A sweeping and unprecedented report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the state of the world’s oceans confirms ocean waters are getting warmer, sea levels are rising and many animal species are at risk.
The report, released Wednesday, provides us at the Coastal Conservation League with more scientific data on which we can base our work. It also confirms that we are on track with our local and statewide efforts, especially in regard to flooding. But it makes clear that we all need to do more, and we must act quickly.
Last week, Fix Flooding First, a coalition of community, preservation, business and environmental organizations including the Conservation League, hosted a forum for Charleston’s mayoral candidates, who offered their ideas on how to deal with rising sea levels in Charleston. Though the candidates offered different plans, they agreed on the science: The seas are rising, our storms are getting stronger and more frequent, and we need to act fast to address flooding in and around Charleston.
We simply can’t keep filling in wetlands and building more housing and commercial developments in our low-lying coastal region. We must prepare for a future with more water.
The new report, developed by 104 leading scientists from 36 countries, focused specifically on the impact of a changing climate on our oceans. And those impacts are stark: Carbon emissions are driving unprecedented changes. Not only are our seas rising, but the oceans are literally taking the heat for climate change. Our oceans have absorbed 90% of the heat from the warming planet, and carbon emissions from our cars and power plants are making ocean water more acidic. Both of these trends threaten the fisheries that bring so much to our coastal economy and our way of life here in the Lowcountry. The report paints a clear picture of oceans in trouble, with consequences across the globe.
Science says we are at a crossroads. We can lower carbon emissions by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, or we can continue on the path we’re on now. If we lower carbon emissions on a broad scale, we can avoid the worst effects of the changing climate, such as stronger storms, flooded communities and dying fisheries.
South Carolina took a big step forward in May when the General Assembly passed the Energy Freedom Act, which opened the door to expanded solar energy. Our organization, along with other environmental and clean-energy groups, worked hard to ensure that legislation passed. As solar becomes the least expensive option for powering our communities, we can expect more polluting, expensive, coal-burning power plants to close. We just have to speed up the timeline.
But saving our oceans is about more than cutting emissions. We can help heal the ocean and our shorelines through better management, conservation and restoration. Charleston is making progress. Our partners like the Historic Charleston Foundation and its support for the Dutch Dialogues provide a foundation for action enabling our city to learn from experts in places that are dealing with similar issues like the Netherlands and New Orleans.
On the state level, the South Carolina government is researching solutions to address the impacts of flooding across the state through the Governor’s Floodwater Task Force, which is made up of experts, nongovernmental organizations and elected officials. The Task Force has just completed its report containing recommendations for addressing flooding and we look forward to the release of the full report for public review.
The IPCC report puts these actions, both in Charleston and in Columbia, in the global context. Our oceans and our climate are interrelated, and with strategies based on the best available science, we can act to protect both. As our coastal region plans for a healthy, resilient future, we must consider the role that the Atlantic Ocean plays as part of who we are.
Laura Cantral is executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.