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Opinion: Clearing the Confusion About Sea Level Rise

Most people – certainly ones willing to look at the facts – agreed that sea level is rising. How much is often open to discussion, but when does that discussion turn damaging?


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world body for assessing the science related to climate change, was set up in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly, to provide policymakers with regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.

The IPCC does not do its own research, conduct climate measurements or produce its own climate models; it assesses the thousands of scientific papers published each year to tell policymakers what we know and don’t know about the risks related to climate change. The IPCC identifies where there is agreement in the scientific community, where there are differences of opinion, and where further research is needed.

The IPCC completed the Fifth Assessment Report, the most comprehensive assessment of climate change ever undertaken, in November 2014. More than 830 scientists from over 80 countries were selected to form the author teams producing the report. They in turn drew on the work of over 1,000 contributing authors and over 1,000 expert reviewers in assessing more than 30,000 scientific papers.

Impressive? Yes, especially when you consider this included the work of a considerable number of the world’s sea level rise (SLR) experts, working to offer a snapshot of what the scientific community worldwide understands about climate (rather than promoting a particular viewpoint).

With this kind of authority, it’s hard to imagine a serious dispute of the IPCC findings being mounted by a credible scientific source. So why do federal agencies feel compelled to issue their own sea level projections?

FEMA, the Corps of Engineers, NOAA and the National Climate Assessment have all issued their own estimates of SLR – without the level of expertise that the IPCC draws upon, without IPCC consultation or even integration between the agencies themselves. The result is a stew of estimates that does more to fuel public skepticism and confusion while offering little illumination to future sea level rise and the forces driving it.

Offering an alternate position based on new scientific findings is the basis of science, the way new breakthroughs are achieved or old beliefs are disputed. But in an area where public confidence in sea level projections is manipulated for political and policy ends, fueling that confusion – however innocent its intent – undercuts the value and valuing of science overall.

Often, states want to take a closer look at more site-specific potential impacts of SLR, commissioning their own studies to factor in geologic and geographic (among others) influences that can increase or decrease the anticipated rise. If those studies build upon the IPCC analysis – itself a range of probable increases – so much the better. Perhaps such studies can help inform the next IPCC iteration.

Unfortunately, some state-based efforts have a more political motivation behind, seeking to do the exact thing we are trying to avoid – throwing more uncertainty into the public discourse as a way of discrediting SLR in general in service of a non-scientific agenda. Such an approach adds little but confusion and doubt -- not very helpful.

If the IPCC projections offer the broadest review by the most qualified experts, why not accept them as fact until you have a legitimate reason to disbelieve them? Why don’t federal agencies speak with one voice on this crucial issue, and make that voice the most authoritative one possible? And if they have reason to dispute the IPCC findings, that research can be incorporated into the next IPCC study – expected around 2020, if they stay on schedule – when it can be vetted by independent experts and balanced by scientific research from around the globe.

Just because agencies can come up with their own projections doesn’t mean it’s prudent to do so – not when the issue is as volatile, and as vital to our future, as this one.

This opinion article was provided by the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association (ASBPA), a nonprofit that advocates for healthy coastlines by promoting the integration of science, policies and actions that maintain, protect and enhance the coasts of America.

For more information on ASBPA, click here, Facebook or Twitter.

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