Sea-SPAN Interview with Captain Sea Level

Brian Land
: Welcome to Sea-SPAN. I am Brian Land. Congress is in recess for the Christmas holiday; so we will be devoting the entire three hours this morning to our guests and your questions. Our first guest is Captain Sea Level, who has spent the last quarter century warning Americans about the next deluge. He has just re-released his 1988 Christmas Classic, "When the North Pole Melts" as an mp3. Critics say that "When the North Pole Melts" is to global warming, what "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" is to driving-while-intoxicated. Captain Sea Level, welcome to Sea-SPAN.

Captain Sea Level
: Thank you.

Brian Land: Could you tell us about your background? Where were you born?

Captain Sea Level: I was born on a 75-foot Coast Guard Cutter named "Old Reliable" then docked at the Buzzard's Point Boat Yard on the Anacostia River in Southwest Washington, right next to the Potomac Electric Power Company's coal-fired Buzzard's Point Power Plant. My father was working for the Naval Research Laboratory and had purchased it as a surplus vessel.

Brian Land: It sounds like your mission was almost pre-ordained at birth. Was the tide rising?

CSL: I'll have to check the tide tables for that. But "Old Reliable" later sank during a storm. It sank several times. Fortunately, by then we had moved into a house.

Brian Land: Did "Old Reliable" sink in Ship Bottom, New Jersey?

CSL. No, that's the summer cottage. We moved the boat next to our year-round home in a creek just off the Potomac River in Maryland. The water was only 6 feet deep, so even when Old Reliable was on the bottom the deck was still three feet above the water. It's still there.

Brian Land: Did your neighbors mind?

CSL: No, the next door neighbor said he liked it, because it acted as a breakwater to prevent shore erosion.

Brian Land: Was the shore erosion pretty bad?

CSL: No, it usually isn't. But people lose 2 or 3 feet from their back yard and they think they need a seawall.

Brian Land: Were you a Captain in the Merchant Marines?

CSL:  No. I never made it beyond deck hand, carrying men and supplies out to the oil rigs off the coast of Louisiana. Now they have an erosion problem: The land is sinking, the sea is rising. The entire Cajun homeland is imperiled: Long before those atoll nations are lost, Acadiana is likely to be under water. That's because the navigation infrastructure has destroyed the processes by which the Mississippi River delta might otherwise keep pace with rising sea level.

Brian Land:  Let's go to John in Southwest Washington.

John in DC:  Hello Brian, I live less than a mile from Buzzards Point Boat Yard. Captain Sea Level, your story about sea level rise in Louisiana reminded me of a verse from your song "Sea Level Rise"

I was down in the bayou near Lake Ponchartraine,
Tryin' to chop a plot of sugarcane,
When the weatherman reported that there's gonna be a little rain.
Well the levees keep the water out of here for awhile,
First we lose the swamps, and then we lose our life style
Because our grandchildren's loss is the shipping industry's gain.

CSL:  I think it's funnier when you sing it. Will you please sing it?

John in DC:  No, you are the singer. But you do see the irony: You were working for an oil industry that causes the sea to rise, on a boat requiring channels that keep the ecosystem from adapting to sea level rise….

CSL: I've been trying to make amends ever since.

Brian Land: Do you work for the Corps of Engineers? The army has captain's too?

CSL:  No.

Brian Land:  Are you in the Navy?

CSL:  My primary affiliation with the government has been that I musically support government efforts to warn people about sea level rise. Back in the 1980s, I started singing the "Sea Level Rise" song at various pubpic meetings about rising sea level, mainly along the Atlantic Coast. The coastal areas in the US were way ahead of everyone else in terms of understanding the consequences of global warming.   Those meetings really made a difference.  Some early EPA studies helped--and some innovative, opportunistic state and local officials enacted some farsighted regulations in the mid-1980s.  
     But even before Powerpoint was invented, too many presentations could put you to sleep, and byu mid-afternoon even coffee stops working.  So instead of having a conference chairmain offer the 15-minute wrap-up, some organizers asked for my 4-minute summary.

Brian Land:   What is your favorite song?

 Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

Brian Land: 
What is your favorite musical group.

CSL: The Beach Boys

Brian Land:  Did the Beach Boys ever record Hark the Herald Angels Sing

CSL: I hope not.

