. We know this intellectually but we don’t feel it emotionally except maybe when a hurricane happens. And even then, how long do we care? Two weeks maybe?
Plus, we don’t connect it to our emissions. We keep that reality separate. It is no different with droughts, wildfires, extreme weather events or species extinctions. We know these things are happening and most of us, if pressed to do so, can make the intellectual connection with the fossil fuels we personally consumed today and every single day of our existence. But again, yawn, so what? Are we to blame for destroying our planet or is it our brain’s fault? How can we make ourselves care about something we don’t really care about, even if it means the possible extinction of our own species?
Dr. Orrin H. Pilkey does not know the answer to these profoundly disturbing, existential questions but he can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about sea level rise. He is a Professor Emeritus of Geology, Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences, in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, and Founder and Director Emeritus of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.
He received his Ph.D. degree in geology at Florida State University and has been a professor at Duke University since 1965. After his parents’ house in Waveland, Mississippi was destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969, he switched his research focus to the study of coasts, a field in which he is well known internationally. In 2012, Duke University honored Dr. Pilkey with the naming of a building at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC: the Orrin Pilkey Marine Sciences and Conservation Genetics Center.
Dr. Pilkey has published more than 250 scientific papers and is the author or co-author of numerous books including The Rising Sea, published in 2009, which was his first book to focus on the global threat from sea level rise. In 2011, Dr. Pilkey and his son Keith Pilkey wrote Global Climate Change: A Primer and in 2014 he co-wrote The Last Beach, focusing on how the world’s beaches are threatened by sea level rise and the challenges we face in trying to save them. The 2016 volume, Retreat from the Rising Sea: Hard Decisions in an Age of Global Climate Change, co-authored with his daughter, Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, and his son, Keith, focused on sea level rise and the need to retreat or move back off the shore.
Dr. Pilkey’s most recent book published this year, is Sea Level Rise: A Slow Tsunami on America’s Shores, which was again cowritten with his son Keith. In this latest publication, the Pilkey’s argue that “the only feasible response” to the “unstoppable, impending catastrophe” of global climate change is for people who live “along much of the US shoreline to begin an immediate and managed retreat.”
But they aren’t doing that. Not even close. Why? Once again, the human brain. It is easier to deny the reality right in front of us than deal with it. And yet we – all of us – not just islanders and coastal dwellers, will be forced to deal with it in the years and decades to come.
I recently read Dr. Pilkey’s latest book in preparation for my interview of him which will be broadcast on my Wake-Up Call radio show on KKRN 88.5 FM (kkrn.org) on Tuesday, November 12, 2019 at 4:00 p.m.
Dr. Pilkey describes sea level rise as a “slow-motion tsunami” because it does just as much damage, but obviously moves at a slower pace. He calls the rising sea, “the first truly worldwide catastrophe caused by global climate change.” He writes, “It will impact all seven continents in all the world’s coastal cities from Los Angeles to New York, Rotterdam, Lagos, Mumbai, Shanghai, Tokyo, Honolulu, and many others. A few, like Miami and New Orleans, will disappear, as their geographical features guarantee that they ultimately cannot be defended against the rising waters.”
The reason we struggle to comprehend the enormity of sea level rise is because it corresponds with geologic time, not human-mind time. Many of us live today and think about fairly mundane, pedestrian and self-centered concerns that involve us in a narrow frame of time. We are mainly concerned with this week, this month or this year. When Dr. Pilkey explains that sea level rise is here to stay, he means it is at minimum, “a 400-year problem.” No matter how hard we try, we will never grasp the meaning of those words. Let alone, “hundreds of thousands of years.”
In his book, Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate, “David Archer predicts that if we continue to emit carbon dioxide, we may eventually cancel the next ice age and raise the oceans by 50 meters. A human-driven, planet-wide thaw has already begun, and will continue to impact Earth’s climate and sea level for hundreds of thousands of years.”
And while our perceptual reality suggests this is moving slowly and gradually, this again is a trick of the mind. In his book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, David Wallace-Wells writes, “…never in the earth’s recent recorded history has there been warming at anything like this speed – by one estimate, around 10 times faster than at any point in the last 66 million years. Every year, the average American emits enough carbon to melt 10,000 tons of ice in the Antarctic ice sheets – enough to add 10,000 cubic meters of water to the ocean. Every minute, each of us adds five gallons.”
