Warming Oceans Are Rising at Alarming Rate, Says New UN Report

September 26, 2019

The IPCC report concludes that unfettered climate change will cause glaciers to melt, destroy oceanic ecosystems, accelerate sea level rise, and wreak havoc on the earth. Despite all this, our guests say there still is hope.

The IPCC report concludes that unfettered climate change will cause glaciers to melt, destroy oceanic ecosystems, accelerate sea level rise, and wreak havoc on the earth. Despite all this, our guests say there still is hope.


Cover of the September 24, 2019 IPCC report summary

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.

A week of historic mobilization of people from throughout the world calling for action to be taken on the climate crisis ended with a sobering bang. Warming oceans and global sea level rise has accelerated in recent years due to climate change. And if immediate action isn’t taken, the straits could be dire. That’s the conclusion of a report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, as it’s known, a collective body of climate scientists overseen by the United Nations. The title of the report is “The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.” 1,100 pages in length, 100 authors, 36 countries who have contributed to this report.

The report examines the impact global warming has had, and will continue to have on melting glaciers, a process which causes sea level rise. Sea level rise, in turn, could leave coastal cities and island states underwater, with unfettered climate change in the future if it happens. The IPCC put it this way in a press release about the report: “Glaciers and ice sheets in polar mountain regions are losing mass, contributing to an increasing rate of sea level rise, together with expansion of warmer oceans. While sea level has risen globally by around 15 centimeters during the 20th century, it’s currently rising at more than twice as fast, 3.6 millimeters per year, and accelerating.” Unchecked global seas could rise 60 to 110 centimeters by the year 2100. And at the hands of climate change, the report concludes, that translates to nearly over two and a half feet. It also portends warmer global waters, which can lead to damaged ocean ecosystems and the potential for increased extreme weather events.

Here to talk about all this and unpack what this report means, what it could do to our ecosystems and to people and all of us on this planet, are our two guests. We’re here with Sverre LeRoy, excuse me, the Anchorage, Alaska-based Lead Scientist Advisor for the Center for Climate Integrity, a proxy of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. And the other is Harjeet Singh, the Global Lead on Climate Change at the organization, Action Aid. And he’s based in New Delhi, but joins us from New York today. So let’s just begin immediately here. And I want to kind of go to the cut of the press conference announcing this report, just to give people a sense of what was presented.

D. ROBERTS, IPCC CO-CHAIR: This new IPCC Special Report highlights the urgency of prioritizing timely, ambitious and coordinated action.

V. MASSON DELMOTTE, IPCC CO-CHAIR: Even if global warming is limited to well below two degrees, around one-quarter of the near-surface permafrost will thaw by 2100.

K. BARETT, IPCC VICE-CHAIR: What is at stake is the health of ecosystems, wildlife, and importantly, the world we leave for our children.

MARC STEINER: So this is on the heels of the last report about the land masses on our earth, and now we’re seeing the report on the rising levels of the seas. Sverre, just to start here with, we’ve heard a long time about rising sea levels, and every time there’s a hurricane or an event, we talk about the warming oceans and the role that plays in all this. So talk about, both of you, from your perspective, starting with you, the importance of this report. What did it bring out that maybe we all didn’t know before, and that we need to pay attention to?

SVERRE LEROY: So one thing this report does is it updates the rate of sea level rise. So we have been aware that the rate of sea level rise has been increasing, but much of the data that we’ve been citing was from a decade ago, a decade old. And this is an update to that. And in fact, the rate of sea level rise has increased even further. It also updates – it paints a big picture of the rate of ice loss, which is directly related to sea level rise. It’s a broad and rather dire picture of the amount of sea loss that the earth has undergone in the last decade. And that is also projected to increase in rate going into the future.

So I’d say there weren’t necessarily any large surprises in this, but it does solidify our certainty of what has been happening. We’re not just making these observations anymore, we have data and statistics to back it up. And our projections into the future are getting better.

MARC STEINER: And it sounds, Harjeet, “better and more dire,” as they said in the report.

