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.’
This isn’t the first time in human history that global sea levels have risen dramatically in a short period of time. Archaeological evidence shows that when glaciers melted and sea levels rose at the end of the first Ice Age, humans living along coastlines packed up their communities and moved inland. But today’s coastal infrastructure is far less mobile. ‘There’s a terrible irony in the fact that it’s the very infrastructure of the Fossil Fuel Age – the housing and office developments on the coasts, the roads, the railroads, the tunnels, the airports – that makes us most vulnerable,’ Goodell writes. Major airports such as JFK and San Francisco International are likely to be underwater within a hundred years. The eastern coast of the UK will be altered for ever. Florida’s Turkey Point nuclear reactor, which sits perched on an exposed island in Biscayne Bay, is a disaster waiting to happen. Trillions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure and entire coastal economies have been built on land that will soon be flooded, and that’s without taking into account the road erosion, beach erosion and coming property collapse along coastlines, which could trigger economic plunges deeper than the Great Recession. Today, more than 145 million people around the world live three feet or less above sea level, many in poor countries in the global South. ‘As the waters rise,’ Goodell writes, ‘millions of these people will be displaced, many of them in poor countries, creating generations of climate refugees that will make today’s Syrian war refugee crisis look like a high school drama production.’ There is no longer any doubt that the rise in global sea levels will reshape human civilisation.
Goodell focuses on the city, that unit of human organisation small enough to have local leaders capable of co-ordinating action and large enough to seem organised by forces beyond human control. Throughout his travels, he keeps the brash, glittering city of Miami in his peripheral vision. This most American of cities is new, having been built over the last hundred years as developers turned swamps and coastlines into a playground for a generation who came to see what had been ‘wilderness’ as a place for umbrellas and snacks and leisure. ‘The core business of Miami is real estate and tourism,’ Goodell writes. ‘It is an empire of property and pleasure.’ Real estate is still the economic engine of Miami, where properties are sold and resold so fast that ‘nobody wants to spend the money to build a more resilient city because nobody owns the risk.’ The current housing boom is tied to foreign buyers’ parking cash in condos; much of the cash is derived from commodities like oil, which makes it ‘a city that is literally drowning as a result of the combustion of the fossil fuels that made them rich’. Miami is now caught in a deadly paradox: coastal development must continue to keep the city running, but developing the coastline is suicidal folly in the face of rising seas. All along the coast and into the low-lying Everglades, buildings and crucial infrastructure are threatened. ‘I am afraid my people are going to lose everything,’ says Xavier Cortada, an artist and child of Cuban refugees who tries to raise awareness in his communities about the risks of sea level rise. And yet, development continues. As one ‘apoplectic’ estate agent tells Goodell after a talk about whether brokers should be required to disclose flood risks, ‘That would be idiotic … It would just kill the market.’
Goodell paints a compelling portrait of a city paralysed by conflicting interests, greed and deep-seated denial. At one event he describes as speed-dating for ‘the sea-level rise intelligentsia’, a geologist from the University of Miami candidly explains to a table of Florida estate agents that the sea level may rise by 15 feet over the next eighty years. One ‘expensively dressed real estate broker’ at the table responds ‘like a six-year-old on the verge of a temper tantrum … “This can’t be a fear-fest … Why is everyone picking on Miami?”’ At an art opening (for Michele Oka Doner, whose work addresses climate change), Goodell manages to corner Jorge Pérez, the Miami real estate mogul and an influential Democratic Party donor. Asked if he’s worried that flooding will affect the value of his empire, Pérez replies: ‘No, I am not worried about that … I believe that in twenty or thirty years, someone is going to find a solution for this … Besides, by that time, I’ll be dead, so what does it matter?’ This devil-may-care response echoes a common sentiment: someone is going to save us. ‘In Miami,’ Goodell writes, ‘as in every other city in the world, there is hope that if sea levels rise slowly enough, it will erode the politics of denial and inspire innovation and creative thinking, and the whole crisis will be manageable.’
