Deep water, shallow understanding: managing the risk from sea level rise

Prof Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton University
Event date
Event time
16:00 - 17:00
Mathematical Institute
Woodstock Road
Venue details

Corner of Catte and Holywell Streets

Event type
Lectures and seminars
Event cost
Disabled access?
Booking required

This is a joint event between the Oxford Martin School and the Oxford Climate Research Network

Managing the risk to coastal populations, infrastructure, and ecosystems resulting from sea level rise presents unique and daunting challenges. Sea level rise lags behind global warming due to inertia in the ocean-ice system; likewise, the response of sea level to stabilisation of the climate will lag behind the temperature response, making emissions reduction policy relatively ineffective through midcentury in reducing the rate of rise. Consequently, anticipatory adaptive responses are the key to lowering risk in the near term. On a century scale or longer, emissions mitigation can substantially reduce risk but century-scale projections of sea level rise are deeply uncertain due to a lack of knowledge and expert disagreement about the future contribution of the Antarctic ice sheet. On the latter timescale, effective responses would include a mixture of hard protection such as surge barriers and sea walls, flexible measures such as enhancement of natural defences and buildings that can withstand episodic flooding, and permanent, managed withdrawal of populations from many areas.

However, inertia in the policy system arising from perverse incentives, short-term perspectives, and behavioural biases, exacerbated by scientific uncertainty, virtually guarantee a response to this threat which will be far below the optimum. In many countries, including wealthy ones, a large gap between adaptation capacity and implementation is already apparent, putting lives and property continually under threat from temporary flooding and eventually, permanent inundation. Professor Michael Oppenheimer's, Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton University, talk will elucidate the increase in coastal hazard accompanying sea level rise to date, the rapid increase in the threat projected for the future, and means to overcome, at least partially, the dual problem of physical and policy inertia.

This talk will be followed by a drinks reception, all welcome.