AGCI Insight

Understanding global change challenges: Sea level rise

January 30, 2024
People on motorbikes traveling through water on road flooded by evening high tide, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Oct 10, 2014. Source: xuanhuongho/iStock

This blog post is part of an occasional series of interviews with AGCI workshop participants and lecturers engaging key global change challenges.

As global warming causes ocean temperatures to rise and ice sheets and glaciers to melt across the globe, over 400 million coastal residents on every inhabited continent are at risk from sea level rise and related coastal hazards. Sea level is a “threat multiplier” that can compound the damage caused by global warming-induced extreme weather events like tropical cyclones and storm surges. It also directly threatens infrastructure, economies, and even the very existence of low-lying communities and countries.  

In an October 2023 interview, AGCI spoke with Dr. Ma Laurice (“Lau”) Jamero, Climate Resilience Coordinator of the Manila Observatory in the Philippines, about her work with small island communities and how addressing sea level rise is both an urgent global change issue and a matter of climate justice.

AGCI: How would you define sea level rise, and why is it a global change issue?

Dr. Ma. Laurice Jamero

Lau Jamero: Basically, sea level rise is our ocean’s level increasing, and it’s mainly because of global warming. And it’s an issue of global importance because it serves as a threat multiplier in a way. I think it would be a mistake to think of sea level rise by itself and not along with all of the other hazards faced by coastlines. To give you an example, sea level rise is considered a slow onset event. And alongside that is biodiversity loss. Here in the tropics, we risk losing all of our coral reefs permanently, especially when we reach the 1.5℃ warming level. And right now we are already at 1.2℃. This month, there was news of 1.5℃ being breached for a record number of days. So that is very alarming for us, even as a slow onset event. You also have rapid onset events like tropical cyclones, storm surges, marine heat waves – all of these work to compound the risks to coastlines along with sea level rise. And the thing about sea level rise is that it tends to affect really vulnerable communities – fishing communities, small island communities, it’s really a big issue for us especially. So I want people to pay more attention to sea level rise as a global issue.

AGCI: What is your work and how does it relate to understanding and addressing sea level rise?

LJ: I am a Small Islander. My identity is really tied with our coastlines. I got started just trying to raise the voice of Small Islanders through my work. I’m a sustainability scientist by training, but over the last five or so years, I’ve been working specifically on climate science. So in all of my projects and studies and the talks that I give, I always make it a point to talk about sea level rise, especially from the perspective of Small Islanders. My work relates strongly to my experience as a Small Islander, and I’m working in a gray area where I try to bridge science and practice and science and policy. So on a day-to-day basis, I work with climate scientists, who do modeling, but also I work hand in hand with practitioners, like PEERS (the Practitioner Exchange for Effective Response to Sea Level Rise) and also try to influence policy by talking to policymakers.

In a recent paper that I co-authored published in Nature, we were calling for global environmental policies to also consider small islands in archipelagic countries. Right now, there’s a very strong focus on SIDS, Small Island Developing States – and rightfully so, because SIDS are truly very vulnerable to climate impacts, especially sea level rise. There are also small islands like us – in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, from this side of the world – and historically, we have been marginalized in our own country. So like me – I’m located outside of Imperial Manila – and in our own countries, we are being marginalized. I think it would be a missed opportunity not to share in the spotlight that’s currently being given to SIDS, especially that we are sharing a lot of our vulnerabilities.

AGCI: What do you see as the most important part of your work, and why? 

LJ: I do studies and talks and projects, but it’s mainly to raise the voice of Islanders. So it’s ultimately communication work. Working in the gray area between science policy and practice – that is communication work. At the launch of PEERS in Montreal, I described how it’s very difficult to move from useful information to usable to used. There’s a very big gap there. And this very big gap is just a reflection of the very big gap between information producers and information users. Essentially, all of the climate information is useful – in theory, you can use them – but they’re not all usable. In the case of small islands, we need really high resolution information. So right now, climate models have a 25 kilometer by 25 kilometer resolution, and some of our islands are not that size at all. So this is a problem for SIDS, for many small islands. We need more high resolution information for it to be usable. And if it’s usable, then it has a bigger chance of actually getting used. 

AGCI: In your communications work, who is your audience? Who are you speaking to?

LJ:  So I try to facilitate both sides of the conversation. Ideally, I start with the communities, ask them what information they need, and I give that to the climate scientists. They produce the data, and then I communicate that data back to the communities so they can do their adaptation planning, their project proposal writing, and everything. But ultimately, there needs to be feedback again to the scientists to make sure that the products that we are creating are actually helpful. Doing this process helps us move from, say, having a static flood map into integrating climate change dynamic variables so that we can see how the flood depth or the flood area changes with different scenarios. Maps are very helpful instead of line graphs. All of this information only comes from working with communities. And policymakers have their own interests too.

We risk losing our home, our communities, our social safety net, our culture, knowledge, some even think they might lose their sovereignty. So how do you compensate for all of that?

Dr. Ma. Laurice Jamero

AGCI: What do you see as some of the biggest global challenges with regard to sea level rise?

