Rising seas and nuclear islands

I write for Green World: “Both the Conservative and Labour parties are stuck in a past that hasn’t kept pace with how rapidly the world is changing.” I reflect on the urgent need for the Government to adapt and respond to climate change.

The siting of new nuclear power stations on the coast is based upon a judgement made in 2011 when melting ice caps and glaciers were not seen as a major contributor to rising sea levels. Since then, every new assessment by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recalculated predictions of sea level rises upwards as accelerating ice melt shocks us into a new reality. Unless we abandon this folly of seaside power stations, the best we can hope for is a generation of abandoned nuclear power stations, on islands out at sea, fending off the inevitable with ever higher concrete walls.   

It seems amazing now, but 15 years ago the IPCC didn’t see melting ice as a significant part of its 100-year calculations. It was only in the following decade that a deluge of data led to the IPCC having to reassess. Ice melt is now the dominant source of sea level rise, exceeding the effect of thermal expansion of ocean water. There is no doubt that water temperatures have doubled, which impacts on everything from chaotic weather systems to the loss of coral reefs, but from now on, sea level rise will be primarily driven by glaciers melting and ice sheets rupturing.

Ice melt on this scale is not just new – it’s accelerating. Arctic melt tripled over the period 2007-2016, compared to the previous decade. Earth’s great ice sheets, Greenland and Antarctica, are now losing mass six times faster than they were in the 1990s thanks to warming seas.

Our political class hasn’t yet grasped the speed of this recent change and how significant it is. Both Labour and Conservatives continue to support the building of new nukes, just as they support the expansion of Heathrow. They are stuck in a past that hasn’t kept pace with how rapidly the world is changing.

EDF, the promoters of Sizewell C, plan a giant sea wall on the Dunwich-Sizewell sandbank, which is anchored between two hard points on the Suffolk coastline; this when it is already struggling to keep heads above water with its Dungeness nuclear power station, which was closed prematurely seven years ago after erosion of the shingle bank it is built upon led to it having to be raised several metres. Its response to fears that Sizewell could go the same way is to state that if the sea wall isn’t doing the job, it has “designed flexibility into [its] permanent coastal sea defence, meaning it could be raised further if needed.”  

The poles are warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world and as the ice melts the regions lose their ability to stay cool by reflecting heat back up into space.

Meanwhile, the latest reports from countries signed up to the Paris Agreement is that we are heading for at least two degrees of warming by 2100. My prediction is that by the time Sizewell C is ready for its official opening, the whole project will be junked as both unnecessary and in the wrong place.

The IPCC calculations focus upon the year 2100, and makes us feel that climate change is a human life span away. Yet the government claims that these new nukes have to be there and safe for 160 years – time enough for the great-grandchild of someone born today to take their own grandchildren to the beach. Perhaps they go to watch some re-enactment of King Canut’s famous lesson about the limits of even a king’s power to hold back tides and nature?

King Canut was the king of a North Sea empire that encompassed Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden. I wonder what he would have made of the knowledge that below the waves of the North sea lies Doggerland, an ancient heartland of human society from 8,000 years before, when people could walk from the hinterland of English forests across to the slopes of modern Denmark. I suspect he probably would have said “I told you so.”

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