The rate at which sea levels rise matters immensely for coastal cities, as a slow and steady rise could allow for adaptation strategies such as ‘planned retreat’ from shorelines, or raising cities up (Chicago was raised by about eight feet in the 1860s to combat flooding and sewage problems), or massive engineering projects to divert seawater from highly populated areas. The relationship between water and land in Amsterdam isn’t the same as it is in Jakarta or Lagos, so what may work for one city will not work for another. In New York, city planners are considering a sea wall known as the Big U around Lower Manhattan, but a sea wall won’t work in Miami, which is built on porous limestone. In Venice, elegant MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) barriers, designed to fit the canals, rise and fall with the tides to prevent flooding. But the $6 billion project remains unfinished (it was nearly capsized by corruption) and the system will cost anywhere between $5 million and $80 million a year to maintain, depending on how often the barriers are raised. When Goodell asks a representative from the engineering firm what rise in sea levels the barriers can handle, he is shocked to hear that the answer is about two feet. MOSE could be useless by 2050. ‘After that,’ the representative says matter-of-factly, ‘the sea will come in from other places … There’s nothing we can do to stop it.’ The Thames Barrier in London will soon need to be replaced, but planners are holding off because big infrastructure is ‘very expensive, it takes a long time to build, and it’s not very adaptable to changing conditions’.
How coastal communities fare may rest on how easily their inhabitants are able to let go of the status quo. In Toms River, New Jersey, a ‘working-class version of Miami’ perched on ‘a wispy island of sand facing the Atlantic’ and prone to flooding, ten thousand homes were lost to Hurricane Sandy. Over the course of the following year, a team of scientists and researchers at Rutgers University worked with local officials and community members to come up with a plan for the future:
The Rutgers team wanted to create an inland ‘pier’ or passageway to connect the coast with the nearby Pine Barrens, a heavily forested area with a unique coastal ecosystem (orchids and carnivorous plants), allowing for easy movement of people and wildlife. They imagined connecting the beach with inland areas by means of new, more sea-level-rise-friendly transportation systems, including aerial trams and water taxis. But they also imagined that as the seas rose, beach tourism would give way to a broader and more sustainable kind of ecotourism, including hiking and biking and birdwatching in the Pine Barrens. The plan included five thousand new housing units on higher ground to ease the transition away from the coast … it would have begun transforming the city into a place that might thrive in a world of rising seas and increased storms.
Goodell speaks admiringly of visionary architects and city planners, but acting on large-scale, long-term plans requires short-term economic, political and personal losses that serve as powerful disincentives. In Miami, it remains political suicide to suggest action that would undercut the housing market. In Toms River, inhabitants who liked their homes by the sea and ‘voted two to one in favour of Trump’ chose to use federal money to rebuild the town more or less exactly as it was.
Even if a wealthy city can muster the resources and political will necessary for massive adaptation projects, there remain serious concerns about who will be protected. In New York, the Big U would divert water from the financial centre of Lower Manhattan, but diverted seawater would spill out along the edges of the wall. Who would be protected and who would be harmed remains an open question. On a global scale, sea level rise is inherently unequal. The use of fossil fuels by a slim minority of Earth’s human population is driving the collapse of ice sheets, and the water won’t rise evenly along all coastlines. In Bangladesh, the land is sinking, so the sea will rise higher than in other places. The collapse of Greenland’s ice sheets will have a greater effect in the southern hemisphere, while collapse in Antarctica will have a greater effect in the north. ‘Scientists call this regional effect fingerprinting,’ Goodell writes. ‘The ice sheets melt and their mass gets smaller, which reduces their gravitational pull on the water around them. This causes the sea levels in the immediate area to fall – but that falling water pushes the water higher on the opposite side of the Earth.’ While the collapse of glaciers in West Antarctica would cause an average rise in global sea levels of about ten feet, New York coastlines would see a rise of 13 feet, which is well above what any coastal city is prepared to absorb. For Pacific islanders in places like Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, the threat is existential.
Sea level rise is a problem humans are particularly ill-equipped to handle. We’re not good at thinking on geological timescales and ‘we are not wired to make decisions about barely perceptible threats that gradually accelerate over time.’ To help explain inaction in the face of rising seas, Goodell invokes, as others have, the five stages of grief outlined by the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. He suggests that in Miami at least, denial is giving way to anger and bargaining, with overtones of fear. But classical grief paradigms, in which the object of attachment has gone and must be mourned, don’t map neatly onto the experience of living in a city that may soon be submerged. Reading this, it seemed to me that there is another psychological paradigm, less often invoked in discussions of climate grief, that might be more apt. In the 1970s Pauline Boss, studying families of soldiers who had gone missing in action, coined the term ‘ambiguous loss’ to describe the arrested mourning that follows a loss without closure or understanding.
