The UK is sinking

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Flooding in St Andrews, Scotland

Flooding in St Andrews, Scotland. [Jan Bebbington]

Coastal nations are threatened by growing tides. Ahead of the UN climate change talks, they need to push for a deal that caps global temperature from rising more than 2°C, writes Ian Duncan and Ahmed Shiaan.

Ian Duncan is a Scottish Conservative MEP, who sits on the European Parliament’s Environment and Energy committees. Ahmed Shiaan is ambassador of the Maldives to the EU.

In October 1987 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Vancouver the Maldives became the first country in the world to warn global leaders about climate change. Earlier that year, tidal waves had hit the archipelago, leaving hundreds of residents homeless and causing millions of pounds worth of damage. The then-President of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Qayoom, posed a simple question to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers and Presidents: Is mankind responsible for sea level rise and freak tidal patterns?

As the country with the lowest high point in the world, just 2.3 metres above sea level, it is hardly surprising that the Maldives is concerned about sea level rise. A rise of only a single metre would drown 80% of the country and drive 340,000 residents to (only slightly) higher land. Worth noting that since 1870, global sea levels have risen by almost 20cm whilst the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) predicts at least a 90cm rise by 2100 – just 10cm shy of complete submersion of the Maldives.

But it isn’t just the Maldives that are at risk from rising sea levels. Climate change is affecting countries here in Europe too. For those of you who know St Andrews in Scotland, or are indeed lovers of golf, the photo accompanying this article will be something of a shock. Professor Jan Bebbington of St Andrews University’s Sustainability Institute created a photograph of what the old town and Old Course would look like in 2050, if global emissions are not cut. The world’s most famous golf course would fall below the sea, playable only by scuba divers. Indeed such a fate would befall much of estuarine and low lying coastal Scotland, home to almost half the population.

Interestingly, since the last Ice Age, Scotland has actually risen relative to sea level. Across the Highlands and Islands you will often encounter shell-littered beaches or machars raised metres above the highest reach of the tide. The gradual rebound of land once weighed down by ice sheets – isostatic recovery – means that Scotland continues to rise even now by an average of 0.6mm per year. However, as the rate of Scotland’s uplift declines and the rate of sea level rise increases, the lower lying parts of Scotland too will feel the effects of climate-driven sea level rise.

So what will stop Scotland from sinking?

Sea level rise is a complex business, partly ‘thermal expansion’ as seas warm, and partly additional runoff as ice sheets and glaciers melt. Since the height of the last ice age – 20,000 years ago – sea levels have risen by about 60cm per century as the ice melted. And the causes of thermal expansion and glacial melt? That would be climate change. And the causes of climate change? The million dollar – or should that be the $100bn a year every year from 2020 – question…

The factors that shape climate change – ‘climate forcings’ – are complex and interconnected: changes on the surface of the Sun, wobbles in the orbit of the Earth, the ‘albedo’ effect (variations in the Earth’s reflectivity; there’s a thesis in that), volcanic eruptions throwing ash into the high atmosphere (it is estimated that the eruption on Krakatoa, Indonesia, in 1883 chilled global temperatures by 1.2°C) and of course Man.

But it isn’t enough to blame cyclical changes or natural phenomena. Man has a part to play in securing Scotland’s coastline too.

For several hundred years man has been a force to be reckoned with, initially through the deforestation that accompanied the birth of farming, and then through the burning of wood, later coal and later still oil and gas. Such is the impact of man on the environment and climate (as well as biodiversity), that the Geological Society of London has been petitioned, and is seriously considering, making the ‘Anthropocene’ [the age of man] a formal unit of geological time.

Looking at the climate specifically, Harvard geologist Naomi Oreskes analysed the abstracts of 928 peer-reviewed scientific papers on climate change published between 1993 and 2003 and found an emerging consensus amongst scientists that man has indeed begun to have a change the climate. So, twenty-eight years after the Maldives first warned the world, the role of man in the changing climate is firmly on the global agenda.

Directly or indirectly all coastal nations are united by the waters lapping our shores. As we approach the UN climate change talks in Paris it is this unity which must be at the forefront of our efforts to secure a deal that keeps global temperature from rising above 2oC. The Maldives will fall below the waves first, of that there is no doubt, but much of what we hold dear, for we are a species that hugs the coast, will fall below the rising tides unless we act now. For if we do not, then we will inevitably follow the example of the Maldives Government and end up conducting our cabinet meetings beneath the waves.

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