Culture and Rising Sea Levels

A Bangladeshi man stands ankle deep in a filthy soup of seawater and sewage where he and his neighbors’ rice patties once lay. His already dilapidated home is flooded, not suitable to live in, and his three young children are hungry, asking for food that will not come. The rice patties were his family’s livelihood. They ate only what they needed and sold the rest to pay the landlord. This year’s increased flooding has killed their last chance to live as their ancestors have for generations and now they must either move to potentially hostile region of India to the east, or die of starvation. This is the situation currently faced by hundreds of thousands of people due to rising sea levels; the gradual increase of seawater inundations from more frequent and higher storm surges.  It is not a natural disaster in some far off corner of the globe. Rising sea levels, the most indiscriminate consequence of climate change, will not only affect people in the developing world, it will have global ramifications and has already affected affluent cultures like the Netherlands and the United States. Half of the Netherlands is below sea level (Yarnal, 1) and is only habitable due to thousands of miles of dikes and levies. In the United States, much of South Florida is currently at or only slightly higher than sea level, but a rise in sea levels of only a few feet would swallow up as much as 60 percent of the southern landmass. Rapidly rising sea levels have, and will have, many cultural impacts on developing as well as developed cultures, such as The Netherlands, Bangladesh, and the United States.

Sea level rise is the byproduct of three problems: warming oceans, which expand in volume, shrinking ice caps, and melting glaciers, which are all consequences of the increased green house effect. In this process, light waves from the sun hit the Earth and are partially reflected back out into space. With more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, less heat escapes and the earth heats up. Presently, human activities pump massive amounts of carbon dioxide every year into the atmosphere, which perpetuates the cycle of increased temperatures. By far the most frightening aspect of this situation is even if the entire world stopped burning fossil fuels, tomorrow, it would take 50 years for the temperatures to stabilize and stop rising, and as a planet we cannot escape the social, economic and ecologic catastrophes already set in motion. (Safina, 71)

To understand the scope of this problem it is important to understand the science of geologic history.  Many who deny that global warming is a crisis, argue that climate change is a natural process that has happened before. Yes, the earth has experienced these same levels of carbon dioxide, but this line of reasoning falls apart completely when the pace of change is considered. It has taken only one hundred years, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to rise from 280ppm to 400ppm (NOAA, 1). The last time the earth saw that magnitude of increasing carbon dioxide, the change took place gradually over 25,000 years. The rate matters because few systems – natural or man-made, cultural or political – will have time to adapt this time around. These issues will eventually force every coastal community to take up one of four approaches: retreat, defend, deny or attack.     (Ozler,    1)    

As a result of the lack fresh water and food, many will simply retreat to higher ground. It is predicted that in the next 100 years the rise of global sea levels will displace about one sixth of the world’s population. Experts say that there are already 25 million environmental refugees globally; people who are moving away from their homes due to environmental issues. (Culture, 1) People who are already and, will be, forced from their homes tend to move to places that are often far less hospitable and far less safe for their families. Cultures clash in catastrophic ways when coastal refugees over tax the resources of their neighbors, compete for jobs, and force integration of values and mores. Sadly, there needs to be no speculation on this subject: The plight of refugees and the burden of hosts has been tested thousands of times throughout human history, but nothing has prepared humanity for the scale of the cultural experiment the faces the world in the next century.

