A Providence resident and Brown University professor was one of the key authors in a landmark United Nations report warning of the catastrophic consequences of climate change.
Professor Baylor Fox-Kemper, an oceanographer and mathematical modeler, was one of the three coordinating lead authors on the chapter dealing with sea level rise. The news on that front is sobering: Even under the best-case scenario in which society slashes carbon emissions, sea levels are expected to rise one to two feet by 2100. If we don’t act, they could rise two to three feet. Under worst-case scenarios, six feet of rise is not out of the question.
That will have a dire effect on the Ocean State, which has 400 miles of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean and Narragansett Bay. Rhode Islanders must get together to figure out how to address it, both by cutting emissions — climate change legislation signed into law earlier this year was a good start — and by dealing with the sea level rise that is going to happen no matter what, Fox-Kemper said.
“Adaptation to sea level rise is part of our future,” Fox-Kemper said. “We’ve got to talk and figure out what we want to do about it. We need information to know what that looks like, and that’s the piece of the puzzle I’m hoping to bring back to the state.”
Globe Rhode Island interviewed Fox-Kemper, one of hundreds of scientists to work on the report, on Monday. A Q&A, edited for length and clarity, follows.
What are some of the main takeaways of this review?
Some of the big takeaways are what kind of sea level rise we’re going to be in for. We’re going to see 9 1/2 inches to 11 inches by about 2050, and that doesn’t really depend too much on whether the greenhouse gas emissions are high or low. That’s already kind of locked into the system. The ocean is just catching up with past emissions.
Toward 2100, then we start to see 1 to 2 feet if we very quickly start reducing emissions. Or 2 to 3 feet if we don’t do that, if we have high emissions or very high emissions. And in fact, we can’t rule out that there are going to be what we call low-likelihood, high-impact changes in Antarctica that might make it as high as 6 feet.
But even 1 to 2 feet is a big problem. It means erosion, changes in the saltwater marshes, impacts on coastal ecosystems, coastal housing — the effect is pretty substantial even in the low end of that range. In the high end of that range, there are a lot of places in Rhode Island that are going to have a very hard time coping with 6 feet. It’s not going to cross a dam if the dam is tall enough, so you probably wouldn’t get all the way to the Blackstone River, but all the way up Providence River, Mount Hope Bay, the Sakonnet, it would also be rising.
Do you think Rhode Island is uniquely vulnerable to climate change? We are, after all, the Ocean State.
Yes, in that we’re on the coast. But interestingly, we have some built-in geological resilience. Because we have this glacial history, we have all these big rocks dropped by glaciers during the Ice Age. We have relatively deep and steep channels cut into those. Our shorelines often have pretty high banks, which helps a lot. It can still erode away, which is a problem.
But if you compare it to Boston, Boston, and Cambridge and the Back Bay, most is landfill — landfilled by hand with ox or horse drawn carts. You don’t add a lot of extra dirt when you’re loading it from a cart. They probably have bigger issues than we do from a geological perspective.
But also, we need to be ready -- ready to adapt. Boston has made a lot of strides to get ready. Rhode Island is making some progress, but we need to continue paying attention to that.
What does Rhode Island’s climate-altered future look like?
What Rhode Island is likely to see is warmer temperatures year round, warmer summers, more heat waves, warmer winters as well, less cold snaps. More precipitation, particularly in winter and spring. And more extreme rainfall and more extreme drying.
What does even one or two feet of sea level mean for coastal or inland communities in Rhode Island?
Extreme sea levels that occurred once per century in the recent past will occur annually or more frequently at about 20 to 30 percent of tide gauges [which measure changes in sea level]. There are a couple of tide gauges in Rhode Island. The point is, the extreme sea level rise events we think of as the 1-in-100-years events are going to be annual. We’re talking about things being 160 to 530 times more frequent by 2100. We can’t tolerate that. Places that are flooding now, it’s going to be hard for them.
What can be done about it?
We have a lot of choices we have to make. Do we harden the landscape and lose the beaches by building sea walls? Or do we make a managed retreat from the shoreline and let it continue to be beach, but beach at a different location as the shoreline retreats? Do we try to encourage marshes to grow which can dampen the wave inundation?
There are a lot of coastal engineering approaches to try and make us more coastally resilient in the face of sea level rise. But we’re going to see those. That part of it, regardless of what our emissions future is like, we’ll see those. It’ll be appreciable by even 2050.
We had a few days recently of air quality alerts due to fires in Canada and out west. Do you think we’re already seeing the effects of climate change?
The fire season out west is supposed to get longer and more intense. And I do think we’re already seeing them. They have been attributed to the impact of humans. We can say that some of the changes we’ve already been seeing are attributable to human-induced climate change.
Some of this can be really despair-inducing. Is there any reason to have hope?
There definitely is. We can, under strong and rapid reductions in emissions -- the very low or low emissions scenarios for the future — those do stay to either 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2 degrees Celsius of warming and pretty quickly recover a bit after the emissions stop — not all the way to preindustrial temperatures, but stalling at that warming level. All of the other effects follow on from that.
We’re going to continue to get more warming, particularly if we keep emitting. But if we stop emitting in the very near term, we’re going to avoid the very worst impacts. That cascades through all of the different pieces of the story. I sincerely hope that Rhode Island takes its role in that, and tries to do its part.
Even though Rhode Island is a small place, if we don’t get our own house in order, how can we argue someone else, Massachusetts or California, has to get their house in order? We have to do our part to be able to enter into that contract with the rest of the US and the rest of the world to avoid the worst possibilities.