Green and Sustainable is Well and Good – It Will Not Stop Sea Level Rise

By John Englander

Editor’s note: the following post is republished here with the author’s permission. The article first appeared on See his TED talk as he describes how we must learn to adapt even as we work to slow climate change. 

Most of us today strive to be more “green” and sustainable. Efforts range from reducing our energy use and our “carbon footprint”, to advancing the use of renewable energy and recycled materials. Good as these efforts are, they often distract us from recognizing the brutal reality, what I call the “coming coastal crisis.”

Sea level will keep rising even if everyone on the planet is 100 percent green and sustainable

Sea Level Rise will continue despite what we do to slow global warming. We must learn to adapt to changing global coastlines

In fact even if we somehow magically figured out how to make energy without any carbon emissions, and capped CO2 levels at the current 400 ppm, the oceans will still get higher, changing our coastlines. These are the facts.

Sea level has moved up and down in long term cycles with the ice ages, roughly 350 feet, every hundred thousand years. For the last few thousand years global temperature, sea level and the shoreline were quite stable, fooling us into thinking they were fixed in place. Over the last century or two, higher amounts of greenhouse gases have trapped enough extra heat to raise the average ocean and air temperature by 1.5 degrees F (0.85 C). About 90 percent of the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by the greenhouse gases is stored in the sea. A warmer planet means that the ice sheets and glaciers will continue to melt, raising global sea level.

We have now broken out of the natural pattern that goes back several million years. Because sea level has not been higher in 120,000 years, many doubt it will happen. Regardless of what we want to believe, sea level will get higher decade by decade for centuries. Ice melts at 32 degrees regardless of political ideology. We can slow the rate of rise–which we should do, but we can not stop it. If we do not deal with the energy challenge, the oceans will rise even faster, moving the coastline inland even more quickly.

The fact is that we need to begin adapting to the rising sea level and the shorelines that are just starting to shift. Help share the understanding that we must begin adapting to the new era of rising seas, something totally without precedent in human civilization.

At the same time, let’s work to slow the rate of warming–the popular effort to be more sustainable in our everyday lives, and to find technology for low carbon means of producing energy


John Englander is an oceanographer, author and sea level rise expert. His book High Tide on Main Street predicted the devastating Superstorm Sandy in 2012 with amazing accuracy. 

Graph courtesy of John Englander

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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