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While debate rages about how to fight climate change, the impacts that rising temperatures have already locked in are getting worse.

Why it matters: We’re learning more about how much of the damage is irreversible, like with rising sea levels — which means we need to think about not just stopping the problem, but also about adapting to the parts we can't stop.

Driving the news: Rising sea levels will threaten 40 million more people — three times that of previous estimates — over the next 30 years, new research says. Poorer Asian countries are most at risk.

What they’re saying: “Most sea level rise between now and 2050 is already baked in,” said Benjamin Strauss, co-author of the peer-reviewed report by science organization Climate Central.

The big picture: Most political attention focuses on how to slow climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions that are increasing Earth’s temperature, but an equally consequential part of this problem is adapting to a warmer world we’re already living in — and which we'll be living in no matter what in the coming decades.

What’s new: The researchers used a more sophisticated method of determining “the true ground level from the tops of trees or buildings,” co-author Scott Kulp told the NYT.

  • This method has already been used in more developed parts of the world, but not Asia, which is one reason the projected impacts are newest and most dire there.
  • “The numbers are biggest in Asia generally because there is such high-population density and it is so concentrated in the lowest elevations toward the coast,” Strauss said.
  • The research doesn’t account for population growth, so the impact could be even greater if these countries keep growing, which they’re expected to.

How it works: The research finds that 40 million more people will live in areas below high-tide levels by 2050 — which means, Strauss said, that “either you get coastal defense or you better move.”

  • This increase is on top of the 110 million people already living below high-tide levels with protection from infrastructure, like levees.
  • “While levees can protect us, they may also give us a false sense of security, because when they fail the results can be catastrophic,” said Strauss, noting the challenges facing New Orleans.

What we’re watching: Strauss hopes that this research galvanizes cities to better prepare for rising seas that are inevitably coming, but also momentum to cut emissions to limit the worst impacts by the end of this century.

  • His research suggests that if we continue business as usual — emissions left mostly unchecked — up to 200 million more people will be at risk by 2100.

Editor's note: The graphic in this story has been corrected to note that 760,000 people were estimated to be below high tide levels in the U.S. in 2010, not 76,000.

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Sep 24, 2020 - Energy & Environment

CO2 capture is growing but still lags badly, IEA says

Screenshot of IEA's "CCUS in Clean Energy Transitions" report

There's growing momentum behind deploying technology that traps and stores CO2 emissions, but much more investment and stronger policies are needed, the International Energy Agency said in a new report.

Why it matters: The technology is vital to enabling the radical emissions cuts needed through the 2050-2070 timeframe to keep temperature rise in check, the agency said.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Arizona GOP's private recount of 2020 election confirms Biden's win

Contractors working on behalf of the GOP examine and recount 2020 ballots at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix in May. Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

In an odd coda to the 2020 election, private contractors conducting a GOP-commissioned recount in Arizona confirmed President Biden’s win in Maricopa County.

Why it matters: The unofficial, party-driven recount has been heavily covered on cable news as part of former President Trump's continued effort to sow doubt about the election result.

Del Rio bridge camp empty following Haitian migrant surge

A boy bathes himself in a jug of water inside a migrant camp at the U.S.-Mexico border on Sept. 21 in Del Rio, Texas. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

The last migrants camping under the Del Rio International Bridge, which connects Texas and Mexico, departed on Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced during a White House press briefing.

Driving the news: Thousands of migrants, mostly from Haiti, had arrived to the makeshift camp after crossing the southern border seeking asylum. Roughly 1,800 migrants will now head to U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing centers.

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