Brian Land: Let's go to Jennifer in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Jennifer from Portsmouth:  Captain Sea Level, I am with an Organization called Clean Air Cool Planet.  We promote global warming solutions here in New England and...

Brian Land: Please ask your question 

Jennifer from Portsmouth:  What led you to produce When the North Pole Melts?

 For some reason, I was writing about one song a month in 1987, and it was only natural to do one for Christmas.  As a little Christmas gift for my friends and colleagues, I gave out tapes of "Captain Sea Level's Christmas Song".  My friends all thought it was as good as "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer."  In the Spring of 1988 I met a jazz musician named John Huckans who liked the Beach Boys as much as I did, so we deconstructed their harmonies, wrote up the arrangements, and formed an a capella group. We spent every weekend that summer either arranging music or singing--mostly at the beach and outside various sing-along bars in Ship Bottom and Surf City, New Jersey.

In terms of global warming, 1988 was a bellweather year. We had near-record heat and droughts. Congress was holding the first serious hearings on global warming.  My friends at EPA were preparing a Report to Congress on the impacts of global climate change on the United States. Weird things were happening at the Jersey Shore: On Memorial Day, the ocean temperature was 70 degrees! But in July, we had upwelling and the ocean was only 65 degrees. One of our two baritones was complaining how cold it was on the beach, and I reminded him that it was probably 90-95 in Maryland. When we got back we found it had been 104 that weekend, the second hottest day ever!

By Labor Day John and I could see that the Beach Boys project was not going anywhere, mainly because we lacked a strong first tenor who would always be in tune. John can sing any pitch except bass--but he lacks volume at the high end.  I suggested that we try some recordings and see where that might lead. John could sing most of the parts--he also is a good piano and tuba player.  He is a much better musician than I.

Brian Land:  If John Huckans was the better musician, why did you start by recording one of your songs?

CSL. Most importantly, John's a good guy. I told him that this was an opportunity to do some good, to help draw attention to a problem that needed some recognition. Except for the climate and coastal scientists, people were not thinking much about global warming back then. The people of the coast needed help from other quarters, and that couldn't happen until non-coastal people understood what global warming could mean to them

The Senator from Tennessee took it seriously, but his presidential campaign had gone nowhere.   EPA was also concerned--but most environmental activists were not yet really engaged in this issue.

The other point I made to John was that there was a good chance that if we did it right, we would get radio stations to play "When the North Pole Melts."  Advent (the month before Christmas) can be for a musician what September is to a baseball player. It's that short window of opportunity when the minor leaguers or amateur musicians get to play in the big time. Many radio stations will pick up any interesting or oddball stuff, the weirder the better, at Christmas time.  if it's good or interesting the'd play it--at least we were interesting.  Even today, the download sites will offer an entire collection of Christmas Songs, so Christmas is still a good theme for a first recording.  

Brian Land:  You just said that the environmental activists were not as concerned about global warming as the Reagan Administration's EPA?

CSL:  As odd as it seems today… Let me add that there were exceptions.  Particularly Friends of the Earth. Its US President, Rafe Pomerance would go around saying "we now have a climate that works, why change it?"  Friends of the Earth also had Adam Markham in the UK and Florentine Kraus in Germany. The World Resources Institute had Alan Miller and Irving Mintzer--but I always thought of WRI as more of a think-tank than environmental lobbyist.   I should add that the coastal environmentalists at National Wildlife Federation and NRDC were trying to get the Corps of Engineers to deal with sea level rise.  But the leaders of these organizations did not wake up every morning thinking about global warming.  They do now.  

Brian Land:   Portsmouth, New Hampshire, are you still there?

Jennifer from Portsmouth:  Yes I am Brian. Captain Sea Level, there is a rumor that in real life, you are John Topping, President of the Climate Institute, former speechwriter for the John Anderson Presidential Campaign.

CSL:  It is true that we have never been photographed together. Actually, we would not have put this together without John Topping. It's one thing to say we should record a song, it's another sing to actually do it. John called me up, and told me that he wanted Captain Sea Level and his band of beach singers to do a performance at the award dinner of their December Conference. It was a big affair. I think they were presenting an award to Sir Crispin Tickell, who had been a key British Ambassador to the United Nations and was also instrumental in getting the British government--and thereby the EU--to think about climate change. I told John Topping that we had a Christmas song that we could do, and he put us on the agenda. So now I had no choice but to write out an arrangement and teach everybody the parts.

