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Eqip Sermia, like most glaciers in Greenland, has retreated in the last two decades. Credit: John Christian/University of Texas/Georgia Tech

Climate Change

27 Centimeter Sea Level Rise Is “Inevitable” As Greenland Ice Pack Melts

A team of climate scientists led by professor Jason Box of the National Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) say that even if we stopped putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere today, the amount of sea level rise from melting of the ice pack that covers most of Greenland will lead to a minimum of 27 centimeters (10.6″) of sea level rise. It’s already baked in, so to speak. The research into the ice sheet that covers Greenland was published August 29 in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“The minimum of 27 cm is the sea level rise deficit that we have accrued to date and it’s going to get paid out, no matter what we do going forward,” sys Dr. William Colgan, also a scientist at GEUS. “Whether it’s coming in 100 years or 150 years, it’s coming. And the sea level rise we are committed to is growing at present, because of the climate trajectory we’re on.”

The researchers focused their efforts on filling in gaps in prior research into the ice sheet over Greenland using the most sophisticated tools available to create the most accurate analysis possible with today’s technology.

Greenland ice cap

Image credit: Nature Climate Communications

Greenland Ice Sheet Under Threat

Professor Box says if we continue pouring carbon into the atmosphere and the ice over Greenland melts as fast as it did in 2012, that would lead to a rise in ocean levels of 78 centimeters (31″). These are “truly staggering” numbers, he tells The Guardian. But they don’t compare to what will happen if the Antarctica ice cap melts. Then the rise of the oceans will be measured in meters and yards, not centimeters and inches. If there is any ray of sunshine in the study, it is that if the world can implement the commitments made as part of the Paris climate accords in 2015, the final result of ice melt in Greenland will be closer to the 27 cm figure than the 78 cm number.

Professor Gail Whiteman at the University of Exeter, who was not part of the study team, tells The Guardian, “The results of this new study are hard to ignore for all business leaders and politicians concerned about the future of humanity. It is bad news for the nearly 600 million people that live in coastal zones worldwide. As sea levels rise, they will be increasingly vulnerable, and it threatens approximately $1 trillion of global wealth.” She said political leaders will need to rapidly scale up funding for climate adaptation and damage.

Single Action Bias

When it comes to rapidly scaling up climate action, there are barriers to be overcome. Elke Weber is a research psychologist with cross-training in business who investigates how people approach financial risks. But a chance opportunity at her first faculty job, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the late 1980s, threw her together with agricultural economists trying to understand how local farmers thought about climate change.

Some farmers said they preferred a government policy to deal with change. Others said they would alter their production techniques to accommodate new conditions. A third group saw ways to adapt financially. But none considered that climate change might call for multiple responses. In fact, identifying a risk reduction technique they liked seemed to eclipse their awareness of other options.

In an interview with Eric Roston of Bloomberg Green, Weber calls this effect “single action bias.” Faced with any new threat, people are motivated to do whatever they can to make anxious feelings disappear — even if the response is just the first thing they thought of or is not particularly effective. One of the implications of this bias is that scaring people about climate change can lead to one time, inadequate responses. Approaches that emphasize a range of positive changes may lead to more productive results.

Not only is it difficult for people to gauge what effective efforts they might make, Weber says, but we seem to be genetically predisposed to misconstruing what other people think. At the national scale, these illusions can obstruct policy development. Writing in the journal Nature Communications, Weber and her research colleagues  suggest that nearly all Americans have created a “false social reality” for themselves in which their beliefs about what their fellow citizens think about climate change are dead wrong.

Surveys show that Americans believe about 40% of the public supports clean energy policies. The actual figure is “a supermajority” of 66% to 80%. The study is based on a sample of 6,119 people surveyed in the spring of 2021. “The magnitude is large enough to fully invert the true reality of public opinion,” the scientists write. “In other words, supporters of major climate policies outnumber opponents 2 to 1, but Americans falsely perceive nearly the opposite to be true.”

Between 80% and 90% of Americans underestimate general support for climate policies such as a carbon tax, mandating 100% clean electricity, building renewables on public lands or a Green New Deal. In no US state were people less than 20% wrong in their judgments about what other people think.

One problem is the rise of online echo chambers. People who watch or read conservative news also have “greater misperceptions” about the scale of popular support, the authors write. When it comes to fast moving public policy issues, perception of public opinion can lag actual opinion by years or even decades.

Part of the solution may be as simple as talking to each other more. Conservatives tend to underestimate the popularity of positions they disagree with whereas many liberals assume far fewer people share their opinions than actually do, the authors note. “When you go to a dinner party, you don’t bring that up, especially if you don’t know people very well,” Weber says. “At work you don’t want to bring that up because people might stereotype you in a certain way. So you never hear what others are actually talking about.”

People often rely on rules of thumb, called “heuristics,” to make complicated estimates simpler, says Gregg Sparkman, the lead author of the study. Media perpetuates unproductive heuristics by assuming there is a popular partisan divide on climate policy. “Here they might rely on a rule of thumb like ‘some liberals and no conservatives in the US care about climate change,’” he says. “So we might have to provide people with a better rule of thumb, in this case that ‘all liberals, about half of conservatives, and most independents care about climate change.’”

Psychologists in recent years have found some evidence that just providing factual information about public behavioral norms or beliefs can lead to change. Studies have looked at how much people think their peers drink alcohol, use seat belts, and practice safe sex. A 2016 review of this phenomenon found that the willingness of bystanders to “intervene, whether in risky dating situations, ones involving homophobic taunts, or ones involving sexist actions, depends on their perceptions of their peers’ support for such actions, support that they systematically underestimate.”

The study is particularly relevant coming so soon after the narrow passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. It received no Republican support, but it might have more supporters among Americans in general than the vote in Congress indicates.

That’s one thing for people who are climate aware to consider as they celebrate the passage of the IRA. Populations are susceptible to the “single-action bias” just as individuals are, which could lead to the assumption that US climate policy is complete now that it is law. “The hard math of climate change suggests otherwise,” Eric Roston says.

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