Saturday, November 17, 2018

Book Review: 'The Water Will Come' by Jeff Goodell

Come Hell or High Water

The USA, it seems, is the last bastion of climate change deniers. There is the whole rest of the world, and there are Fox News viewers. In North Carolina, it is illegal claim the sea level is rising. The CIA’s Center on Climate Change and National Security simply disappeared when a Congressman discovered it. Congress will pounce and remove any reference to climate presented to it or which it stumbles upon. The president – well, you know.

Jeff Goodell has traveled the world looking at the ways people and nations are preparing for sea level rise. Because it is well underway, and painfully so. He has examined Venice, Rotterdam, the Marshall Islands and also New York City, the Jersey Shore, Florida, and Norfolk, where the biggest American naval base is going under, visibly. The differences in approach are astounding. While the rest of the world is making huge changes or planning for escape, Americans are hunkering down. They won’t change, come hell or high water. A lot of them expect a technological miracle to come along before it’s too late. So they’re just standing by.

Globally, 145 million people live less than three feet above sea level, “creating generations of climate refugees who will make today’s Syrian war refugee crisis look like a high school drama class production“, Goodell says. Interestingly, climate refugee has no meaning, particularly to governments. It is not defined. No law references it. It does not exist. Just the refugees – an expected 200 million of them by 2050.

Goodell says if all seven billion of us jumped in the ocean, the water would rise about 1/100 of an inch. If all the snow in Greenland melts, the oceans will rise 22 feet. And that’s just Greenland. The business of sea levels rising by six inches over the next 80 years is laughable to scientists. They’re looking at 55 feet.

The cognitive dissonance is gigantic. There are insane conversations about raising buildings and roads, or flood insurance and dunes, as if they could make Florida livable when it’s under (salt) water. With no farms, no streets, airports or ports, there will be no food, water or electricity and no way to live, no matter how much insurance you have or how high the building is off the (former) ground. Saving a condo tower does not mean Miami will be viable. But Miami is booming, and the buildings are going up without any changes from previous designs. No laws require taking flooding into account. Developers sell their projects before they break ground, leaving the condos to greater fools. Rather than cause a panic and tell builders they can’t, America provides heavily subsidized flood insurance, encouraging them to do more. The rich sue their local governments to rebuild irrational roads that wash away nearly every year. The poor are simply cut off from services. It is Swiftian madness.

Goodell reports it all matter-of-factly. He has attended the conferences, met with the scientists for really in-depth conversations, and even interviewed President Obama for an hour, alone, when they were in Alaska a year ago. (He was the first sitting president to visit, and it was about moving whole communities inland.) Obama acknowledged his inability to change general attitudes, having to bite off tiny programs and changes instead. He knows full well it is not enough. Such is the system.

The Water Will Come is a global tour in which the USA comes off looking not so good. But it will suffer the same fate, regardless, so it probably doesn’t matter much.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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