Some cultures have been defending against sea level rise for quite some time. For the past thousand years, sea levels have been a top priority for the people and government of the Netherlands. Half of the land is below sea level, but through the ages, the Dutch have prioritized and perfected a highly sophisticated system of dikes to hold back the sea. This long period of trial and error shaped the way the people of the Netherlands live with their situation and their culture has evolved to accept the expense and share the burden of keeping the sea at bay. Ever more damaging sea inundations have been a regular occurrence and the people have adapted their way of life around controlling the floods. In the past they collectively spent tens of thousands of hours of manual labor to build stone and dirt levies in order to raise livestock and crops. Since the great flood of 1953 that killed more than 1800 people, the Dutch have been committed to building and maintaining a dike system to withstand increasing and stronger flood surges due to sea level rise. And in the last 5 years they have adapted yet again by accepting a huge public works project that will focus on manipulation of sediment deposits in the North Sea, widening river banks in the inland waterways, and creating larger retention areas to increase fresh water storage capacities, all allocations that tax the limits of public resources. Today the Dutch people have embraced a plan to build even stronger and higher dikes to protect their vulnerable land from rising seas. (Dutch, 1) In the past one hundred years alone the sea has risen 7.5 inches, which means a lot to a country that is already below sea level. (Butzengeiger, 1) All that said, combating sea level rise with dikes and locks will be only a small part of the answer for the rest of the world because the rate of the rise matters. Other cultures will not have time to adapt. The Dutch have become masters at the art of building dikes and therefore know what they are doing. Due to this expertise the Netherlands has a cultural feeling of security and safety in the face of rising seas. They have collectively decided that this is their strategy, but for many other regions around the world, building walls to combat the sea will be too foreign and expensive to be a practical solution.

Impoverished developing counties like Bangladesh do not have the luxury of taking the defensive approach with expensive engineering solutions. Bangladesh is one of the poorest and most heavily populated countries in the world. Bangladesh encompasses the Ganges-Jamuna- Meghna delta, one of the great river deltas on the world. As with all river deltas, the land is at or near sea level, floods from seawater inundations are common. Sea-level rise, and its repercussions are seen every day in stark detail as the strength and timing of cyclones are becoming increasingly random. Recent floods from this type of storm surge have affected more than two-thirds of the total area of Bangladesh, causing huge damage to crops, houses, roads, livestock, and other economic infrastructure. (Gugoff, 1) The tropical cyclone of 1970 created a storm surge of 9 meters. Houses, crops and livestock were lost. (Butzengeiger, 5) Agriculture, especially rice and maze, is the country’s largest economic resources and during heavy ocean storm surge floods in 1992 and 1998 more than half of the country was swept away, causing massive economic stress. (Butzengeiger, 1) Rising sea levels are already having a huge cultural impact on Bangladesh, lowering the already terrible standard of living for millions of people, and their situation is worsening with every increasing centimeter of water.

For poor, rural economies like Bangladesh, agricultural collapse forces them to approach climate change with a retreat mentality.  Already among the first people to be directly effected by climate change are the 500,000 former inhabitants of Bhola Island in Bangladesh, who were forced to leave their homes after half the island became permanently inundated by sea water in 2005. (Safina, 296) A soil survey by six government agencies, found higher-than-acceptable soil salinity in 72 percent of all arable land of Magura districts, about 200km from the sea. In 1973, 1.5 million hectares of land was affected by mild salinity, but by 1997, this area had expanded to 2.5 million hectors. (Bangladesh, 1) Salinity decreases and eventually ends the carrying capacity of the land by ruining the soil for food production. Considering Bangladesh’s already precarious food situation, the decrease of rice production as well as loss of vegetables, and other crops have had disastrous cultural effects, forcing people to leave ancestral land and destroying the dominant subsistence farming culture of the country.

When climate change alters habitats in poor countries, the options to defend or attack the problem are not available. Retreat seemed the only answer to the farmer who was standing in his ruined rice paddy with his starving children. This response is a daily reality in Bangladesh where indigenous people are forced to migrate to locations with better resources. (Gugoff, 1) Of the 37 million people living in costal regions of Bangladesh, the expanding sea has affected 20 million. (Bangladesh, 1) One of the few places the people of Bangladesh can go is Assam, India. Unfortunately, there is a clash between the cultures and religions of these groups, as Bangladeshis are mainly Muslim and Assamese mainly Hindu. Both groups fear the loss of their identity through dilution and mixing of their cultures. (Gugoff, 1) The geopolitical consequences of rising sea levels may dwarf historical conflicts over religion and oil.

