All of us know that climate change is not a ”hoax” as some people claim it to be. We cannot live in denial when our coasts are battering with storms and floods every year, but the truth is that we haven’t even seen the worst yet.
No matter what people said, this is a real problem and many scientists have said that doomsday is coming within the next 100 years if we don’t do something about it. According to many studies, rising sea levels will submerge many coastal cities around the world, creating a new category of exiles.
Jeff Goodell is a known author that have investigated about this topic for years and just released a book called: The water will come, where he describes that new refugees will come thanks to climate change and how water contamination is one of the greatest threats from rising seas.
Goodell also criticized President Trump’s policies regarding them as harmful to our environment, while there are so many poor nations that are demanding compensation for the damage that we are causing. Recently, the US experienced two disastrous hurricanes (Irma and Harvey), and according to Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, hurricane Irma was one of the strongest hurricanes to have hit the US mainland: “So many areas that you never thought could flood, have flooded.”
Sadly, Governor Scott’s comments just show how ignorant about these topics the Republican elites can be because it shows that they don’t understand the risks of what we face now and in the future as a society. The fact that he or any other anticipated that something like a flood could happen, suggests that they don’t have a very good sense of what the risk is along the coastline, especially in Florida a state that is too dependent on tourism.
The world is changing and not in a very good way, that’s why we need to know more about the risks that we are facing and what we need to do to reduce them in the future. It’s not big news that the Earth’s atmosphere is heating up and that climate change is helping with the creation of bigger and deadly hurricanes, which will push more water up onto the land.
If you combine the fact that sea levels are rising faster in southern Florida than anywhere on the planet and you just add also that thanks to climate change temperatures are rising all across the world, you will get the perfect formula for disaster.
You don’t really have to be a scientist to know that something bad is going on nowadays. If the atmosphere keeps heating up, ice is going to melt at the planet’s poles, with contributes to having a warmer ocean, which is the main factor in sea level rise.
But there is a big question that yet lingers in the air: When this is going to happen? Because we know for a fact that it will, but we don’t know how fast the water will come or how high it will go.
Much of your book focuses on Florida. Why is that state at such risk from sea-level rise?
The vast majority of South Florida is less than six feet above high tide. That risk is exacerbated by the fact that it’s on a hurricane track, so you get these storm pulses that come through every year.
In Florida, you also have a geology of porous limestone that makes it difficult to build sea walls around places like Miami and Miami Beach because the water will just come through underneath and flood from below. In the Netherlands, they’ve built the dikes to keep the water out. In New Orleans, which was flooded severely during Hurricane Katrina, they have also built big dikes.
But you can’t do anything like that in Miami or South Florida. There’s no real technological fix for rising seas there other than elevating structures or retreating.
Sea-level rise causes other negative effects apart from flooding, doesn’t it? You suggest coffins and septic tanks may soon be floating around.
Even small amounts of sea level rise, six inches or a foot, can cause a lot of problems. We’re already seeing that happening in places like South Florida and other places around the world. Anyone who’s been on a boat knows how corrosive salt water is. And as you get more flooding and high tides, you get more corrosion.
In south Florida and other places, septic tanks are also starting to get flooded, so the sewage leaks out into the floodwaters. I’ve waded through floodwaters in Miami where the bacteria content was thousands of times higher than is recommended for public health!
With Hurricane Harvey, we also saw the problems of floodwater pollution where industrial zones leached chemicals into the waters. And many of these chemicals and septic systems that are polluting floodwaters are in lower income, poorer neighborhoods.
The third problem with even modest sea level rise is the contamination of drinking water supplies. This is especially true in Florida and small island states, like the Marshall Islands, where the drinking water is in aquifers right below the surface. As the seawater comes in, it moves underground and contaminates the drinking water.
I would argue that the contamination of drinking water is going to be one of the first things that force people out of areas like the Marshall Islands and makes it more and more difficult—and expensive—to live in places like south Florida.
Cities from New York to Venice are gearing up to defend themselves against sea-level rise. Tell us about some of the innovative approaches being considered.
A lot of cities are thinking about how to deal with this but one of the complicated things about sea level rise is that it’s different in every place. One strategy is to build a wall.
That’s what they’re doing in Manhattan with what’s referred to as the “Big U.” On Staten Island, they are developing breakwaters that mimic barrier islands to break up storm surges and create habitats for oysters and other marine life.
In Lagos, a Nigerian architect built a floating school in a slum neighborhood. It was a very innovative project, using plastic barrels with a simple, two-story, wooden structure on top.