LJ: On the policy side, there’s something called loss and damage. It’s one of the biggest [issues] and the most timely right now, and a global focus in climate negotiations. Basically loss and damage refers to the impacts of climate change. And loss and damage is not a future thing. A lot of communities have already suffered loss and damage. Earlier I explained about slow onset versus rapid onset events. So there’s a lot of help for rapid onset events. If there’s a typhoon, usually there are humanitarian agencies there to help. But a very big gap exists for financing for slow onset events, which sea level rise falls into. When it comes to loss and damage, you have economic loss and damage, which is easier to pay for because you can measure it. But you also have non-economic loss and damage, and that’s what small islands and SIDS have been pointing out. We risk losing our home, our communities, our social safety net, our culture, knowledge, some even think they might lose their sovereignty. So how do you compensate for all of that? This is, I think, one of the biggest global challenges related to sea level rise.

AGCI: What do you see as some of the most exciting opportunities to address sea level rise in the coming decades? Where do you see the biggest potential impacts?

LJ: In climate communications, sometimes it’s easier to focus on the doom and gloom, but it doesn’t inspire people to act. It’s also important to talk about solutions. Loss and damage has been raised as an issue by developing countries, and SIDS especially, for maybe 30 years or so already. But it was officially on the agenda of the Conference of Parties of UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) only beginning in 2022. That was a big win for us. But even better, we walked away with a deal from [the COP 27 meeting in] Sharm el Sheikh. We got the loss and damage funds and funding arrangement established. So this December [at the COP 28 meeting] in Dubai, our world leaders are going to have to decide on exactly how to operationalize the fund and funding arrangement. How do you put money into the fund? How do you govern the funds? How do you reduce the barriers to accessing the funds? 

There is existing climate financing [through the UNFCCC process] right now, but the barriers to access it are very tall, especially for small islands. The biggest barrier would be the Climate Rationales [required by the Green Climate Fund established under the UNFCCC framework]. Essentially, the funding organizations are requiring 20, 30 years of data, especially high resolution data that many small islands don’t have. How do we reduce that technical issue so people who need the money can access it? This is something to watch out for this year and in the coming years, how that will be operationalized. 

Another thing that for me is really exciting is the global goal on adaptation. This is also a UNFCCC process that will culminate in Dubai this year. Essentially, we don’t really have a global metric to understand whether we are successful with adaptation, especially in terms of reducing risk. Also, we have very limited funding, so how do we know where to put the money so that it actually leads to good results? Hopefully the global goal on adaptation and its operationalization will give us a bit more guidance on how to increase the success of our adaptation projects. 

Another thing that comes to mind is the focus on ecosystem restoration. The UN declared 2021 to 2030 as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. I look at it from the perspective of coral reefs. We are at risk of permanently losing all of them [because] a tipping point can be triggered at 1.5℃ degrees. I’m really hoping that we can restore, conserve, preserve our ecosystems, whatever healthy reefs we have left. Because only if we have healthy corals can we compensate for sea level rise. And in that way, our islands can actually cope naturally. One problem is that our coral reefs are also very vulnerable to climate change. The other problem is that we try to manipulate, engineer our coastlines too much. So I hope this focus on ecosystem restoration, ecosystem-based adaptation, nature-based solutions, will heal us from our obsession with concrete and engineering. I’m not saying to completely ditch them, but maybe to find a way to have them complement each other. 

And the last thing I really want to be able to achieve in this decade is cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The only way for us to stay below 1.5℃ is to cut greenhouse gas emissions in roughly half by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050. And beyond 2050, we have to be carbon negative. That’s really the only way for us to limit global warming. There will be an overshoot above 1.5℃, but we can bring it down by 2100 and basically ensure that the overshoot is only temporary if we do these steps. It’s very difficult. It’s more of a political problem than a technical one. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already told us that it’s still physically possible to limit global warming, but whether or not it is a politically viable decision for our global leaders to take, that is something that we have to advocate for in the COP. 

AGCI: Who is most vulnerable to sea level rise and how does it impact their lives and communities?

LJ: Small island communities, especially those who have fishing-based livelihoods, are the absolute frontliners in the climate emergency, in general, and for sea level rise in particular. There are several aspects to vulnerability. I mentioned hazard already. Exposure is another issue, being located in these specific, remote areas. There’s also an element of poverty to vulnerability, especially [for people engaged in] subsistence-based fishing. Their livelihoods are at stake because of the potential death of coral reefs. And, as I said earlier, we are historically marginalized in our own country. So to be able to achieve the level of awareness that we need for global leaders to protect small islands, it’s a very tall order for us. 

So how does this affect the lives of communities? For most people, sea level rise is a future issue, but in some places, it’s something that’s already starting to affect us today. We have spring tides. Every new moon and full moon of each month, we have higher-than-usual tides. And then once a year, we have a king tide, which is the highest high tide of the year. So previously, they weren’t supposed to cause any tidal flooding, or what’s called sunny day flooding, but now in some places they do. And it’s worse if there’s a supermoon. There was a supermoon in July and then in August, and some communities flooded. Our church almost flooded. I saw that behind the church, they’re starting to put in a makeshift seawall. So it’s really starting to affect the lives of communities already. 

