Scientists working to defend the mid-Atlantic coast from pollution, development, and sea-level rise fear they now have a new challenge: President Donald Trump.
The new administration’s early actions to scrap President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, promote fossil fuels, and muzzle social media use by the Environmental Protection Agency unnerved scientists meeting in Cape May this week for the biennial Delaware Estuary Science and Environmental Summit.
The state agencies, environmental nonprofits, academic researchers, and local utilities represented at the three-day event have long built sea-level rise into their plans for wetlands and other areas of the region’s low-lying shores.
Last year’s Paris agreement to limit carbon emissions raised hopes that the expected rise in sea levels could be slowed if the historic accord by some 190 countries succeeds in slowing a rise in global temperatures — and, with it, the expansion of ocean volumes as the ice caps melt.
But signs that the Trump administration will withdraw the United States from the accord, while taking steps to boost domestic production of fossil fuels, prompted some participants at this week’s meeting to ask whether the vulnerable coast will be inundated sooner than they have forecast.
Climate experts have predicted that seas along the shores of New Jersey, Delaware and nearby states will rise by about a meter by the end of the century.
Concerns about sea-level rise were highlighted by Dr. Ben Horton, a Rutgers University expert on climate change, who warned in a keynote address that the mid-Atlantic coastline — including the Delaware Estuary — is especially vulnerable to the anticipated melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet.
He said the rate of sea-level rise globally is now faster than at any time in the last 2,000 years.
Despite the bleak outlook, the worst of sea-level rise could be avoided if all the signatories of the Paris accord including the United States meet their commitments to reduce carbon emissions, Horton said.
“This is a very, very urgent topic but there’s hope,” he said. “We can meet the Paris accord. The Paris accord was to keep global temperatures [from rising] more than 1.5 degrees C because we knew from the geological record that if you go above 1.5 degrees C you get the Antarctic ice sheet collapsing.”
Horton said climate change had been conspicuous by its absence from the U.S. presidential election campaign, and he mocked skeptics who deny that climate change exists or that it is caused by human activity.
“If you reject climate change, you reject gravity, you think the earth is flat,” he said, to applause from the audience of about 300 people.
Horton’s warning, coupled with the new policy signals from the Trump administration, unsettled some participants.
Alison Rogerson, an environmental scientist at Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, said the developments raised new questions about longstanding plans to combat sea-level rise which is growing at about twice the global rate in the mid-Atlantic region because the land is sinking at the same time.
“We’ve always known that it’s going to be accelerated in the mid-Atlantic,” she said, referring to sea-level rise. “What’s more alarming is hearing that talk which gets us started off at this summit on that track, and hearing all these headlines that are coming out about changes on the national level with the new administration.”
Rogerson said new federal actions suggest that climate policy is going into reverse. “I just have a feeling that we are going to be going in the opposite direction than we need to go, and that the new administration is going to make decisions based on economic gain and discredit a lot of scientific evidence, and make human profit more of a priority,” she said.
Dr. Jerry Kauffman, director of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Agency, called the Trump administration’s actions on the EPA, and its apparent rejection of global climate action, “the elephant in the room” at the conference.
From Horton’s presentation, Kauffman said the conference had learned new information about a connection between melting ice caps and local sea-level rise, and he argued that federal participation is needed to combat climate change, however dedicated scientists are to dealing with the problem locally.
“We’re hearing that action at the federal level has taken a 180-degree turn since a couple of weeks ago,” Kauffman said. “You need the federal government to be involved in atmospheric warming issues. Sub-governmental units like states and counties and towns just can’t do it alone.”
“If one of the biggest drops out, then the whole thing could be undone,” he said. “How would the world solve its climate problem without the United States being a part of it? It’s inconceivable.”
Jennifer Adkins, executive director of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, the summit organizer, said Horton’s forecasts suggest that mid-Atlantic coastal wetlands will eventually be submerged but that doesn’t mean the scientific community should give up trying to defend them.
“We might say why are we working on wetlands at all because a lot of these places, if the scenario plays out like it seems like it may, will be under water,” she said. “But if you do that, you lose the fact that for hundreds of years these wetlands are going to be providing crucial services, producing fish, and cleaning water, and protecting local communities. It adds a time factor to our planning process that’s pretty difficult to get your head around.”
Despite the alarming sea-level forecasts issued by Horton and other scientists, they are so far in the future that they deter some people from taking action now, Adkins said.
“The time horizon is one of the challenging things about getting people to act on any aspect of climate change or sea-level rise,” she said.
Climate change and sea-level rise are expected to be important components of a new Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan, a mission statement for the PDE and its partners that is now being updated for the first time since 1996 to reflect new realities. The document is due for completion by the summer of 2018.