The Ethical Implications of Sea-Level Rise Due to Climate Change

By Byravan, Sujatha; Rajan, Sudhir Chella | Ethics & International Affairs, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

The Ethical Implications of Sea-Level Rise Due to Climate Change


Byravan, Sujatha, Rajan, Sudhir Chella, Ethics & International Affairs


Does humanity have a moral obligation toward the estimated millions of individuals who will be displaced from their homes over the course of this century primarily due to sea-level rise (SLR) as the earth s climate warms? If there are indeed sound reasons for the world to act on their behalf, what form should these actions take?

As scientific evidence for the adverse effects of human-induced climate change grows stronger, it is becoming increasingly clear that these questions are of urgent practical interest and require concerted international political action. In the course of this century and the next, the earth's climate will almost surely get warmer as a direct result of the emissions accumulated in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. This warming will very likely result in heat waves, heavy precipitation in some areas, extreme droughts in others, increased hurricane intensity, and sea-level rise of about one meter--although recent findings suggest this rise could quite plausibly be greater than that by century's end. (1) Forecasts of how many people will be displaced by 2050 by climate change vary widely, from about 25 million to 1 billion. The difficulty in accurate forecasting lies not only in the uncertainty regarding future climate change impacts and adaptation measures but also in estimating the outcome of the several complex factors driving migration. (2)

No other form of environmentally induced human migration will likely be as permanent as that caused by climate-induced SLR; and there are special reasons why its victims deserve unique moral consideration. SLR will affect coastal populations in a variety of ways, including inundation, flood and storm damage, erosion, saltwater intrusion, and wetland loss. Together, these will greatly reduce available land for cultivation, water resources, and fodder, causing severe hardship in terms of livelihood and habitat loss. Worst of all, SLR and the associated changes in the coastal zone will add burdens to many who are already poor and vulnerable.

The physical changes associated with SLR may themselves take place in abrupt, nonlinear ways as thresholds are crossed. In turn, the least resilient communities--that is, those dependent on subsistence fishing--will be the first to experience "tipping points" in their life systems, so that the only option available to them would be to abandon their homes and search for better prospects elsewhere. As the average sea level continues to rise, coastal inundation, saltwater intrusion, and storm surges will become more intense and people will find it increasingly difficult to stay in their homes and will look for ways to migrate inland. As ever larger numbers pass thresholds in their ability to cope, more societal tipping points will be crossed, resulting in the sudden mass movements of entire villages, towns, and cities in coastal regions. (3) On small islands and in countries with heavily populated delta regions, the very existence of the nation-state may become jeopardized, so that the extremely vulnerable will no longer have state protection they can rely on.

The extent of vulnerability to sea-level rise in any given country will depend on more than just its terrain and climatic conditions: the fraction of the population living in low-lying regions, the area and proportion of the country inundated, its wealth and economic conditions, and its prevailing political institutions and infrastructure will all be of relevance. Thus, in a large country, such as the United States or China, coastal communities would be able to move inland, given adequate preparation and government response. In the case of small islands in the South Pacific, however, such an option does not exist, since it is expected that most or even the entire land area will sink or become uninhabitable. In such cases as Bangladesh, Egypt, Guyana, and Vietnam, where nearly half or more of the populations live in low-lying deltaic regions that support a major fraction of their economies, SLR will threaten the very functioning of the state. …

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