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[Editorial] Surge in sea level

Korea must be more alert over climate change

A landmark report released by the U.N.’s climate panel last month, which warned unequivocally of global warming, appeared not to have drawn due attention here. A separate study on the impact of rising sea levels on the country’s coastal areas, published by a local environmental research institute Sunday, should put Koreans on alert over the challenges posed by climate change.

In its analysis based on the findings of the document drawn up by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Korea Environment Institute forecast that about 3.3 percent of the country’s land, or 3,330 square kilometers, would be inundated by the end of this century.

The IPCC report predicted the rise in sea levels would proceed at a faster rate than has been observed over the past 40 years. The mean global sea level was projected to rise by up to 98 cm by 2100, depending on the amount of greenhouse emissions. Model simulations indicated that world’s average surface temperature was likely to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius over the period, relative to 1850.

Applying the worst-case scenario to Korea, major infrastructure facilities in western and southern coastal areas are seen as likely to be damaged by flooding in the closing decades of this century. Among them will likely be Incheon International Airport, a nuclear plant in Yeonggwang, a port in Mokpo and industrial estates along the southern coast. If this were to be coupled with other natural disasters such as typhoons and tsunamis, the damage would be more serious.

This warning should prompt government and industry officials to undertake work to minimize the damage from rising sea levels. Scrutiny needs to be made into the safety conditions of existing facilities and stricter standards should be applied to major structures to be built in the coming decades.

A geographic and demographic reconsideration may be necessary to reduce the population concentration in cities and counties along the coast, where nearly 40 percent of the country’s people lived as of 2011.

In addition to measures to cope with the sea level rise, Korea should take an active part in international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As a middle power that has ascended from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War to the threshold of joining a club of advanced economies, Korea can assume a mediating role between developing and developed nations at odds over climate issues.

Some critics noted that a pause in global warming in the period since 1998 is downplayed in the IPCC report. As its authors indicated, however, this phenomenon has not gone on long enough to reflect long-term trends and can hardly be a pretext for slackening efforts to contain climate change. We should not let our descendants suffer the colossal consequences of our negligence.