Sea levels will rise. How do we save our cities?

Submitted by AWL on 20 October, 2020 - 5:22 Author: Stuart Jordan

Residents of Miami, Florida are bracing themselves for their next king tide on 14-17 November. In recent years, due to rising sea levels, autumnal tides advance into town washing through the streets and houses, and turning one of the most glamorous cities on earth into an open sewer.

These sunny-day flooding events are also common on the Marshall Islands. Last month President David Kabul called for the recovery from the pandemic to involve a rapid transition to zero carbon emissions. This island nation - home to a substantial US military base and nuclear test site - will sink beneath the waves with just 0.91 metres sea level rise. It is becoming vanishingly unlikely that it will survive even if we achieve radical emissions reductions.

The fate of Miami, the Marshall Islands and our whole civilisation depends on the answer to three questions that will increasingly define the future:

• Will we reduce carbon emissions and transition swiftly to renewable energy?

• Will we prepare and adapt for the coming climate crises?

• Will displaced people be given refuge?

We know that climate change is not gradual. It accelerates. It’s accelerating now. Measurements from 2020 show that Greenland and the Antarctic are melting much faster than predicted. The seas could rise very quickly.

The rising sea puts coastal regions under threat of inundation and storm surges. More than one billion people live less than ten metres above sea level. Most of these people live in 570 coastal cities that are central to the infrastructure that has developed over the past 150 years and now sustains 7.8 billion human lives. It’s worth naming the top 25 cities at risk from sea level rise by population size and wealth: Kolkata, Mumbai, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, Bangkok, Rangoon, Miami, Hai Phong, Alexandria, Tianjin, Khulna, Ningbo, Lagos, Abidjan, New York, Chittagong, Tokyo, Jakarta, New Orleans, Osaka-Kobe, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Nagoya. Even a small rise of 0.5 metres could compromise key infrastructure such as the water supply, power plants, ports, sewage works. This could happen within the next few decades, leading to much larger sea level rise by the end of the century that would destroy trillions of dollars of property value and displace hundreds of millions of people.

The accelerating melting of the West Antarctic and Greenland icesheets is a result of warming that has already taken place. The oceans have already warmed by one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels and the effects on ice sheets are locked in. If we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow then the seas would still continue to rise for the next few centuries.

The IPCC expect a 60cm-110cm sea level rise by 2100. But maybe much sooner. Ex-NASA scientist James Hansen predicts a 3 metre rise by 2100. Hansen’s prediction is an outlier. But the history of climate science is one where the extreme outliers becomes increasingly more likely. Just a few years ago the IPCC thought the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets would not start melting for another hundred years. But the ice sheets are already melting and the melt is accelerating.


The waters will eventually rise to a level they almost certainly wipe out coastal cities or leave these cities unrecognisable. The geological record suggests that for every one degree Celsius of warming, there is a 10-30 metre rise in sea levels (see The Long Thaw, David Archer (2008), and Rahmstorf, A semi-empirical approach to projecting future sea-level rise: Science, v. 315, no. 5810, p. 368–370 (2007)). Most scientists think this will take many centuries to occur. But the speed of acceleration is unknown. If these models are correct even the most space-age sea defences will only buy time for a planned retreat. With the one degree of warming already we are locked in to this trajectory and have little time to act.

The poorer nations will be hit particularly hard but sea level rise will have an impact everywhere. Miami and New Orleans will almost certainly be destroyed. London, Tokyo, Amsterdam are far from safe. Within each nation the poor will be hardest hit and the rich will seek their own protection. Already in Manhattan, luxury flats are being marketed with rooms that are sealed “submarine-style”. In Lagos, an 8 metre high sea wall has been created to defend a new development, Eko Atlantic, which could house 250,000 residents built on reclaimed land. This gargantuan sea wall is expected to bring worse floods to millions of Lagos’ poor who already live in floating slums. None of these efforts by the rich for personal protection will protect the infrastructure or workers that the rich depend upon. The rising sea level is a problem the bourgeoisie cannot solve. A civilisation where several hundreds of millions of people have lost their homes, and major infrastructure is destroyed by ever more ferocious natural disasters, is a civilisation in its death throes.

The one saving grace is that we know this is going to happen and we can plan for it. The difficulty, as has been shown by 30 years of failed attempts to reduce carbon emissions, is that free market capitalism is an extremely bad system for planning on any significant scale. Despite knowing the catastrophic consequences of climate change, global emissions continue to rise.


In order to satisfy shareholders, fossil fuel companies have to show they have over a 100% replacement-reserves ratio. This means new sources of fossil fuels for everything currently in reserves, driving tar sands extraction and fracking. Fossil fuel companies now enjoy $5 trillion subsidies a year (David Coady et al. How Large are Global Fossil Fuel Subsidies? World Development 91 (2017)) and the rules governing international trade are rigged in their favour (see ch.2 of This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein (2017)). Fossil fuel giants now have five times the amount of fossil fuels that we can possibly burn if we are to meet the Paris targets (James Leaton et al. Unburnable Carbon 2013: Wasted Capital and Stranded Assets). This is the logic of deregulated capitalism overriding human reason. It is the anarchy of the marketplace and unrestrained profit-making, taking precedence over rational planning.

At present there are either no plans or inadequate plans to defend the cities from rising sea levels and no plans anywhere to prepare for the evacuation of hundreds of millions fleeing climate chaos. (The one exception: the island nation of Kiribati has bought 20 sq km of Fijian jungle for $8.77 million from its previous owner, the Church of England). In many urban centres waterfront property prices remain high and large scale developments are underway. Even in London, which from a geological point of view is relatively easy to defend, there is no plan to start building new sea defences until 2070 and then only to meet a maximum 1.15 metre sea level rise. Far from being a place of relative sanctuary in an increasingly chaotic climate, London could become a net contributor to the refugee crisis.

