Not All Equal

September 27, 2014 10:04 p.m.

Sea level rise is only one effect of climate warming. But it’s one of the most linear and easiest to grasp. On Conrad Hackett’s Twitter feed (a must follow, imo) I saw this study which was produced by Climate Central and then visualized by The Upshot. The upshot is that when it comes to the direct effects of rising sea levels – submersion and regular flooding – all countries are not equal. The impact is heavily weighted toward East and especially Southeast Asia.

This isn’t terribly surprising when you think about the geography and topography of the globe. But I hadn’t seen it visualized in quite this way before. And it’s quite striking. I think mainly about the small island nations of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. But look at that infographic: Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, China, India, Bangladesh.

Some of this is just a factor of having really large populations. But the pattern is by percentage of population too. This chart from Climate Central gives another way of looking at the relative and absolute numbers.

What this makes me think of is how much of the early and mid-century challenges on the climate front will come from these regions – countries China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam. The developed world, led by the US, brought us the carbon crisis. Even if it’s not nearly enough I have some level of confidence that North America and Europe can at least get their emissions going down. But in South and East Asia you have hundreds of millions of people lining up get in on the industrial revolution – cars, cities, pervasive electricity, all the life-transforming things which brought us the climate crisis. So even if the energy sources get greener, the demand for energy will grow by leaps and bounds for decades to come.

In Europe and especially in North America it’s incredibly difficult to get people to sign on to even marginal increases in energy prices – or at least effectively placing a price on the externalities of carbon emissions, which hits the dirtiest fuels the hardest. These are minor inconveniences compared to the huge cost of not getting access to the range of conveniences and life transforming services people in Europe and North America have taken for granted for roughly a century. This the calculus that makes the climate change outlook look so bleak. But seeing this data visualized made me wonder how this all might be affected by the fact that these countries will get the brunt of the impact from rising seas.

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