The Social Impact of Terrestrial Carbon Combustion: Global Coastlines & The Rising Sea

Warnings from the natural sciences about the potentially devastating impact of climate change became apparent within the scientific community from the 1970s forward.    They received public attention with a front page story in The New York Times that reported on the Senate testimony of Dr James Hansen in Washington, D. C. on 23 June 1988.

Dr. Hansen’s insights and warnings have increased in severity and alarm ever since 1988.  The repeated and cumulative history of the accuracy and tone of his warnings concerning the UNFCC Climate Agreement has meant that his assessment of these accords is of particular significance.  Both scientists and policy makers are increasingly attentive to his statements because they have very often been proved correct over time.  This is the context that explains the importance of his statement about “coastal cities.”

Within 3 months of Dr. Hansen’s initial Senate testimony in June of 1988, Senators held hearings reviewing the social implications of climate change.

Once again the evidence and arguments presented to the Senate on 14 September 1988 have proved to be of enduring interest.  Concerning the social impact of a changing global climate, this testimony has become particularly important because it outlined and underscored the essential vulnerability of all modern nation-state structures in the face of the large-scale and long-term transformations described by Dr. Hansen and other natural scientists for more than 50 years.   See for example:

PatterTrendProsptectExcerpts from the original Senate 14 September 1988 testimony on the social dimensions of global climate change were summarized with an annotated”reading list” of sources compiled for the Senators and their staff members to consider in devising government environmental policy to promote sustainability.

This evidence and argumentation was published for public access as a separate book in 1992 during the last year of the administration of President George H. W. Bush, after President Bush returned from the 1992 UNCED Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.  Its title was:  Environmental Decline and Public Policy: Pattern, Trend and Prospect. and its warnings were clear.

Since this publication of this book — with its supporting annotated bibliography — the ideas presented in this volume have become an enduring source for the discussion of the policies and politics of sustainability.

One of the reasons for the embrace of this volume was that it revived the importance of an earlier book, commissioned 20 years earlier by the Club of Rome, entitled The Limits to Growth.  The cover illustration for volume with the 1992 Senate testimony posed the problem graphically for the policy makers in a the form of a stark choice that needs to be made to achieve a stable and enduring transition toward sustainability.


Exchanges have continued on this theme — both within the academic world and in the  policy world — because it raises the question of the “prospect” for the future viability of human social and political institutions in the face of foreseeable environmental changes driven by an altered climate

The question is most urgent in the current moment because of the escalating problem of sea-level rise that is being experienced around the world — in Asia, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and along the long coastline of Africa as an entire continent.  In reference to Africa, see, for example: “Global Climate Change & Africa”

The global context of this universal human problem was explored in course offered to the citizens in Boston on “Climate Vulnerability.”  Among other things, the course compared Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington… + London, Hong Kong, Lagos and Cairo.  The comparative framework developed for this course could be a useful tool in looking at sea-level changes that have occurred since 2017.  The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have contributed a significant amount of new data from around the world that can now be integrated into the discussion of global sea-level adaptation policy.


Further study of the comparative dimensions of the social impact of sea-level rise can now be pursued through international conferences convened with Zoom-webinar linkages.  New initiatives of adaptation can and must now emerge from these kinds of novel, multi-national discussions as the problem itself becomes more urgent on an escalating scale.

See related:

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