HARJEET SINGH: Yes, absolutely. And it issues a very stark warning that we have very little time to avert the crisis. Imagine, at one-degree temperature rise, the kind of impacts we are already seeing, the way sea level is rising, and people are losing hands. I have recently been to Sundarbans, which is one of the mangrove systems shared between India and Bangladesh, and I have seen how people have already lost their homes. The place that I visited is known as Mousuni Island, and I could see that seventh embankment almost submerged. And people would show you a piece of paper saying, “My land used to be there, several meters inside the sea.” So people have already been experiencing these impacts.

And the way and rate of sea level rise has increased, and what it is going to do to millions of people, particularly poor people in developing countries, I think it’s already an emergency-like situation, which we all need to acknowledge. And now, with data and science, there is no more ambiguity and it demands urgent action. This report, coming on the heels of the UN Climate Action Summit, it makes it even more important what world leaders have to do.

MARC STEINER: So Sverre, I mean, as Harjeet was talking about in India, and I want to come back to that in a moment, you, as we talked before we went on the air, grew up in Alaska. And so, just to get a sense of how this report speaks to what people in the northern part of this hemisphere are facing, what people are facing in Alaska, whether it’s the fisheries, the melting glaciers, and what that really means for people living day to day. I mean, how do you translate what you see here to the people that you live with?

SVERRE LEROY: Oh, well, it’s very applicable to all parts of Alaska. The city of Anchorage, which is Alaska’s largest city by far, it’s half the population of the state, gets most of its water from glacial melt. And our glacier is expected to be gone by the end of the century. And so we need to locate a new water source. The Indigenous communities along the coast of Western Alaska are being eroded six feet at a time. Six feet of their shoreline just washes away in one big chunk, in one storm. There are a dozen or so communities that are fighting for their lives as we are speaking right now, desperately trying to find the money to move their community inland because they’re being eroded, because there’s no longer winter sea ice that is fast to the land. So they’re getting pummeled by winter storms.

So fisheries are being affected. Unfortunately, there’s been very little research in the deep blue seaside of the fisheries. We know a lot about what’s happening along the coast, but the ocean is still a little bit of a black box. We don’t understand what’s happening to our fish, our wild salmon, when they go out to the middle of the Pacific for two years of their lives. And so our fish returns, this year we had fish that were having heart attacks in our Northern Alaskan rivers as they’re trying to spawn because the water is 20 degrees warmer than it is on average.

MARC STEINER: Heart attacks?

SVERRE LEROY: Yeah. We had multiple instances of widespread salmon death due to heat, and likely heart-related issues.

MARC STEINER: So let’s talk a bit about what you both find, and Harjeet, I’ll go to you first and come back to Sverre here, but what you both find in this report that you think the world is not aware of, that we need to be aware of, and how you relate that to people so they really understand it. Harjeet?

HARJEET SINGH: Sure. I think the report doesn’t use that phrase, but let me try to make that point. The report is also talking about the domino effect that the whole world hasn’t recognized yet. One, in terms of ecosystems, frozen lands now threaten to unleash even more carbon as they melt, which means – and that’s what report has found, and that’s the reason that the warming has increased even more. So these frozen lands, these glaciers, have been holding carbon for centuries. And now if they unleash more carbon, which means more warming, and it will lead to these glaciers melting much faster, which means leading to sea level rise even at a faster rate. Much more disastrous situation.

Another domino effect that we need to understand, as seas get warmer, which means not only they are going to affect land in terms of salinity, or even swallow up meters and kilometers of land, but warmer seas also means more hurricanes. So another domino effect that you see in terms of impact on people, their land, their livelihoods, which is going to drive a lot more migration. And that migration is now already happening in millions. And if I give data, last year, in 2018, 16 million people in just 150 countries were displaced due to weather-related events. And these are new displacements, which means we keep adding the number of displaced people every year.

So if sea levels are going to rise, and we are talking about over 670 million people living on the coastline and in islands who add more numbers, their life and their homes are at risk, and they are going to face that migration much more. How are we going to deal with that situation? That is something that the world has to be aware of. And that’s why we need to act even more urgently.

