Drowning in the rising tide: governing sea-level rise

Governing Sea-Level Rise

what challenges for the international regime?

Source: youmatter 

Framing the issue: is sea level rising?

The climate is changing, and this change is having – and will continue to have – enormous impacts that can undermine the life on Earth as we know it today. Among such impacts, rising sea level is worth special attention, as it will probably represent a threat to human settlements and the built environment. Effects of sea-level rise include land erosion, wetland flooding, more dangerous hurricanes and typhoons, storm surges, and soil contamination with salt that can damage agricultural production. Moreover, rising seas can represent a threat also to the safety of the people living near the coastal line. To give a sense of the danger, the National Ocean Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States has estimated that in 2014, in the country, almost 40% of the population lived in coastal areas, despite this latter only accounts for less than 10% of the whole land.

When it comes to the determinants that are causing the global mean sea level to rise, Warrick and Oerlemans showed that vertical land movements and eustatic changes in the ocean levels are both influential factors. However, some major climate-related factors are also recognized by these authors, as well as other academics and institutions competent in the matter, to be contributing to this trend. As the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica melt due to increased global temperatures, the water flows into the oceans, causing sea level to rise. Moreover, as the temperature increases, oceans are also subject to thermal expansion, since higher temperatures lead to decreased density of the water, causing this latter to expand.

While different actors tend to agree on what are the causes and potential consequences of sea-level rise, much more difficult is to determine the extent to which this is happening, as numerous challenges exist regarding the measurement of this change in history. For example, to compare the same actors that have been cited above, the NOAA claims that the global mean sea level rose about 21-24 centimetres starting from 1880, while Warrick and Oerlemans present the findings of different studies made by other authors that include estimates of 12±5 cm (SCOPE 29 assessment), 10-25 cm (US.DOE assessment), and 10-20cm (PRB assessment) since 1900. This difference in findings is due to different measurement methods, which can vary from the traditional tidal gauges installed in coastal areas and more advanced altimetry satellites, and show the complexity of having a comprehensive picture of the issue. In addition to this, there is also uncertainty in the scientific community about what we should expect from the future and whether this rise is accelerating as human activities continue to affect the climate.

Given this complex picture, it is also necessary to acknowledge that sea-level rise is a global issue, that hence requires a global response. International institutions are key actors in addressing such issue, as they can foster cooperation and call for integrated measures to mitigate its causes, and support actions to enhance the ability to adapt to its impacts. However, the international environmental governance system does not come without limitations, which can undermine its effectiveness and legitimacy.

Actor analysis: who is part of the international regime tackling sea-level rise?

While human activities are considered to be altering the climate since the start of what has been defined as the Anthropocene epoch, climate change as a global issue has started to receive considerable attention only from the second half of the twentieth century. From then on, existing actors in the international arena started to take actions to establish an international regime able to deal with the causes and impacts of climate change at the global level. In the meantime, new entities were created, both at the international level to complete such governance regime, and at the local level to provide more customized responses to specific issues. Moreover, several different sectors are involved in this complex compound of actors, which sometimes intertwine with each other to create a highly interconnected network. This is composed of both state and non-state actors, where this latter category includes – among others – international governmental and non-governmental organizations, expert groups, and the private sector.

Network of actors engaged with the governance of sea-level rise.

This map summarizes some of the most influential actors involved in the management of sea-level rise, and for some of them of climate change more generally, at different scales. As there is a huge variety of institutions, especially for what concerns the non-governmental and private sectors, the actors considered here are only some examples of a much bigger network.

For what concerns the international organizations, the United Nations remains crucial in addressing the issue and furnishing the most advanced platform to provide international, regional and local solutions. Within this, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) plays a dominant role, as it is inside such framework that the main regulations for member states are set, e.g. through the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement. Specifically on sea-level rise, the International Oceanographic Commission (IOC), connected to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), is the body responsible for supporting global oceans sciences and services.