While our tiny minds fail to understand such immense realities, perhaps we can relate to the fact that nearly 90,000 miles of American ocean and tidal (including bays, lagoons, and estuaries) shoreline is developed and it is all at risk right now as the seas continue to rise.
Perhaps we can also understand that America’s coastal communities, like the rest of the world, are already being impacted by sea level rise. Take Norfolk Virginia, for example. Home of “a Naval shipyard older than the nation itself,” sea level in that city “has risen 1.5 feet in the past century, twice the global average, in part because the coastline is sinking.”
Over a decade ago, “the Navy commissioned the National Research Council to study the risks climate change poses to its ability to respond to these crises and keep the country safe. The 2011 report said a thawing Arctic would stress the military’s fleet by opening a vast new arena to police in particularly harsh conditions.
The report also found that 56 Naval facilities worth a combined $100 billion would be threatened if sea level rose about 3 feet.”
The report also “warned that the Navy needed to begin protecting the most vulnerable facilities immediately, and had only 10 to 20 years to begin work on the rest.” And of course, like anything else related to preparing for our climate future, these report recommendations have been ignored.
Despite knowing what’s coming, we pretend we do not know. Pilkey writes, “Developers still construct beachfront houses along the Carolina and Florida shorelines. In Miami, certainly the most threatened city in America, two high-rise construction projects costing more than $1 billion each are underway.”
How much sea level rise are we talking about? Of course, it depends on what time frame we look at. Many sea level projections focus on the end of the century where Pilkey writes, “estimates from credible scientists range from 1 foot to a rather wild 10 feet.”
Most scientists believe that it is realistic to envision a 3-foot sea level rise in the next 80 years, but it could be as high as 6 feet. In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a report setting “the ‘extreme’ scenario of global average sea level rise by 2100 to 8.2 feet (2.5 meters), up half a meter from the last estimate issued in 2012.”
But even 30 years from now, we need to be worried as new research revealed, “Rising seas could affect three times more people by 2050 than previously thought. The new research shows that some 150 million people are now living on land that will be below the high-tide line by midcentury.”
Southern Vietnam will disappear. Residents of Bangkok, and “more than 10 percent of citizens” of Thailand are likely to see their land underwater by 2050. The city of Shanghai is threatened and “much of Mumbai, India’s financial capital and one of the largest cities in the world, is at risk of being wiped out.” Alexandria, Egypt, will likely disappear as could “Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq.” Should we care about this?
According to a 2017 Cornell University study, by the end of the century, 20 per cent of the world’s population, or about 2 billion people, “could become climate change refugees due to rising ocean levels. Those who once lived on coastlines will face displacement, and resettlement bottlenecks as they seek habitable places inland.”
According to Pilkey, climate refugees in America will come from all our coasts, beginning with Miami-Dade County in Florida, San Mateo County in California, Charleston County, in South Carolina and Clatsop County in Oregon, to name a tiny few. Most, of course, will come from Florida, where 20 of the 25 cities most at risk from sea level rise are found. Millions of Floridians are expected to flood north to escape the rising tide.
Long before this happens, however, real estate values of coastal properties will crash and crash hard, affecting the rest of our economy. Pilkey explains that current owners of coastal property will inevitably go looking for “a greater fool,” to whom they can unload their property before the sea comes to claim it. This process has already begun.
A recent analysis “estimates that property value losses from coastal flooding in 17 states were nearly $16 billion from 2005 to 2017. Florida, New Jersey, New York and South Carolina each saw more than $1 billion in losses.”
Another study found, “By 2045, roughly 300,000 homes and commercial properties in the continental United States may face chronic, disruptive flooding, threatening $135 billion in property, and potentially forcing the more than 280,000 current residents to adapt or relocate.” Should we care about this? Would it make sense to elect leaders who are determined to address this crisis?
Pilkey writes, “We are clearly facing an uncertain future forced on us by global climate change, and particularly by a rising sea. Yet, instead of recognizing the urgency of our plight and the need for immediate long-term planning and action, we remain in a cocoon of questioning and uncertainty aided by some of our leaders who stare at the evidence of climate change and unstoppable sea level rise and yet deny it.”
Is there hope? I guess that depends on us. Do we care about our own future and our children’s future? Can we make ourselves care? Or are we doomed by our hard-wired brains that tell us not to care? What is absolutely true is that the climate crisis does not care what we think. It only cares and will only respond to what we do.