Boss describes two types of ambiguous loss: when the object is physically absent but psychologically present (as with soldiers missing in action), and when the object is physically present but psychologically absent (as with Alzheimer’s disease). The first helps illuminate the arrested mourning often experienced by climate refugees. How do you mourn a home that is sinking into a faraway sea, but remains psychologically present? The second type of ambiguous loss is appropriate to the experience of living in an area threatened by a rise in sea levels. The object of attachment is there but not there – still present, but slowly disappearing. How do you mourn the loss of someone whose hand you can still hold? How do you mourn a home increasingly prone to flooding, but not submerged, yet? The parallels aren’t perfect, but even the disjunctures reveal how wickedly hard the problem of climate grief can be. When a beloved person is slowly disappearing into the fog of senescence, the endpoint is known. With rising seas, the endpoint remains unknown. Three feet? Eight feet? Grief is stalled by uncertainty. For what eventuality should you and your community prepare? Of what do you need to let go in order to move forward? The incentive to wait and see is powerful. But hoping for a rise in sea levels of just one or two feet by 2100 is starting to look a lot like self-delusion, and for those who have the luxury of choice, clinging to life at the waterline is increasingly an exercise in self-defeat. For politicians and the rich, who prosper from maintenance of the status quo, it is increasingly unconscionable.
In the coming years, as cities around the world need to be raised, rebuilt, walled off from the ocean, or abandoned, millions of people will be displaced, impoverished and left to fend for themselves by governments unwilling or unable to help. Driving along the Jersey shore, Goodell hears a man called Anthony Caronia on the radio, pleading for a government buyout of his home so he can move to higher ground:
I’m being honest with you, I’m giving up! … This is not right. This is not fair. Something needs to be done today. Today. Please understand me – this is a cry out for help. From anyone and everyone in America listening, Mr Anthony Caronia is begging the State of Louisiana and the United States government to come in and buy me out and please move my family outta harm’s way. Please understand my cry. I’m ready to go. I’m begging for help.
Goodell writes with compassion and clarity: ‘Not everyone is going to be saved. Wealthy people will take care of themselves, either by moving their homes or elevating them or building seawalls or simply writing off the house as it crumbles into the sea, but for the vast majority of people who live on coastlines, it’s going to be a tough day when they wake up and realise that their state or federal government doesn’t have the money or the political will to rescue them.’ In a sprawling slum just outside Lagos, where houses stand on stilts over polluted water and are accessible only by boat, residents’ homes ‘will be chainsawed or burned and they will be forced to live on the streets or jam themselves into … buildings which, like virtually all buildings in Lagos, have been built at sea level and are therefore doomed in the coming years, creating a new generation of refugees’. He doesn’t mince words: these refugees ‘will pay for the stupidity and greed of others with the health of their children and their own brutally short lives’. Already, the greatest human migration since the end of the first Ice Age is underway, and while people aren’t water (Steve Bannon’s favourite novel is a racist fantasy that insistently describes migrants as a flood), it isn’t hard to imagine increasingly nationalistic governments committing to closed border policies as a barbarous form of flood insurance.
This melancholy book is not without glimmers of hope. Goodell writes in nostalgic terms about a past when people lived with water, not in opposition to it. Looking forward, he is enamoured of the Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi’s floating school in Makoko, ‘an astonishingly simple, elegant structure, one that suggested we could solve the problem of living with water if we just thought about it a little differently’. He trains his gaze on Rotterdam, a young city built to adapt perhaps better than any other to sea level rise. The book’s very last pages finally touch on the idea that people might join together to share resources and work to save each other. The Dutch landscape architect Adriaan Geuze compares the remaking of global coastlines with other ‘transformative catastrophes’ such as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, ‘a partly manmade natural disaster that profoundly changed the geography of America and also expanded the role government plays in ensuring the long-term welfare of even the most vulnerable people’. Geuze tells Goodell that what’s to come ‘is going to require a rethinking of the social contract between government and its citizens’. Goodell’s response is cautious: ‘Maybe it will.’
What will happen in the next eighty years remains far from certain. There is a tipping point after which ice sheets will fully collapse – Greenland holds enough water to raise sea levels by roughly 22 feet – but researchers don’t know where that point lies. In January, NOAA released a major report on sea level rise that factors in current ice-sheet collapse and more than doubles the median rise in global sea levels predicted at the time of the Paris Agreement, from 2.3 feet to 4.9 feet. Goodell’s conclusion is crystal clear: ‘If we want to minimise the impact of sea level rise in the next century, here’s how we do it: stop burning fossil fuels and move to higher ground.’ If humans stopped using fossil fuels entirely by 2050, we might face two to three feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. Instead of 4.9 feet. Or 11 feet. But the water will come. The future depends on how humans rise to meet it.