If A Tree Falls in the Senate, Will Anyone Hear Sea Rise?

By Michael D. Lemonick

New Report: Sea Level Rise Threatens Hundreds of U.S. Energy Facilities (PDF)
Interactive Map: Surging Seas, Sea Level Rise Analysis
News: Senate Hearing Focuses on Threat of Sea Level Rise
Watch: Archived webcast of Senate hearing
Read: Senate testimony of five witnesses

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, goes the question pondered by generations of college sophomores late at night, does it make a sound? Despite the noble intentions of Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) in holding a hearing on sea level rise this week, the same question, only slightly modified, applies. Bingaman brought in five experts to testify at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, including Climate Central’s Ben Strauss.

Six senators showed up — five Democrats and Republican Lisa Murkowski. And according to a liveblog on Daily Kos, six reporters showed up to cover it. And so despite dramatic (and scientifically rock-solid) statements like Strauss’s assertion that “rising seas raise the launch pad for coastal storm surges and tilt the odds toward disaster,” there’s a good chance that nobody will hear much about it.

On the other hand, climate hearings are awfully rare on Capitol Hill these days. And the number of senators and reporters at Thursday's hearing was nothing out of the ordinary. So if you want to look on the bright side, the fact that the Senate held a hearing on sea level rise offers at least a bit of hope that things could someday turn around.

Floodwaters and storm surges fueled by climate change will only get worse in the future, and there are already millions along the coastal U.S. imperiled by sea level rise. Coast Guard photograph by Petty Officer Robert M. Reed.

Of course, we thought the same thing back in 1988, when James Hansen electrified the nation with his own Senate testimony that “the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.” In those days, global warming wasn’t nearly such a political hot potato, even though the evidence for it was far shakier than it is today. Legislators on both sides of the aisle took it seriously. As did the media and public.

Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide are about 12 percent higher than they were back then, and they’re still growing. That means that whatever action we take to curb emissions is going to be far tougher than it would have been all those years ago, and the time between now and disaster is much shorter.

The time is short, the task is enormous — and as anyone knows who’s been paying attention, the U.S. is not even close to taking it on. For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, these hearings make it painfully clear: climate change isn’t high on the legislative agenda, and may not be for some time. Whenever that time comes, we can only hope it won't be too late to avoid the worst.