Do governments and scientists have a responsibility to coastal dwellers in the context of global warming?
To the extent that governmental policies and practices contribute to the long-term warming of the climate, then governments do have an obligation to the hundreds of millions of people around the world who live on or within 100 miles of coastlines. If researchers are correct, and global warming is (a) occurring and (b) resulting in rising sea levels, and more numerous hurricans and typhoons of ever-greater intensity, then that obligation is absolute. While scientists are doing their job of studying weather and climate patterns, and the effects of human interaction with the environment, and informing the public of those findings, then they are fulfilling their responsibilities to mankind. While there is no consensus on any of these issues, the changing patterns of catastrophic weather appears undeniable, as regions not normally associated with such weather begin to experience it.
An estimated 40 percent of the world's population lives in coastal areas, with many millions more living within 100 to 200 miles of the coasts. The most recent census figures reveal that 123 million Americans, 39 percent of the population of the United States, live "directly on the shoreline." [See U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, www.oceanservice.noaa.gov] That is a lot of people who have chosen, either for occupational (for example, fishermen) or, more commonly, for quality of life reasons to live in coastal areas despite the risks commonly associated with seaside living in many regions. Many, especially in the Gulf Coast region and along the southeastern coasts of the United States (Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas) have historically accepted the risks associated with life in a hurricane zone. Whether, and to what degree, the U.S. Government has a legal or moral obligation to assist such people in adjusting to the increased risks associated with global warming is a matter of debate. Any democratic government, by definition, governs with the consent of the public it exists to serve and protect. That public expects, and demands, that the government take all measures necessary to protect it from the ravages of severe weather patterns. Every resident of the city of New Orleans knows he or she lives below sea level in an area protected by manmade structures designed to keep out the most formidable force on the planet: the ocean. Criticism of the federal and local governments for negiligence with respect to preparations for and responses to Hurrican Katrina, though, reflected deeply-held convictions that the government was responsible for the catastrophe that struck that region in August 2005.
If global warming results in increased sea levels that pose a direct threat to hundreds of millions of people, the government will be expected to take massive and enormously costly measures to protect those peoples' homes and livelihoods from the effects of a century of industrial and automotive pollution. Whether that is fair is a matter of perspective. There is no question that the nation's economy and security are dependent on access to and control of the sea lanes on which much of our commerce flows, and that well-maintained ports are an essential component in that process. To that extent, there is certainly a government responsibility to address the costs and effects of global warming. To the extent that millions of people enjoy seaside condominium living, that responsibility become a little less clear.