In December 2021, my small island was actually hit by a super typhoon. So I’m essentially a super typhoon survivor as well. In that particular instance, we were supposed to have an anticipatory action program. A lot of humanitarian agencies are focused on this, and it’s a forecast-based anticipatory action program. It means that whatever resources they have, they need triggers to deliver them based on the forecast. So we need early warning. But that didn’t work in our case because it was a rapidly intensified super typhoon. 

Part of my work is to monitor the strength of incoming typhoons. We have Christmas typhoons almost every year. I expected at most a Category Two typhoon, so I slept the night before knowing it’s going to be a Category Two typhoon. But in the morning, I was woken up by frantic calls from my colleagues who are based in Manila telling me that the typhoon coming our way is already a Category Five typhoon. It was 6:00 am in the morning, and the first landfall was around 12:00 noon. So by that time, it was too late to have the islanders evacuate. The sea was already very choppy, so we really just had to grit our teeth and try to survive in place at the time. In the end, the super typhoon made nine landfalls across different provinces, but we barely made it to the news because we are far from Manila. And at that time, December 2021, there was a COVID-19 surge, so our national government was focused on that. Developed countries who typically commit some donations through humanitarian agencies also didn’t do that. So it was a really tough situation. Landfall for our island happened around 7:00 in the evening, and peak tide was at 9:30pm. So imagine storm surges over an additional one meter of water. 

We actually have a double barrier reef here in my small island. The very, very tiny islets in the double barrier reef, the main impact they suffered was from storm surge, which was made worse by the high tides at that time. This is something that IPCC also sees as a trend, so in the future, there will be higher storm surges because of typhoons making landfall in higher sea levels.

AGCI: Were a lot of people injured? Were there a lot of casualties? 

LJ: Thankfully, there were not so many casualties. We had our first really big super typhoon in 2013. So now we know what a storm surge means, what a super typhoon means. We had prior knowledge through the experience of another island. At that time, I think they had 6000 casualties. Too many lives lost. We still lost lives (several hundred), but not as many as at that time. I think if only we had better forecasting, if only we had the early warning system, if only the forecast-based, anticipatory action was activated, we would have saved more lives. Which also makes me question why anticipatory action has to be 100% forecast-based and why we can’t allow local knowledge or maybe traditional knowledge to be part of the criteria for triggering the disbursement of those resources.

AGCI: Is there a move to have more local knowledge be part of the calculus of how to respond to these events?

LJ: As far as I know, no. They’re still talking about physical triggers. It’s really hard, in the first place, to define these triggers, even for things like drought. For typhoons, usually within 72 hours, the [forecast] becomes reliable. But there are typhoons that rapidly intensify in 24 hours, so that completely throws you off. I’ve tried to raise awareness about this in some of my talks, but I haven’t heard about concrete steps being taken to integrate traditional knowledge into anticipatory action, or into adaptation planning, or into the climate rationale that I mentioned. There’s a lot of talk about marrying science and local knowledge, indigenous knowledge, but concrete steps towards that, successful examples, I think I still have to find them.

We’ve been saying for a long time that we’re all in the same boat. Whether or not the boat stays afloat is really going to depend on all of us working together.

Dr. Ma. Laurice Jamero

AGCI: My final question is, why should all people care about sea level rise whether or not they live near the sea?

LJ: None of these small islands have really contributed to the climate problem, and yet we are suffering from its effects the most. So talking about loss and damage, by now the Global North is starting to experience your share of climate effects as well. Just this year, there were forest fires in Canada, very hot summers in Europe, stronger hurricanes in US coastlines. This is something that we’ve been experiencing for decades, but even more so now. So having that shared experience, hopefully, will give us some feeling of solidarity with each other, some feeling of why we should care about sea level rise. We’ve been saying for a long time that we’re all in the same boat. Whether or not the boat stays afloat is really going to depend on all of us working together. I hope we are past our very tense conversations before, of developed versus developing, global North versus global south. Hopefully we can see past our own interests and be able to work together as a matter of climate justice.

A climate resilience and sustainability scientist, Dr. Ma. Laurice Jamero currently serves as the climate resilience coordinator at the Manila Observatory, where she works closely with local governments and civil society organizations across the Philippines to support their climate and disaster risk management and adaptation planning efforts. At the regional and international level, she also volunteers her time at the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP Academy Support Unit manager), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – Working Group I (6th Assessment Report contributing author and chapter scientist), Future Earth Coasts (Fellow), and Southeast Asia Science Advisory Network (working group member).

Lau earned her doctoral degree in Sustainability Science at the University of Tokyo, where she studied climate change adaptation in small island communities.She is passionate about engaging vulnerable communities in understanding climate risks and designing possible solutions, building on existing adaptive capacities, and creating hope for the future through climate action and justice.