T.S. Eliot proposed the world would end “not with a bang but a whimper.” But according to several climate scientists, the end will come with water.
The seas are rising because of climate change, scientists say, and they predict that by the end of the century, the oceans will have reshaped many of Earth’s landscapes, drowning cities and pushing people and wildlife into ever-smaller regions of dry land.
In the face of such catastrophic prediction, it’s hard to know exactly where the problems lie—let alone how to fix them. That’s why books like best-selling author and journalist Jeff Goodell‘s immensely engaging—but frequently terrifying—The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World is so important.
Goodell travels to twelve countries around the world, accompanies Barack Obama on a trip to the arctic, and interviews major figures like Bill de Blasio, Miami real-estate developer Jorge M. Pérez, and Jane de Mosto, a climate activist in Venice, Italy, to present a bird’s eye view of how the world is working—or not—to prepare itself for the sea-level rise that many say is inevitable.
I spoke with Goodell about his new book, including what it was like to discuss climate change with Obama and why the “Donald Trump” of Miami refuses to address the rising seas.
Your book opens with a prologue that imagines Miami in 2033. A hurricane and subsequent sea-level rise has all but leveled the city. What are you trying to get your readers to see or understand by presenting an image of Miami as a new Atlantis?
The challenge in a book like this—and when thinking about climate change in general—is getting people to think about the future in a different kind of way. Because when it comes to climate change, we’re talking about slow motion, big changes to our world. This was an attempt to use a literary, artful device to engage people immediately in what Miami could look like when a big storm hits in the not-so-distant future.
What surprised you the most about your trip with Barack Obama to Alaska?
Two things. One was how happy he was. He was really happy the whole trip, probably because he was out of the office, in the wilderness—escaping from all the Beltway stuff. And partly because he was feeling like progress was being made toward the Paris agreement and his goals of doing something significant about climate change. The other thing that was striking is something I really appreciate even more in retrospect. It was how knowledgeable he is of climate change. I was critical of him in his first term for not doing enough about climate, so I wasn’t exactly an Obama groupie. But on this trip, I was really stunned by his commitment to the issue and depth of knowledge.
What was good about this trip was that, in addition to just hanging out with him for a couple of days, I basically had an hour and a half alone with him in a room with a tape recorder going. Now, after years of covering climate change, I have a bullshit detector for people who know what they’re talking about and for people who don’t know but like to pretend that they do. And he really knew what he was talking about. You can disagree with some of his political strategies for how to deal with it or the details of his politics, but he understood this issue really well and it was clear he was putting all his political muscle into getting that deal done in Paris.
Your chapter on Miami development that included a conversation with developer with Jorge M. Pérez was, I admit, a frustrating read. He refused to accept that sea-level rise is a real threat to the city. Why do you think that some developers are so hesitant to discuss climate change? Do you think there’s anything we can do to make them change their minds?
They call Pérez the Donald Trump of the tropics. He’s by far the largest developer in southern Florida. When we spoke, he was just very blunt. I asked him about how climate change will affect his decisions about the future, and he said, ‘no, I don’t. I build to code, and that’s it.’ His answer was stunning to me because it was so careless. There was no awareness of the legacy of what he was doing. But, you know, what he gave was a hard-headed business man’s response. He was like, my job isn’t to worry about the future; it’s to make as much money as possible right now. And that’s why he’s worth several billion dollars.
For developers like him, there’s no incentive to build a building that’s future-ready unless consumers demand it. So how do we change this? Well, for one, local and state politicians need to be more aggressive about zoning and building codes. And voters need to put into office politicians who care about the issue. We also need to vote with our money in the sense that we shouldn’t buy places that are hugely at risk of rising tides. Ultimately, it comes down to political and economic action, of us deciding where we want to live and how we want to live and who we want to make important decisions for us.
One of the more frightening aspects of your book is that it makes clear just how much we’re doing wrong in terms of engineering projects that are supposed to protect our cities from rising seas. How do we build better when the future is such a big unknown?
So, I think we’re doing a lot of things wrong because sea-level rise is still something we’re learning a lot about. There’s still a lot of uncertainty—not about whether it will happen, but how fast it will happen and how high the seas will rise. Venice is a great example of a place wrestling with this. It’s a city that’s experienced flooding problems for a long, long time—not only because of sea-level rise, but because of ground pumping and other reasons.
They’ve been planning this barrier to seal off the city from the lagoon for years. But like many infrastructure projects, it’s taken a long time to complete. In fact, they’ve been studying this problem for 25 years and in that time a lot has changed in how we understand the risks and what we need to do to protect ourselves. But the problem is that the project itself hasn’t changed. So the question becomes how do you engineer something like this given such uncertainty? How do you invest billions of dollars in infrastructure when you don’t know whether the seal will rise two feet or eight? That’s the big issue.