John Huckans and I realized that we would need some other singers, so the logical place to start was the EPA chorus, the largest group of singers who are all dedicated to the environment. I made a demo tape, and the chorus director recommended several good singers, including Kirby Biggs who sang bass in several groups, and Charlie Garlow, an enforcement attorney who even then was driving around in solar powered cars. They were enthusiastic, and helped me enlist two other singers.

Brian Land:  And then you recorded it and sent it to various radio stations.

Jennifer from Portsmouth:  I know that the song….

Brian Land:  Thank you Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Jennifer from Portsmouth:  Please Brian, one more question. Captain Sea Level, I know your song was picked up by FM stations in Florida, Colorado, Maryland – even the BBC. And you also performed it. How was it received?

CSL: It was decidedly mixed. The Climate Institute was happy; but my boss, who was in the audience, thought we were so bad that he refused to ever listen to the song again.

    We also got letters.  One common misunderstanding about the song was the impression that we were saying that the North Pole melting causes the sea level to rise. Now, we never suggested that in the song--the arctic ice is already floating and so the sea will not rise because the North Pole Melts.  But it probably will rise when the North Pole melts.  I'm not sure if these complainers had actually listened to the song.  Maybe they were  assuming that if Captain Sea Level is singing, the song has to be about sea level rise.  But there are only so many songs that even Captain Sea Level can sing about sea level rise.  Christmas is a time of year when it is particularly important to think about something other than your agenda.  In 1988 it seemed to me that the impact of abrupt climate change in the Arctic would have a more important impact at Christmas time.

Brian Land:  Let's go to Jason, in Washington.

Jason from Washington:  Why did I never hear your song on the radio?

CSL:  The radio DJ's liked the song--but we recorded it in such a rush that we neglected to mix out the "popping p's" that we got from the baritone blowing into the mike when he made the "p" sound. That problem was particularly pronounced in the 3-verse version that we intended for radio, because the short version also had a lot of reverb.  Some stations played the full 5-minute version while others told us to come back with a better quality recording.  But we never did.  The singing group self-destructed.  Also, the Maldives had just been flooded with a wave, and they heard that the sea was rising.  I helped them prepare a speech by their President to the UN General Assembly and they wanted to get me out there so I just moved on to other things.  

Brian Land:  What is your educational background?

CSL:  I have bachelor's a degree in economics and math from the University of Maryland and a law degree from Georgetown. That reminds me: here is a trivia question the professor posed to my maritime law class: Who was the first President of the United States to be a professor of maritime Law?

Brian Land:  Last week on Sea-SPAN'S Footnotes we did a show on the legal career of John Adams.

CSL:  Lol.  That's what we said too--I'd expect that from a New Englander.  It was a trick question. John Adams did argue the most important maritime law case during the Colonial period--but he was not a law professor. The answer was Bill Clinton.

Jason from Washington:   It’s been more than a decade since you wrote "When the North Pole Melts." How well has it stood the test of time? If you were writing it today, would it be the same song?

CSL: Well I've received friendly criticism from both the left and the right, as one would expect for any analysis about adapting to global warming.

The conservatives and climate skeptics disagree with the premise that a frozen North Pole is so important to Santa's operations. They accuse me of falling into the environmentalist trap of always assuming that we live in the "best of all possible climates," as Voltaire's Candide might have said.  I had assumed that just from a labor perspective, polar melting will be a problem because the elves will all be taking longer breaks to go swimming. The skeptics argue, however, that they currently spend a great deal of time making holes in the ice when they go fishing, so the fishing breaks would be shorter--and anyway, they have wet suits and go swimming now.  The skeptics also say that the reasons the elves work so hard now, has nothing to do with how cold it is, but the fact that the days are so long--six months long.  

Brian Land:  You say you are hearing it from both sides?