I also talked with architects in Miami who are thinking about building platform cities in Biscayne Bay. Instead of just building walls and trying to defend ourselves from it, the question is how do we live with it in a more elegant, sustainable way?
The inspiration for this kind of thing in Venice, which is an extraordinarily beautiful city. Part of its beauty comes from the presence of water all around but, as we all know, Venice has been sinking for a long time due to groundwater pumping and other issues. It’s been stabilized and they’re now building what one engineer I talked to called “a Ferrari on the sea floor,” a retractable barrier to keep the storm surge out of the lagoon.
Aboriginal myths in Australia, as well as Western stories like Gilgamesh, seem to record past changes in sea level. Give us a quick synopsis.
The earliest recorded human stories are about dealing with floodwaters and rising seas. I spent some time talking to anthropologists in Australia who have chronicled some of these Aboriginal stories. They were able to track them back to the end of the last Ice Age, the last warm period when the seas were rising quickly around the world. They think these stories have been passed down from generation to generation through oral storytelling.
Similarly, many scholars now believe that the oldest written story, the epic of Gilgamesh, was the basis for the flood story of Noah. It again tracks back to this warm period when seas were rising fast.
What’s fascinating about this is that it suggests just how dramatic and central this is to human experience. Both the oldest oral stories we are aware of, and the oldest written stories, deal with floods and coming to terms with the changing border between land and sea.
You call Alaska “the dark heart of the fossil fuel beast.” Tell us about your walk along the shoreline with President Obama and how his successor, Donald Trump, is altering the narrative on climate change.
I’ve covered climate change for a long time and have a very good bullshit detector for people who understand what’s at stake and what’s not. And I was surprised by how well Obama understood what he was talking about and was able to parse the risks and political strategies. His trip to Alaska was part of his push to get a deal done in Paris. He wanted to draw attention to what was happening, using Alaska as a “poster child” for the risks of climate change. The whole state is basically melting like a Popsicle.
If you had told me that the following year Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil, who has done more to subvert and distort the conversation about climate change than virtually anyone, would be the secretary of state, I would have thought it more likely that little green men from Mars would be selling chocolate at Yankees games. [Laughs]
But we have a president who doesn’t understand or care about climate change. It’s not benign neglect, as it was under President George W. Bush. Trump has an active strategy to undermine not only every accomplishment of President Obama but to subvert all progress in dealing with climate change, from rolling back coal mining regulations to cutting fuel efficiency standards.
The hopeful side of it is that it’s galvanized a lot of people to become active. A lot of states, like California and New York, are also pushing ahead with clean energy. So there’s a hope that the backlash against Trump will mitigate all the damage that he’s doing. But it’s not a happy moment.
A new category of the dispossessed now exists—“climate refugees.” Which countries are particularly at risk—and should the rest of the world be held financially accountable for them?
The countries that are most vulnerable are places like Bangladesh, India or West Africa. Globally, 145 million people live 3 feet or less above high tide. Small island states, like the Marshall Islands, may not only have to move to escape the rising seas, they’re going to lose their entire cultures as their nations are literally going to be under water.
The central paradox is that the people who are going to suffer most, like the Marshall Islanders or people in Bangladesh, are those who have done the least to contribute to this problem. These are not the people who are driving around in SUVs and dumping CO2 into the atmosphere!
Do I think that richer nations should compensate? I absolutely do!
But that’s not going to happen. The Green Climate Fund is meant to transfer money to help with adaptation and other things, but it’s been very slow to get going. One of the central problems is that the world doesn’t have a lot of empathy for people who are suffering from the consequences of our fossil fuel consumption.
You end the book with an apocalyptic vision of Miami underwater. How likely—and how soon—might that happen? And what can we do to prevent it?
How likely? It’s a virtual certainty. Sea levels have risen dramatically. The idea that we have a stable coastline is a fantasy of our own imaginations.
The last time the CO2 levels in the atmosphere were as high as they are today, sea levels were 20-30 feet higher. But even if we all turn in our cars and ride skateboards to work, because of the heat that’s already in the ocean, sea levels are going to continue to rise.
How fast that will happen is hard to say. But a place like Miami is going to go underwater. There is no stopping that. There’s only trying to think about how we reinvent Miami to live with water.
When you look at history, cities come and go. I’ve been to Petra, where there was an amazing civilization that flourished thousands of years ago. Now, it’s a ghost land.
Maybe Miami will reinvent itself as a lovely, 23rd-century Venice, and maybe it won’t. Maybe it will be a place where people go scuba diving in the lobby of the Fontainebleau Hotel to look at the sharks.