SAN DIEGO, Calif. — New climate models show cities and monuments submerged underwater. Scientists say they're a glimpse into the future if drastic measures aren't taken to reduce carbon emissions.
"We wanted to really show people a postcard from the future," said Benjamin Strauss, CEO and Chief Scientist of Climate Central. "We can choose door A or we can choose door B. And it makes a really big difference what we do this year and the next decade and two."
The independent organization is made up of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting changing climate and its impact on the public.
"By heating the planet a certain amount, we essentially set in motion centuries of unrelenting sea rise, but the consequences play out over many hundreds of years in terms of sea-level rise," said Strauss. "We wouldn't be able to stop what we set in motion."
Interactive Google Earth images show projected sea levels due to human-caused global warming under two different scenarios: 1.5°C and 3°C of warming.
The research shows that under the current emissions pathway leading toward 3°C global warming. About 50 major cities around the world will need to mount globally unprecedented defenses to protect populations in these areas.
"The maps, images we published, those are not going to happen by 2050. By 2050, we should know which of those futures is coming," said Strauss. "It's like if you unplug your freezer, you know the ice is going to melt, but it's going to take some time."
Strauss says meeting the most ambitious goals of the Paris Climate Agreement will likely reduce exposure by roughly half, allowing nations to avoid building expensive and unprecedented defenses or abandoning many major coastal cities.
"Images do not take into account current levees, but I suspect there are almost no current levees that are high enough to protect against the sea levels in those images," said Strauss.
Managing to meet global climate goals would still have devastating effects on some coastal cities.
"There's a lot of sea rise already in the pipeline. If we stopped polluting tomorrow, we would see between 5 and 10 feet of sea-level rise, probably," said Strauss. "1.5 frankly is already a lot, but it's probably the best we could conceivably do at this point since we're already around 1.1."
As world leaders prepare for the UN Climate Conference, he asks which legacy they want to leave.
"The future will remember them for only for their failure to control climate change unless they can," said Strauss.