Jeff Goodell is an author and journalist, best known for his work with Rolling Stone. The Water Will Come: rising seas, sinking cities and the remaking of the civilised world is his latest book, in which he travels the world, talks to the experts, and sees first hand how rising sea levels are affecting coastal cities.
This is one of those books that mix on the ground reporting with background science and history, as the author ambles around Venice, or follows Arctic scientists around glaciers. Because Goodell is a well respected journalist, he gets access where others wouldn’t, and we get candid conversations with engineers, city mayors, property developers and politicians. He accompanies president Obama on his trip to the Arctic. He’s at the Paris climate talks. We hear from John Kerry, mayor of New York Bill de Blasio. It gives the book real authority.
It’s diverse too. Our first stop is Miami, a city the book returns to later as an archetype of unsustainable growth. We visit Greenland to investigate the ice melt and the causes of sea level rise, the Marshall Islands to see the effects on small island states. In New York we discuss the Big U, something I’ve profiled on the blog before, and how the city is preparing for flooding after the wake-up call of Sandy. In Venice the author visits the MOSE tide protection barrier, a huge project that has taken decades and billions of Euros to build. Unfortunately in the 50 years it has taken to construct, the climate science has changed and it almost certainly won’t be big enough to secure the city’s long term future. In each of these places we get insights into the reality of what is happening, and also the fraught politics behind the scenes.
For example, one chapter deals with the US Navy and the enormous Norfolk Navy base. It’s where America parks its aircraft carriers and the base is vital to the country’s combat readiness. But it already floods and will eventually have to be abandoned. Unfortunately it’s in Virginia, which is coal country and therefore climate skeptic, so the official position is that the problem doesn’t exist. The state won’t help to fix the flooded roads, and politicians strip out any armed forces spending on climate adaptation. The Navy has built walls and raised piers higher, but it has to hide the reasons why or Republicans won’t fund it. They can talk about persistent flooding, but a mention of climate change and the discussion ends. The level of institutional denial is extraordinary.
Miami is struggling with a different kind of denial. The city has low taxes and relies on endless new development to remain solvent. Even though the authorities know it’s unsustainable, making too much noise about flooding would scare the real estate moguls elsewhere and the city would be bankrupt. Likewise, the local economy relies on tourists coming to lie on the beach and ride jetskis. It’s really important that nobody knows that the water table is rising, septic tanks are leaching, and the bay is full of shit. The tourists wouldn’t come any more if they knew. But then if you’re constantly hiding the problem, how can you ever mobilise the budgets to fix it?
It’s a catch-22. Unless Miami warns people about the risk of rising seas, it will drown. But if it raises the alarm, the money will evaporate and it won’t be able to afford the sea defences. And then it will drown.
At least Miami has the money. Many other places don’t, as Goodell makes very clear: “rich cities and nations can afford to build seawalls, upgrade sewage systems, and elevate critical infrastructure. Poor cities cannot.” And even in poorer cities there is a divide. In the book’s one foray to the developing world, we visit luxury new coastal developments in Lagos, safe behind their own seawalls. On the other side of town are floating shanty towns that Goodell calls “a blueprint for how to live in the age of rapidly rising seas”. And yet the floating slums are routinely cleared and burned, leaving thousands of people homeless in the process. As far as the authorities are concerned, the future of the city is with the luxury apartments.
My one criticism of this fine book is that the chapter on Nigeria isn’t enough to get a global picture. Goodell understands climate justice and that the worst effects of climate change will fall outside of the US. He writes that in terms of risk from sea level rise, “Guangzhou, Shanghai, Kolkata, Mumbai, and other Asian cities are at the top of the list”, and it seems like an oversight not to have visited at least one of them.
That aside, this is a well written and eye-opening survey of the effects of sea level rise, and the knots we are tying ourselves in over how to solve it.