This set of international actors is then linked to the UN member states that, despite signing international agreements on climate change mitigation, represent the most influential actors due to their retained sovereignty. States remain the ultimate decision-making bodies and can affect the outcomes of the negotiations carried out in the frame of these organizations, having a huge impact on the actual status of the climate – and sea level in the specific case. Moreover, states are not equally responsible for causing climate change, which is directly linked to their level of economic development, and they are not all affected in the same way. In contrast, states vary enormously in terms of climate-changing factors such as greenhouse gas emissions and are therefore called to differently contribute to reducing these factors, in compliance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

Also linked to – and part of – the UN system, is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an institution composed of experts, scientists and researchers, created with the aim of providing policy-makers with the necessary knowledge about the status of climate change and furnish recommendations about possible paths to follow to meet the targets set through the negotiation of international agreements. Mandated by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)  and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the IPCC represents the most influential expert group and scientific entity for assessing – and, accordingly, governing – sea-level rise, despite encountering not little institutional limitations, that will be discussed throughout this blog post.

The last two categories represented in the network are the NGOs and the private sector. Concerning the former, organizations such as the Global Island Partnership, the Sea-Level Rise Foundationthe Global Ocean Forum, and the International Ocean Institute play a vital role in implementing global resilience, helping governments to address issues related to oceans and coasts, and training young practitioners to coastal and ocean management. These organizations are linked to one another through partnerships, memberships, or by contributing to each other's activities. Regarding the private sector, although the ones represented in the map do no connect to any of the actors previously mentioned, businesses are also influential stakeholders in the management of sea-level rise, and they are usually local-based and focused on adaptation strategies rather than mitigating the causes. Coastal Risk Consulting, for instance, uses LIDAR technology to assess the risk of homeowners near the coast in Florida. The London-based firm Acclimatise provides advice on flood vulnerability to several businesses, banks and governments. The Dutch architectural firm Waterstudio.NL develops innovative architectural concepts and projects to provide solutions to the risks posed by the intersection between sea-level rise and urbanization.

Communicating the science: the role of the IPCC in informing the policies

Among these many actors that build the global regime dealing with climate change and sea-level rise, a highly relevant role is played by the IPCC. Founded in 1988 by the UNEP and WMO, the IPCC is a paramount organization made up of 3,000 scientists, aimed at gathering, assessing, and communicating scientific information about the causes and effects of climate change. Limited scientific observations, high uncertainties on future trends, and low awareness at both political and societal levels make addressing sea-level rise a challenging task. For this reason, the role of IPCC in communicating the science behind this issue is crucial to correctly inform the decision-making process and international negotiations. 

Infographic of the causal link between the problem of sea-level rise and IPCC's institutional assessment of the issue

As with many environmental challenges, the fact that sea-level rise is not a static and well-known problem but rather an ongoing and rapidly evolving process makes its assessment extremely difficult. There is a high level of uncertainty when studying sea-level rise and estimating its causes, level of risk, and present and potential impacts. This uncertainty produces cleavages even among the scientific community, and eventually create ambiguity in the way the phenomenon is understood. Moreover, the factors that lead the sea level to rise are in most cases not visible to the naked eye, and the impacts are expected to show in the future. As a result, without a body of experts dedicated to the study of such hidden causes and forecast possible future implications, it would be almost impossible to deliver correctly designed policies and activities to both mitigate those causes and prepare for the implications. 

To achieve this goal, the IPCC gets together experts and scientists to review large bodies of literature, assess them, and report the findings in Assessment Reports (ARs). These reports concern the state of scientific, technical, and socio-economic knowledge on climate change and sea-level rise. In addition, the work of the IPCC consists also of summarizing these findings for the policymakers, which usually do not have the time nor the ability to read and understand the whole report. Although the assessments are the results of a dialogue process between the member states and the scientists, the ARs do not officially represent any political view, and they are rather intended to be a neutral assessment of the state of the literature. But is it always like that?

Between science and politics: the institutional challenges

The international environmental governance system, like the whole international arena, is based on the idea that there is no supranational authority able to decide on behalf of the states, which remain the ultimate sovereign entities. In some cases, states proactively decide to renounce part of this authority and transfer it to intergovernmental bodies that they create, which, however, remain a direct expression of their interests and from which it is always possible to withdraw. In this regard, Sprinz and Vaahtoranta introduced the interest-based explanation to international politics and environmental management, which exhaustively presents how states' preferences and domestic factors are in fact at the centre of the international management of global problems. Climate change is definitely one of them, as the necessary tackling measures often go in an opposite direction of what is usually recognized as the main interests of the states and their citizens, first among all economic development. Furthermore, as climate change is a multifaceted issue with various determinants, states do not have uniform preferences, but rather different states or blocks of states defend different interests, which sometimes can be conflicting and paralyze the governance process.