Individual communities all over the United States also have to choose one of the four strategies for responding to sea level rise.  Countless costal communities have taken the defensive approach by restoring and protecting their natural dunes from development and erosion, because dunes act as a natural barrier to rising storm surges. An example of denial in the face of sea level rise is a new law passed by the North Carolina legislature in June of 2012 that made it illegal for planners or developers to consider rising sea levels as they plan developments at present and in the future. (HARISH, 1) The vast majority of costal communities of the United States are in the throws of deciding what approach they will take. For example, South Miami-Dade County is currently struggling with their failed sewage system that is more and more frequently inundated by ocean storm surge flooding. The county is faced with a choice: spend 1.5 billion dollars on repairing their current sewage system that lies at current flood levels, or spend many more billions of dollars to move the plant to an inland site that is safe from floods. (Morgan, Deep, 1) In addition, much of the area of South Florida is at or slightly above sea level and is highly vulnerable to rising seas. Three- fourths of Florida’s population resides in coastal counties that generate 79% of the state’s total annual economy. (Florida, 1) Many states in the United Stated have similar economic dynamics. New York City has had to rethink the wisdom of their entire subway system after Tropical storm Sandy. Damage caused by Sandy, and increasingly large and more frequent storms, has increased the demand for tax payer funded clean up and rebuilding. The national debate about FEMA funding has become so heated that at times it threatens the fragile cultural bonds between states, ethnic groups, and members of various economic strata. Every coastal community in the United States has or will have to go through the same socially painful public debates about whether to repair, reengineer or relocate neighborhoods, as well as some of their public institutions that lie within flood zones; nuclear power plants, shopping districts, public fresh water systems, hospitals, underground parking, land fills, and schools. This debate affects tax payers both locally and nationally.

Rapidly rising sea levels have already had many cultural impacts on developing as well as developed cultures, such as The Netherlands, Bangladesh, and United States. The cultural impacts will persist and multiply over the coming century.  The Dutch have chosen to respond by defending and their culture has mastered the art of adapting to nearly constant floods by becoming experts at building very effective dikes and levies. In Bangladesh, the response to rising seas levels and salination of once fertile farmland has been retreat: the relocation of millions of people. Sea level is rising and is expected to accelerate. Current predictions indicate that the Atlantic Ocean will swallow much of the Florida Keys within the next 100 years. (Morgan, Rising, 1) Miami-Dade County, in turn, would eventually become a chain of islands, while the Everglades would become a gigantic salt-water bay. Costal regions of the United States are currently in the throes of determining whether they will respond to climate change by defending or denying. They are experiencing the social upheaval that accompanies the formation of a collective mindset. But these are only three of the dozens of cultures already affected and responding in their own way.  Panama, Palau in the Pacific, The Maldives, The Barbados, and countless others are facing the startling reality of rising seas or have been forced to either defend, retreat or deny the realities that face them. (Gerken, 1) Rates of carbon dioxide are continuing to climb and at 1000 ppm there will be no ice on the planet. (NOAA, 1)  As the sea ice melts at higher rates, sea levels all over the world will rise at such a rapid pace that seawater inundations from floods and gradual salination of ground water will have a huge affect on the success of crops. It will decrease the availability of fresh water sources. Shallow marine habitats will be the first to go because of their delicate balance and fragility. Loss of marine habitats leads to mass die offs of thousands of species of fish and the marine web of life that humans depend on for commerce, tourism, and food will collapse. This will lead to large economic collapses and shortages of food in cites and countries all around the globe. Sadly, for the youth of our planet, few cultures have chosen to respond by attacking the problem: quickly phasing out our global fossil fuel economy: unfortunate, but understandable. In his movie, An Inconvenient Truth,

Al Gore writes "It's difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it."(Inconvenient 2006) Rising sea levels will change cultures, economies, natural resources, and politics. Hopefully, we will soon begin to respond by attacking it at its source.