MARC STEINER: I want to close in a few minutes just talking about what that means, what actions have to be taken. But Sverre, I’m just curious as well as for you, I mean, this is your day-to-day work as well. But what in that report really hit you in ways that you weren’t expecting, that were greater than you thought, that really kind of stood out to you?

SVERRE LEROY: I think what struck me was the fact we still have a chance to reduce our emissions and possibly prevent the loss of ecosystems around the world. There is still hope, if we reduce our emissions now, to prevent enormous amounts of sea level rise. We’re talking the difference between two feet, which will displace millions of people, and six feet, which would displace billions of people.

MARC STEINER: Billions?

SVERRE LEROY: Well, over a billion. And by the year 2050, the population of people living in these regions that we’re discussing, the Arctic mountainous regions and low-lying coastal communities, that will be 20% of the projected world population by then. So we’re talking 20% of people living in these vulnerable communities that will need to find different sources of electricity. They’ll need to find different sources of clean drinking water. They’ll need to move to higher ground. They’ll need to move from their island states. So we still have time to prevent the absolute worst of this. And there’s a very big difference between the next 30 years of climate change and the possible worst-case scenario, so I was left hopeful.

MARC STEINER: What was the last thing you said? You are hopeful?

SVERRE LEROY: Yeah. This report makes no guarantees, but they do suggest that if we implement – if we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions now, and we strive to meet these IPCC goals that they’ve laid out in the last several years, that we actually have a chance of fighting back. We actually have a chance of preserving some of our coastal communities and reducing the risk of devastating marine heat waves, which have been increasing and are projected to increase massively going forward. So our actions today can really make a difference in the not-too-distant future.

MARC STEINER: And Harjeet, let me just conclude here with you. And I mean, I hear Sverre’s message of hope, but that hope also means that there has to be a human political push to make that happen because people are recalcitrant. As I said before we went on the air, we look at the United Nations this week, and you’re in New York now, Harjeet, and you had the President of the United States walking out of the climate meeting after he was there for barely 14 minutes. So it’s going to take – we can change it, but it’s going to take, it seems to me, a huge struggle to force that change.

HARJEET SINGH: Yeah, so I’m also hopeful and we all should be hopeful. But I’m hopeful with a caution, which is, and with a warning, that we have to move much more faster and urgently. Let me also point towards a couple of concepts that report talks about in a very guarded manner. Let’s also recognize that the summary of this report, which goes to policymakers, is a negotiated document, which does not mean that it can reflect the level of findings or the urgency with which we need to look at the issues because it gets negotiated.

But let me talk about a couple of concepts very, very quickly. The report talks about adaptation limits, which means it points to a situation where adaptation, living in the same location, will not be possible for millions of people. It talks about residual impact, which in our climate lingo, we call it “lost and damaged.” The report also talks about conflict resolution. We are already experiencing examples of conflict between displaced communities and host communities over scarce natural resources, so it very clearly says that we need to adopt conflict-resolution approaches. So it is anticipating that world is going to see much more conflicts over scarce resources, particularly in developing countries. And we all know how the whole world is treating migration, and the xenophobic feeling around it.

And report also talks about planned relocation, which is where I would say we can be hopeful, provided we move faster and in a coordinated manner with a lot more cooperation, which is where the role of rich countries come in. How do you help developing countries go for that planned relocation, how rich countries provide resources because developing countries are the ones who are going to face most impact? And that’s the reality. And they are the ones who are least responsible.

MARC STEINER: Harjeet—

HARJEET SINGH: So yes, we need to be hopeful, but we need a lot more to remain hopeful.

MARC STEINER: Harjeet Singh and Sverre LeRoy, a), let me say thank you for joining us, and b), for the work that you do. And we need to continue to keep our hope up and the struggle going to save our planet for the future and for all of us. Thank you both so much for joining us. I look forward to taking a deeper dive into this with both of you at some point soon. Thank you for being with us.

HARJEET SINGH: Thank you.

SVERRE LEROY: Thank you.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. And you know our Climate Bureau will stay on top of all of this, and bring you as much as we can in as much depth as we can. Take care.