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The world’s leading climate scientists convened in Copenhagen a few days ago, so it was a busy week for environmental news, and it begins with a startling report by British Antarctic Survey scientists. In a nutshell, many coastal areas in both the developed and developing world are at great risk for devastating floods over the next 90 years. Bangladesh, Florida, the Maldives, and The Netherlands will all face catastrophic flooding and most of the world’s major coastal cities will need to invest a fortune in flood defenses, according to a story in The Guardian.

“It is now clear that there are going to be massive flooding disasters around the globe,” says Dr. David Vaughan, of the British Antarctic Survey. “Populations are shifting to the coast, which means that more and more people are going to be threatened by sea level rises.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report in 2007 estimated that sea levels could rise by as little as 7.8 inches — or by as much as 23.6 inches — by 2100 due to thermal expansion of the oceans. The report’s cautious nature lead to the suggestion that Greenland and Antarctica wouldn’t see much melting for another three or four generations.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn’t read that report, and a handful of recent satellite sea studies suggest that Greenland and Antarctica are melting much earlier and much faster than expected, pouring fresh water into the ocean. The volume of twenty-one Chesapeake Bays gushed from Greenland alone over the last three years. As a result, experts now predict that sea levels will rise by between 40 and 80 inches in just 90 years. In that time, the US would have to pay $156 billion just to protect important coastal wetlands.

It gets much worse after 2100, with scientists predicting that the following century could bring a 12-foot rise in sea levels. You don’t have to be a climate expert to know that such an increase would devastate the planet.

The destruction won’t only accrue from the tidal ebb and flow. Rising temperatures are also expected to lead to an increase in major storms. “When we talk about the dangers of future sea level rises, we are not talking about a problem akin to pouring water into a bath,” says Dr. Colin Brown, Director of Engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineering. “Climate Change research shows there will be significant increases in storms as global temperatures rise. These will produce more intense gales and hurricanes and these, in turn, will produce massive storm surges as they pass over the sea.”

Last March, a US Department of Transportation study concluded that 27 percent of major roads, 9 percent of rail lines and 74 percent of ports are at — or below — four feet of elevation, making them vulnerable to the flooding expected this century. Current research suggests the DOT may have have revisit those figures in short order.

Just a week ago, my sister asked me if she and her husband should sell their oceanfront home that overlooks Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast. A hurricane in 2003 knocked over 14 trees on the property. Last year, Tropical Storm Noel ate a few square feet of their lawn, and deposited thousands of pounds of ocean detritus about the property.

I said that in her shoes, I’d be calling the real estate agents soon.

And that brings us to a very simple fact. The current mortgage crisis and sub-prime lending debacle has affected serious and traumatic consequences across all sectors of the U.S. economy, but can you imagine the cost of relocating half the people in Miami, New Orleans, and Galveston whose homes are a total loss — to mention just three of dozens of cities that will be affected by rising sea levels?

We can work to solve climate change now, and it will be painful. Lord Nicholas Stern estimates that it will consume 2 percent of the world’s GDP if we act quickly. But if we wait 20 years, then cutting emissions — and mitigating endless natural disasters — will require 20 percent of GDP.

That would make the Wall Street bailout look like pocket change.

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