Well, some of the left-wing environmental groups argue that we were too optimistic in suggesting that Santa can simply adapt to global warming. We assumed that if the Arctic became ice-free, Santa would relocate his shop to the South Pole, possibly with some assistance from Australia. But it's doubtful that the Australian Labor Party would want to subsidize a relocation with such poor working conditions. Consider the seasons: the sun never sets during summer in the North Pole, you’ve got prime working conditions for the elves.  Yes, they put in some seriously long hours; but they earn "comp-time" and they are pretty happy.  So what are they supposed to do if they move to the South Pole, work in the dark?  And surely at least some of them would develop extremely serious cases of seasonal afflicted depression syndrome (SADS). And there's no fishing or swimming at all at the South Pole.  About the only thing to do on your time off is to go drinking with some NASA scientists.

And then there's the problem with the reindeer. The tropopause--that is, the division between the troposphere and the stratosphere--touches the ground during the polar night. So on December 24, Santa's shop at the North Pole is in the stratosphere, which is pretty important if you want the reindeer to take off during a still nacht (loosely translated as silent night).  But at the South Pole, it's the middle of the day!  The stratosphere is far overhead.  So delivery is going to be problematic.

Many of these problems could be solved by moving Christmas to June 25.  Then it would be aligned with the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.  Many scholars believe that Jesus was not really born in December anyway, the early Church simply wanted to celebrate Christmas around the winter solstice.  But can you imagine a greater the geopolitical disruption of North-South relations than you would get from such a radical shift in social orientation.  I don’t even want to think about it..

Brian Land:   Aside from your revisions of the original analysis, has anything changed?

CSL: A lot of good things have happened.  People are recognizing that there is a problem. Back in 1988, we were afraid that the United States would not start reducing emissions until the earth had warmed at least one degree, and that the Europeans and others would be even slower to respond. The US had banned the CFC's in spray cans back in the 1970s, but the Europeans only had a voluntary program and had kept using the propellants until the ozone hole was discovered.  But it looks like people are taking action a few decades before we were expecting it.  And it's made a difference--particularly the decline in CFC's.  People used to expect the sea to rise rise 5-7 feet by 2100--now we only expect about two feet.

Brian Land: Let's go to Los Angeles, California

Jennifer in Los Angeles, California: This song is so deep, so full of tension. What drives that angst?

CSL:   I hadn't started my Christmas shopping and I had just quit smoking.  

Brian Land:  Some people have an emotional reaction to this song.

CSL: That was not my intention. I think that people concerned about the environment--or about any social problem--often get labeled "gloom-and-doom. I just wanted to have some fun, while still being no less accurate than the typical government report.  

Regardless of why we originally did the song, the reason I am singing it again is that people need to take a close look at what we are doing to the coast.  Santa Claus is going to land on his feet.  He's productive, respected, and loved.  He's a good manager and a strategic thinker.  We've got a problem with our coast as the sea rises, and as far as the environmental groups are concerned, it still looks like the 1980s to me.  They aren't engaged in preserving the coastal heritage as sea level rises.  Our entire coastal ecosystems need to shift landward to survive the next few centuries, and we have to put in place the mechanism for that to happen before the coastal zone is all developed, which means really soon--or it will be too late.  But we are still managing things as if the sea is not rising.  

People may think that reducing greenhouse gases takes a radical restructuring of our economy, but just imagine how hard it would be to persuade everyone in a nice coastal subdivision that they have to move a mile inland so wetlands, horseshoe crabs, birds, and fish can move in.  That's even harder--and yet it might be relatively easy to lay out the rules of the game now with all that vacant land that hasn't yet been developed, to ensure that the estuaries can gradually take over these lands.  A few land conservancies are starting to think long term, but aside from that, the environmental organizations don't seem to want to take this on.  Just like in the 1980s when they didn't want to deal with global warming.  The climate scientists eventually forced everyone to deal with it.  Now it's time for the coastal scientists to do the same thing with sea level rise.  But we aren't as well organized.  Each of us has to do what we can to focus attention.  

Brian Land:
 What do you sail?

CSL. Mainly my windsurfer.  It's essentially a solar powered jet ski.

Brian Land. Thank you Captain Sea Level.

CSL:  Merry Christmas, Brian.

Back to

Abrupt Climate Change in the Arctic Captain Sea Level's Christmas Song: When the North Pole Melts

Standing in the Water More Sea Level Rise Reports