There are ways of thinking about this in terms of steps. As the science changes, we should add things to address the knowledge we have. In other words, we should imagine things like this barrier as ongoing engineering projects, not as single structures that we build once and expect to fix everything. A friend of mine made a good analogy. After 9/11, we didn’t know what the terrorist threat was, and we actually don’t know exactly what it is now—there’s a lot of uncertainty. But none-the-less, we take a lot of different types of steps toward protecting ourselves so that we know how to escalate if we need to. There are examples in our political, economic, and engineering responses to things for how to deal with uncertainty. But that approach hasn’t really sunk in yet in terms of coastal engineering.
In your travels around the globe, who do you see as being most at risk for catastrophic flooding?
One of the essential problems with climate change is that the people who caused the problem—basically the United States and Western Europe, and now China, which is catching up with us—are also the richest places with the most money and resources to adapt. Meanwhile, people in Africa and the Marshall Islands, which I write about, have basically done nothing to cause the problem and they’re the ones who are going to suffer the most because they live in low lying places and don’t have the money or resources to deal with it.
This imbalance is a central problem of global climate negotiations. How do you convince rich nations of the world to help poorer nations adapt to what’s coming? Oh, there’s a lot of nice talk on this issue. There’s even a thing called the Green Climate Fund that’s supposed to have a billion dollars in investments from rich nations, and that money is supposed to help poorer nations. But funny enough, that money never quite materializes. There’s just not a whole lot of empathy, let alone empathy backed by dollars to help these nations deal with climate change. That’s why I found the plight of the Marshall Islands so powerful, and so moving. The role they played in the Paris climate talks was, I thought, really great. But these poorer places are in a really tough spot, and I don’t know what the solution is.
Your book lays out a direct connection between climate change and some of the world’s biggest ongoing problems, like the conflicts in Syria. Why are these connections so hard to see for some people?
Because they’re not obvious. I mean, first of all you have to acknowledge that climate change is real and happening right now, that’s step one. And as we know, that’s still a leap for a depressingly large number of people even though the science has been strong for a hundred years. So there’s that. And then there’s the fact that sea-level rise and drought and other climate impacts are not what we’d call bullets. They blend into the background.
If you’re willing to connect the dots, you can see how drought leads to a lack of food resources, which leads to hunger, which leads to political action, which can lead to war and instability. But if you don’t connect the dots, it’s easy to only see riots in the streets, and refugees, and wars, and not any of the root causes. A part of the problem is how the media works today. It’s driven by instant news, about what’s happening in a particular place at a particular moment, and not about looking at the causes of these conflicts. Think about how the media—mainstream T.V. media, especially—cover hurricanes. They’ll spend twenty hours showing footage of guys in windbreakers standing in the wind with palm trees swaying behind him, while the reporter says how hard the wind is blowing and what it feels like to be there. But they don’t spend three minutes talking about climate change and the impacts that it has on intensifying hurricanes. It’s impossible to get that information into the conversation because we’re so driven by these adrenaline hits of instant news and conflict.
What do you hope comes out of this year’s United Nation’s climate change conference in Bonn, Germany?
I don’t think much will come out of it, frankly. I think the big issue right now is how everyone will carry on with the U.S. having vowed to withdraw from the Paris agreement, even though we actually haven’t withdrawn yet. That conference in Paris was such a hopeful moment. I’ve covered this stuff for a long time, and as everyone knows, climate isn’t exactly a happy story in many cases, but Paris was a happy story. It was really moving, and I think that everyone there felt this great sense of hope that we were finally coming together to deal with the problem. The agreement wasn’t perfect, but it laid out architecture for the future. And now, well, we all know what happened here in America. We have a president who is actively undermining any kind of progress toward reducing emissions.
By the way, I don’t think this is the end of those agreements. I think the world will carry on and the United States will do much on the state and local levels.
What’s next for you?
Right now, I’m still focused on getting this book launched. But I want to keep writing about climate change. I’ve written about it for fifteen years, and not because I’m necessarily an ardent environmentalist. I got into it because I think it’s the great story of our time that brings together so many things—economics, politics, moral questions. I’m going on book tour next and am actually headed to Alaska tomorrow to talk there. Soon I’ll be in Madison, and I hope to be in Chicago later in the tour…even though it’s not at risk for sea-level rise.
The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell
Published October 24, 2017
Little, Brown and Company
Jeff Goodell is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine. His previous books include Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future, Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith and Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family.
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