Who’s Afraid of Climate Change?

COPENHAGEN – Imagine that over the next 70 or 80 years, a giant port city – say, Tokyo – found itself engulfed by sea levels rising as much as 15 feet or more. Millions of inhabitants would be imperiled, along with trillions of dollars worth of infrastructure.

This awful prospect is exactly the sort of thing global-warming evangelists like Al Gore have in mind when they warn that we must take “large-scale, preventive measures to protect human civilization as we know it.” The rhetoric may sound extreme, but with so much hanging in the balance, surely it’s justified. Without a vast, highly coordinated global effort, how could we possibly cope with sea-level rises on that order of magnitude?

Well, we already have. In fact, we’re doing it right now. Since 1930, excessive groundwater withdrawal has caused Tokyo to subside by as much as 15 feet, with some of the lowest parts of the downtown area dropping almost a foot per year in some years. Similar subsidence has occurred over the past century in a wide range of cities, including Tianjin, Shanghai, Osaka, Bangkok, and Jakarta. In each case, the city has managed to protect itself from such large sea-level rises and thrive.

The point isn’t that we can or should ignore global warming. The point is that we should be wary of hyperbolic predictions. More often than not, what sound like horrific changes in climate and geography actually turn out to be manageable – and in some cases even benign.