Water taxis for Cape Town’s rising sea levels: ‘Everybody should panic,’ says environmental futurist

By Tiara Walters 21 January 2020
The sea at Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town is whipped into a froth by giant waves pounding the coast off the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo: Gallo Images / Garth Stead)

For environmental futurist Professor Nick King, accepting the apparently fantastical as the new normal means responding to Earth’s waning vital signs with commensurate CPR. Even so, King’s suggestion of ‘Cape Town water taxis’ is met with incredulity by Our Burning Planet when he moots it during an interview at his home overlooking the city’s False Bay coastline. His response? Deadpan.

As ex-reality TV star Donald Trump manufactures crises to deflect attention from anything that truly matters, then declares the “crisis” not a “crisis” to deflect attention from that “crisis”, which may then escalate into an actual crisis of civilisation-imploding proportions, let’s turn the glare of lucidity on something else that the world’s angriest clown does not want you to think about.

Trump’s vaudevillian deflections would have you ignore some of the more important problems of our time, such as sea-level rise — so by way of demonstrating the feasibility of that sleight of hand, let’s try a thought experiment: don’t think about sea-level rise while you read this paragraph and, whatever you do, don’t think about how sea-level rise threatens to redraw the world’s coastlines. Or that Trump’s Ireland golf course applied to build a fortress to hold back the ocean. Right? Ignoring climate change is like ordering toast during load shedding when you know flaccid bread is all the waiter will bring.

Trump would also have you believe sea levels are to rise maybe “one-eighth of an inch in 250 years”, to quote his improvised estimates at a recent campaign rally.

However, thanks to figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — an increasingly isolated voice of reason within Trump’s growing environmental state-capture jamboree — and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we know something more ecopocalyptic is creeping into the neighbourhood: sea-level rise of at least 30cm by the end of this century. And that’s under a lower emissions scenario. A higher emissions scenario gives us more than a metre and, by 2300, up to 5.5m rather than “one-eighth of an inch”.

Of course, we’re not thinking about uncertainties that scientists say could exacerbate already-swelling oceans. As it stands, 5.5m is a tame prediction compared with a 2019 Nature paper’s Pliocene Earth. In this world, oceans were 16m higher under temperatures just 2°C to 3°C above the preindustrial period — yet current generations may be on track to hit this temperature range by 2030 (this, among others, explains why the Paris accord’s recommended upper safety limit is 2°C).

So beyond the cameras and lights of Trump’s haphazardly concocted world, it makes sense to act on the warnings ringing out from the planet’s amygdala, as personified by an image of 2,000 elephants stampeding into the ocean off Greenland every second. There are no more elephants in Greenland than polar bears in the Antarctic, but this is a good analogy for the thunderous ice melt that charged into Arctic waters in 2019 (267 billion metric tons, says NOAA’s 2019 Arctic Report Card).

For environmental futurist Professor Nick King, accepting the apparently fantastical as the new normal means responding to Earth’s waning vital signs with commensurate CPR. Even so, King’s suggestion of “Cape Town water taxis” are met with incredulity by Our Burning Planet when he moots it during an interview at his home overlooking the city’s False Bay coastline. His response? Deadpan.

I’m serious.

Look at the property prices in Cape Town — they’re all down in the past few years: that’s down to climate change, drought, the current economy. The houses that they build in Clifton and all the rest of it? Are those really going to be worth anything if the coastal road closes?”

Real-world scientific estimates by real-world scientists predict low-lying roads or other public and private infrastructure will be submerged during high-tide flooding — already an accelerated fact of life in Trump’s backyard on the US East Coast.

Polar terrestrial ice melt “had surpassed all projections” in the past decade, journalist Steve Kretzmann reported for news agency GroundUp in August — this has forced researchers to adjust sea-level predictions. According to a 2008 impact study, Cape Town faced a “95% chance of a 2.5m storm surge” within 25 years, Kretzmann revealed. There was an 85% chance of a 4.5m storm surge. A 6.5m storm surge came in relatively high at 20%.

Just two weeks after the region was declared a drought disaster, that dreaded 2.5m surge struck Cape Town during June 2017’s world-headline-making storm.

Thousands were left homeless, eight people were killed. Likely the most expensive real estate on the continent sat defenceless, as the air force stood to attention in the unrelenting crosshairs of climate. Insurance-risk evaluations reported by GroundUp run, unsurprisingly, into billions of rands.

Insurance companies around the world, in fact, have been doing some of the best scenarios development work because obviously it directly impacts their business,” King says. “The cost of storm damage and extreme events has been astronomical in the past few years.”

(And let’s spare a thought for the Bahamas, staring down, at the dawn of this decade, years of recovery and relief efforts after hurricane wind gusts up to 350km/h and a 7m storm surge pummelled the archipelago in September. It was one of the strongest landfalling hurricanes ever recorded, hitting the archipelago after travelling over waters up to 1°C warmer than usual.)

A review editor for the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (2014), King is a world-recognised expert in environmental-crisis scenarios and resilience thinking. He sat on a review panel for the Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which culminated in its landmark Global Assessment Report, to date the highest-resolution analysis on the state of planetary ecosystems; and co-wrote South Africa’s State of the Environment reports in 1999 and 2007. Most recently, he was lead editor of the latest edition of the classic hardcover manual on all aspects of local natural resource management and conservation — Fuggle & Rabie’s Environmental Management in South Africa, packing in a monster 1,432 pages.

The coastal road all around the peninsula, including along the Atlantic Seaboard, is “very vulnerable”, King adds. He observes the herd in the room: Camps Bay, one of the Mother City’s most popular entertainment strips “goes right down to sea level”.