While this problem is a key concern in decision-making processes carried out in the frame of international governmental organizations, it should not represent a challenge when it comes to a scientific body such as the IPCC. However, it is not always like this. Kate O'Neill briefly presents different understandings of the link between science and politics. While some regard these two components as separate, and others claim instead that 'all science is political', a middle ground is reached by authors that look at this interaction as varying across time and space, resulting in a 'co-production model'. To some extent, this is exactly what happens in the work of the IPCC. The organization's factsheet on the acceptance and approval process of its reports define such process in this way:

"IPCC reports are developed through multiple rounds of drafting and review. [...] As the culmination of a report's development, IPCC member governments endorse the report. The endorsement process is based on a dialogue between those who will use the report – the governments – and those who write it – the scientists. [...] The IPCC has different levels of endorsement, including 'approval', 'adoption' and 'acceptance'."

This leads us to consider how states' preferences might be the causal determinant of some dysfunctions within the IPCC. In the podcast episode that is attached below, Kristoffer Aalstad, a professor from the Department of Geoscience at the University of Oslo, has been interviewed on the topic. He pointed out some of the advantages that the IPCC leads to in addressing the issue of climate change – which remains the main framework to study the rise of sea level – such as the ability to raise awareness and communicate the science related to it. However, he also recognized the intergovernmental nature of the organization as a crucial limitation to the production of neutral and apolitical scientific knowledge, as it is supposed to be.

Since the member states' governments retain the power of approving the reports, and especially the Summaries for Policymakers (SPMs), and as they might have opposing interests regarding some of the elements that are presented, what could happen is that the experts are asked to change the wording or lighten some of the language. In doing so, although the substantial content of the report and its findings remain unchanged, politics can influence the science and hence alter, for instance, the recommendations that policy advocates deliver to policy-makers. As a matter of fact, such recommendations are based on the belief that the IPCC is the 'impeccable and authoritative source of ultimate scientific knowledge about climate change', often omitting how this knowledge had to pass some sort of 'political check'. Furthermore, as this scientific information is then translated into policies and actions taken by governments and actors of any nature to mitigate the causes of sea-level rise and adapt to its consequences, these dynamics also have an impact on the effectiveness and desirability of such actions.

States' diverging interests and the influence that they have on IPCC's process of knowledge production are not the only challenges to the correct management of the issue of rising sea level. Even when this political pressure is not exerted, and the reports are not compromised, it still exists an important gap between what the science says about the problem and what is actually done to tackle it. This limitation is related to the institutional design of the organization, as this aims at informing the policies – being 'policy relevant' – rather than advocate some specific measure – being 'policy prescriptive'. Although many other institutions exist with the aim of translating the knowledge into actions, the latter might not be proportionate to the former, resulting in a gap that can eventually undermine the delivery of the solutions required to restrain the issue.

Finally, even if the information is adequately processed by the policy-makers, concerns remain regarding how to communicate this knowledge to, and effectively raise awareness among, the more general public. The reports produced by the IPCC are often very complex and technical, which makes it extremely difficult to understand and interpret without the intervention of an intermediary – usually, the media – that can translate to a broad audience the findings and information. This, moreover, can lead to a banalization of the reports' content and misunderstanding or oversimplification of the actual risks at stake.

In sum

What comes out from the discussion above is a very complex picture of the international governance and management system of sea-level rise. This latter problem – like many issues related to climate change – is very controversial, as it is extremely difficult to assess its causes and its potential future implications and development. There are multiple actors engaged with it, representing different sectors and different scales of action. Among these, the IPCC plays a vital role and has the merit of assessing the state of the issue by reviewing the literature and presenting the findings to inform the policy-making process. However, the biggest challenge to the correct operation of such a mechanism is posed by the fact that states' preferences remain central, and can influence this science production process due to the intergovernmental nature of the organisation. Moreover, other limitations exist with regards to the translation of this knowledge into policies, and to the complexity of the reports that are produced.