Opinion » John Rember

Waiting for High Tide

And rain


A thousand years ago, King Canute, ruler of Denmark and England, grew weary of court officials telling him his power was so great, he was the ruler of not just nations but of the winds, waves and seasons. While Canute had his ways of getting humans to do his bidding, he knew the forces of nature had no need to obey him.

So Canute dragged his entire court down to the beach at low tide. He commanded that his throne be placed at the water's edge, and when the tide came in, he ordered it to retreat before it reached him. The tide ignored this order, and the royal slippers and the hem of the royal robe got soaked.

Since the human price of Canute's displeasure was to have one's head cut off, or to be disemboweled alive or blinded with hot pokers, we can assume the royal court got the hint. If you were going to praise the king's power, you had better be clear about what he thought he could and couldn't do.

Canute comes easily to mind these days. The legislature of North Carolina has outlawed basing any coastal land use policies on projected rises in sea level. And a Florida Environmental Protection Department employee was forced to undergo a mental health evaluation for violating Florida Gov. Rick Scott's ban on the phrases "climate change" and "global warming." Presumably the other employees in Florida state agencies got the hint, even if Rick Scott is nowhere near as acute as Canute when it comes to high water.

Studies of sea level rise indicate that not only does it exist, it's accelerating. For most of the 20th century, the seas rose about a millimeter a year. Since the beginning of the 21st century, that rate has tripled. Climate studies indicate the cause for the increase is a combination of melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica and thermal expansion of the ocean, both due to a warmer planet.

Some studies suggest the oceans will be 40 inches higher by 2100, but they assume uniform, gradual warming, one that reflects successful efforts to curb CO2 emissions and one unaffected by a huge increase in atmospheric methane.

Unfortunately, CO2 emissions aren't going to be curbed anytime soon. Governments can't agree on effective measures. Even if they could, such small things as persistent accidental fires in Chinese coal seams put as much CO2 into the atmosphere as that country's power plants. Methane emissions from melting permafrost, from coal operations in the American Southwest, and from leakages from global gas and oil extraction are equally resistant to government control.

These wildcards screw up the parameters of climate studies, as do the heat-island effect of cities, the thermal-sink effect of the oceans, the global-dimming effects of pollution, and unpredictable changes in the jet streams and ocean currents. When you're studying complex chaotic systems like climate, all extrapolations of the data—that's science-speak for predicting the future—are little better than lowball guesses.

From a political standpoint, it allows for the sort of magical thinking shown by King Canute's flatterers. The people who don't like the ugly implications of climate change—e.g. North Carolina legislators with real-estate interests, or a governor of a state just slightly above sea level—have a field day with the slightest scientific uncertainty.

Climate science is more certain when it has hard data. A soaked King Canute is evidence royalty cannot stop the tide from rising. A soaked New York City after Hurricane Sandy is evidence millions of commoners can't stop a rising ocean.

Other hard data are coming in. The extent of sea ice in the Arctic reached its lowest recorded maximum in March. The hottest global average temperature was reached in 2014, and thus far 2015 is breaking that record. Jet stream and ocean temperature anomalies have created record snow amounts in the Northeast and bare slopes at Western ski resorts. CO2 levels have surpassed 403 parts per million, a level not seen on Earth for 2 million years.

Here in Idaho, unless you're operating one of those resorts or have a cabin in a tinder-dry forest or have a farm with late water rights, you haven't been confronted with the sort of uncontrollable climate change that wrecks lives and livelihoods. You can tell yourself that the headlines mean nothing, predict nothing and nothing needs to be done about them. You won't feel the need to go down to the seashore and see for yourself. For that matter, Idaho doesn't have a seashore, and won't have, even if all the ice on the planet were to turn to water.

But Idaho is a tiny part of a planet that is subject to feedback loops and exponential curves. What happens out there will sooner or later—probably sooner—have its effects here. A billion people live within 40 inches of sea level, and if the water keeps rising, they're all going to need a place to live. It will be our decision to give them some of our dry land or let them drown.

Few of our elected officials and corporate executives have King Canute's dedication to reality. They have plenty of confidence in their power, though, and they're using it to ensure an official blindness to the fact that something's happening here, and what it is—in spite of their best efforts—is exactly clear.