22 february 2018

Besides, I’ll be dead

Meehan Crist, London Review of Books, February 22, 2018

The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilised World
by Jeff Goodell, Black Inc., 340 pp, £17.99, October 2017, ISBN 978 1 76064 041 5

After Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, I helped a friend in Brooklyn remove her car battery, put it in a backpack and lug it over to Wall Street. The subways were flooded, so we took a ferry across the East River to downtown Manhattan, where a muddy grey waterline cut across ground-floor walls and windows. The ocean had come and gone, and the mouldering streets were deserted. The air smelled of briny rot and the only sound was the industrial hum of generators pumping water from flooded basements. Orange accordion tubing snaked in and out of waterlogged buildings. We turned into the lobby of an apartment building where residents wandered in a commiserating daze and an exhausted man in uniform was laying out a plate of fresh fruit, presumably procured from somewhere far uptown, where people still had power and running water and the sudden absurdity of brunch. A paraplegic friend on an upper floor needed the car battery to help power her ventilator. The elevators were out of commission, so we walked up twenty narrow flights of stairs, lighting our way in the dark with torches. Inside the apartment, the friend and her roommate, also paraplegic, had abandoned their motorised wheelchairs and lay in their beds in a sunny front room, laughing and chatting. It wasn’t clear when the power would be back, but when things returned to normal they planned to have a party. I don’t think anyone in that room fully grasped, then, that the ocean would be coming back to stay.

Global sea level rise is hard for scientists to predict, but the trend is clear. Massive ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic have begun to collapse, in a phenomenon known as ‘marine ice-sheet instability’, which previous models of global sea level rise didn’t take into account. When the Paris Agreement was drafted just over two years ago, it was based on reports that ice sheets would remain stable and on the assumption that sea levels could rise by up to three feet two inches by the end of the century. In 2015, Nasa estimated a minimum of three feet. In 2017, a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the pre-eminent climate science agency in the United States, revised estimates up dramatically, stating that by 2100 sea levels could rise by more than eight feet. Last year, a study estimated that if carbon emissions continue at present levels, by 2100 sea levels will have risen by as much as 11 feet. Higher sea levels mean higher storm surges, like the nine-foot surge that inundated Lower Manhattan and severely affected neighbourhoods in Long Island and New Jersey, but also that low-lying coastal areas, from Bangladesh to Amsterdam, will be underwater in less than a hundred years. It’s worth remembering that two-thirds of the world’s cities sit on coastlines. In a high-emissions scenario, average high tides in New York could be higher than the levels seen during Sandy. A rise in global sea levels of 11 feet would fully submerge cities like Mumbai and a large part of Bangladesh. The question is no longer if – but how high, and how fast.

Jeff Goodell, who has been reporting on climate change for years (his previous books include How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate and Big Coal: The Dirty Secret behind America’s Energy Future), was also in Lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy, and the experience so spooked him that he spent the next four years trying to understand how coastal communities will face the inevitable rise in sea levels. Goodell travels from Norfolk, Virginia to the waterparks of Rotterdam, talking to scientists, politicians, architects, artists, refugees and people living at the waterline, where regular flooding is already a fact of life. He wades barefoot through the polluted waters that flood Miami Beach during king tides, visits a family living in the ‘blackwater slum’ of Makoko, just outside Lagos, and interviews Barack Obama during his historic trip to Alaska. The book skips along with the brisk pace of magazine journalism – some of the chapters first appeared in a different form in publications such as Rolling Stone – and Goodell finds people with visionary plans, dubious schemes and heads planted deep in shifting sands. Most of the time, he is an observer rather than a polemicist, but his profound concern resonates throughout, as when he asks Obama: ‘How do you gauge how much truth America can take? Because you know what’s coming.’ This is a soggy, saturated book. Everywhere Goodell goes, the water is rising. ‘For anyone living in Miami Beach or South Brooklyn or Boston’s Back Bay or any other low-lying coastal neighbourhood,’ he writes, ‘the difference between three feet of sea level rise by 2100 and six feet is the difference between a wet but liveable city and a submerged city … The difference between three feet and six feet is the difference between a manageable coastal crisis and a decades-long refugee disaster.’


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