There are reasons for this are simple to understand. It is inconceivable that free enterprise will deliver a solution. Only the state can build the massive infrastructure we need to defend and move the cities. Around the world, all governments, authoritarian and democratic, run capitalist states whose primariy aim is to provide a favourable environment for the capitalist class to thrive and profit. Precisely because this is the primary aim, the state seeks to provide this favourable environment as cheaply as possible. Heavy taxation of capitalists to spend on public works defeats this purpose. The state performs a cost-benefit analysis based on the returns it is likely to see from its investments. It operates like a private business and measures its success in economic growth. The cost of building sea defences grow exponentially for each metre of sea level rise.


At a time of accelerating sea level rise, this inbuilt tendency to do public works on the cheap will mean our current political leaders will delay big investments and make inadequate preparations. Marshalling resources to avoid hundreds of millions of displaced people and adapt the world’s infrastructure to ensure we could continue to house, cloth and feed the world population in an increasingly hostile climate would involve wrestling control of our productive wealth from the capitalist class. It would mean taking control of the means of production (the factories, land, mines and machinery) and putting them to the service of a well designed plan. No government in the world is making preparations of this kind. Most are delaying even the construction of sea defences.

A further difficulty for making adequate preparations is that the advice government’s receive is based on a scientific process that tends to under-estimate. The most authoritative scientific body on climate science the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) insists that 95% of its members agree with its published findings. But to reach this consensus means dropping the least likely and most extreme scenarios. There are many unknowns in climate science such as tipping points where small changes in the Earth’s climate trigger more rapid warming. It is impossible for 95% of scientists to reach consensus on the less likely scenarios, so the predictions tend to underestimate. Since its inception IPCC predictions have consistently under-estimated the speed of climate change. (See Discerning Experts by Oppenheim et al (2019)).


From the point of view of the capitalist politician, it makes sense to avoid spending money today that could be spent in 5 or 50 years time. But from the point of view of basic human reason, it makes sense to make preparations in good time for the inevitable. If we mistime then hundreds of millions of people will be displaced, trillions of dollars of infrastructure destroyed, it is quite possible that we will see the breakdown of nation states, the rule of law, and many of the comforts and essentials we take for granted. We could find ourselves in a spiral of ever-worsening preparedness to respond to the multiple crises caused by climate change.

The world’s coastal cities must be preserved if we are to stand a chance of avoiding civilisational collapse and an apocalyptic collapse of the world’s population. As the planet warns large areas of the Earth will become uninhabitable due to drought, heat and flooding. Sea level rise is just one of a number of unprecedented crises that climate change will bring. The World Bank predicts over 200 million climate refugees by 2050 including 86 million in sub-Saharan Africa, 40 million in South Asia, 17 million in Latin America. The UN’s worse case scenario is one billion climate refugees by 2050. (World Bank, Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration (2018) and United Nations International Organisation for Migration, Migration, Environment and Climate Change: Assessing the Evidence (2009)). In the temperate regions there needs to be a massive expansion of infrastructure to accommodate this unprecedented movement of people. There are engineering solutions to dealing with scorching temperatures, droughts, floods and extreme weather but they need to be planned, resourced and implemented.

We need a political force that can develop and implement rational plans for the crisis and replace capitalist control of the earth’s resources and our skills and time as workers, with democratic control. The efforts of the environmental movement over the last half century have failed. We have failed to build a movement powerful enough to deliver the nebulous goal of reducing global CO2 emissions. However, mobilising workers around a plan for protecting our homes and livelihoods against the inevitable rising tide may have a chance of success. A workers’ campaign for adequate sea defences and preparations for rising sea levels in one city could inspire similar efforts in other coastal cities, creating the possibility for international working-class collaboration across borders. By defending the cities from coastal flooding we are also creating relatively safe havens for the millions of refugees fleeing the other devastating consequences of climate change and maintaining vital infrastructure to meet the coming storms. By popularising the idea of planning, against anarchic capitalist business-as-usual, we may have a chance of much more far reaching plans to transition to negative emissions and avoid the most apocalyptic climate scenarios.

Putting blind panic, denial and our carefully cultivated feelings of powerlessness aside, we, the organised working-class, should set our minds to addressing the practical challenges that face us. The past 150 years has been the most productive and dynamic period of human history. Although our toiling over this time has radically altered the earth’s atmosphere, it has also brought unparalleled human progress in the form of extraordinary technological capacity and scientific knowledge, and for many, huge social advances in terms of human freedoms. We should use this material, intellectual and socio-political inheritance to preserve as much of our civilisation as we can. We must defend our cities as best we can and where we cannot we must prepare a planned move to higher ground. We need to use the few years and decades we have before the accelerating sea level rise and other catastrophic disasters caused by climate change start causing real damage to our ability to respond to unfolding crisis.

The wealth of our planet was created through our labours and the labours of our ancestors. Often this labour was given in exchange for payment, sometimes under the whip, but at no point did workers enjoy full fruit of their labour. This wealth and expertise of our civilisation is our common wealth and should be ours to direct democratically according to a plan to avoid the forthcoming catastrophe. We should demand that the world’s productive wealth is turned to this most urgent task of building sea defences and adapting and where necessary relocating our coastal cities. We seek to build an organisation of workers who can democratically organise such plans, city by city, and fight for the resources necessary to enact those plans.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.