King points out that developers are “filling out” the southern peninsula, with only three major roads providing access to the area — Ou Kaapse Weg (M64); the picturesque low road buckling along False Bay at virtual sea level, all the way to Simon’s Town (M4); and the precipitous M6, or Chapman’s Peak Drive. This is the world-famous scenic ramble known to have closed for stretches at a time due to winter storms, hazardous rockfalls and mudslides.

This doesn’t sound like a shortage of primary arteries. But seen through an environmental futurist’s eyes, they loom like disaster zones, begging to be flooded by the Atlantic or covered in sandstone and shale. Should the M6 and M4 become too dangerous to cross during, say, a scenario of high-tide flooding, that leaves one point of entry in and out of the entire southern peninsula — the congested Ou Kaapse Weg. Which already cuts a dizzy, slow and slender commute through the southern peninsula mountains, especially when congested.

The “whole coastal road to Stellenbosch via Monwabisi is also vulnerable”, all 20-something kilometres of it, he warns; as well as the popular West Coast route towards Melkbosstrand. Storm surges and erosion have threatened to wash away the public beach at Milnerton, according to Kretzmann.

Rather than, say, linking arms and forming a Sisyphean human chain in the futile hope of keeping the ocean at bay, opting for “managed retreat” to higher ground is the most far-sighted and proactive thing to do, says King.

Otherwise you’re spending money on stuff that will get washed away,” he says. “See, you have setback lines, as they’re called in town planning, which are based on one-in-50 and one-in-100-year storm surges, that sort of thing. For instance, you ideally shouldn’t allow houses below the one-in-100-year mark, and commercial infrastructure below the one-in-200-year mark. Yet, you’re now looking at one-in-50-year events turning into one-in-five-year events.

I mean, our roads were built 150 years ago, when you still had a stable climate. Times have changed. Now we have to start thinking about things like buying people’s houses on the front row of the seashore. Expropriating them via climate finance. People may complain this is not market value. It’s a helluva lot better than not being able to sell at all.”

Managed retreat is more than an overdue priority for adaptation funding, says King. “But government will use every excuse in the book. ‘Oh, you know… we don’t want to create panic.’ ”

He pauses. Incredulous.

Everyone should be panicking.”

For the southern peninsula with its potential access problems, King raises the possibility of tunnelling the M3 into the Muizenberg/Silvermine mountains — “if ever there had been plans” to extend that road, which currently splits into the Simon’s Town and Ou Kaapse Weg routes at Steenberg Estate. “Because that’s probably the only way you’ll have access to the south peninsula during flooding. Or, water taxis — or something.

Speak to people, and they think you’re talking rubbish. But that’s because sea-level rise hasn’t manifested so blatantly in Cape Town. Yet. But go to the Pacific. Whole islands have disappeared, because they were only a metre or so above sea level. If you have a Kiribati passport, but Kiribati no longer exists physically, who are you? What are you? You’re a stateless person.”

Kiribati is the world’s lowest-lying country. It’s also a least-developed country. Part of the Small Islands Developing States alliance, I-Kiribati activists have, along with campaigners from other affected islands, railed against climate apathy since the early 1990s. They’re the quintessential coalmine canaries — and, after living in the central Pacific between Australia and Hawaii for thousands of years, I-Kiribati now face the foreboding likelihood of having to evacuate their ancestral lands within a few decades, if not less.

And yet, says King, “the world is not ready. They’re not even starting to grapple with these issues yet”. The 1951 Geneva Convention, the major global instrument for refugee law, is designed to offer asylum to only those fleeing persecution, war or violence — not climate migrants, whether or not the ocean is swallowing the only home they’ve ever known.

That’s the problem with nation-states and sovereignty: people are not looked at as one planet or human society. Xenophobia in South Africa is a case in point. Some migrants left their countries because of violence, others for opportunities in South Africa, but many are climate refugees — so what you’re basically seeing is a form of climate racism levelled against them,” says King.

Look, we’re already committed to all sorts of climate impacts. But we can certainly still prevent some of the worst of them. This means funding a dramatic trajectory shift in our economic development model. Close down your parastatals and coal-fired, greenhouse gas-emitting industries in South Africa, and put all that money into climate-change adaptation. Use that money to re-employ people into different sectors.”

Even these interventions may not be radical enough to free up the financing we need to decarbonise by the UN’s recommended emissions reductions of nearly 8% per year. And these aren’t arbitrary numbers.

They’re the true north we need to hit, year upon year, if we’re to stay on the right side of the 1.5°C habitable threshold demanded by best available science.

An ecologist and environmental-law specialist by training, King also contributed to the Western Cape government’s climate-response strategy.

Except that King has no plans to stay in the Western Cape, instead earmarking an off-the-grid farm with rainwater tanks on South Africa’s east coast. King doesn’t think “there’s any long-term viable future” for Cape Town — at least not based on current resilience planning.

The long-term projections are not good, whether they involve coastal erosion or other local climate impacts — such as tens of thousands of jobs lost in the agricultural sector during the Western Cape drought,” he says — although he does acknowledge the provincial government’s “very proactive” SmartAgri Plan. Designed to inform adaptive management of 23 agro-climatic zones across the province, “it’s been taken up pretty well, which should have a mitigating effect on some of the worst impacts”.

However, in the past few years we’ve seen a lack of long-term planning by the City, especially in politically fraught, on-off territory such as desalination, he notes. The City, he observes, seems ill-prepared for Cape Town’s climate-vulnerable migrant population.

The in-migration to Cape Town is unsustainable. There is no earthly way, unless they pull off a dramatic turnaround, that they can provide for the influx of people into the Cape Flats — especially given that the land is unsuitable to live on. It’s all flood-prone, always has been.”

To drive home his point, King paraphrases fellow futurist Clem Sunter and proposes that, by 2050, Cape Town will be the small fishing village it should always have been. DM



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