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We’re So Not Ready for Melting Ice Sheets

September 13, 2022

A couple of weeks ago, the news circulated that a massive part of the Greenland ice sheet is going to melt regardless of what climate action the world takes. This could trigger up to a foot of sea level rise in the coming decades, which would have catastrophic consequences. As a recent study says:

“About 30% of the urban land on earth was located in high-frequency flood zones in 2000, and it is projected to increase to 40% by 2030, taking urban growth and [sea level rise] into account. In the United States alone, 123.3 million people, or 39% of the total population, lived in coastal counties in 2010, with a predicted 8% increase by the year 2020.”

This is to say nothing of small island states or low-lying countries like Denmark or Bangladesh — the latter of which has little responsibility for causing climate change and few resources to cope with its impacts.

The world is already struggling to cope with the acute effects of climate change — intensifying storms, floods, and droughts; less predictable weather patterns; increasingly frequent wildfires; and so on. Sea level rise poses an entirely different question that we are even less prepared to answer: if we know that a place is going to become uninhabitable in the near future, how do we safely move people to a different location while fully respecting their rights, including their right to self-determination?

History is full of awful examples of forced relocation, especially of Indigenous peoples, which we now recognize as atrocities. Yet planned relocation is very likely the right thing to do in the face of a phenomenon like sea level rise. No government has policies in place for how to do this in a way that is inclusive and respectful of community rights.

Robin Bronen at the Alaska Institute for Justice has been leading on some thinking around a rights-based approach to climate-forced relocation. This is crucial work that is only just beginning. It’s only one example of how the world is just not ready to deal with the inevitable impacts of the climate crisis we have brought upon ourselves.