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McKibben writes: "For the 10,000 years of human civilization, we’ve been blessed with a relatively stable climate, and hence flooding has been an exceptional terror. As that blessing comes to an end with our reckless heating of the planet, the exceptional is becoming all too normal.

Bill McKibben. (photo: Wolfgang Schmidt)
Bill McKibben. (photo: Wolfgang Schmidt)

We're Not Even Close to Being Prepared for the Rising Waters

By Bill McKibben, The Washington Post

12 November 17

One more round of “messaging” won’t do it.

ome of humanity’s most primordial stories involve flooding: The tales of Noah, and before that Gilgamesh, tell what happens when the water starts to rise and doesn’t stop. But for the 10,000 years of human civilization, we’ve been blessed with a relatively stable climate, and hence flooding has been an exceptional terror. As that blessing comes to an end with our reckless heating of the planet, the exceptional is becoming all too normal, as residents of Houston and South Florida and Puerto Rico found out already this fall.

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria provide a dramatic backdrop for the story Jeff Goodell tells in “The Water Will Come”: If there was ever a moment when Americans might focus on drainage, this is it. But this fine volume (which expands on his reporting in Rolling Stone) concentrates on the slower and more relentless toll that water will take on our cities and our psyches in the years to come. Those who pay attention to global warming have long considered that its effects on hydrology — the way water moves around the planet — may be even more dramatic than the straightforward increases in temperature.

To review the basic physics: Warm air holds more water vapor than cold air does, which means you get more evaporation and hence drought in arid areas, and more rainfall and hence floods in wet ones. (Harvey, for example, was the greatest rainfall event in American history, the kind of deluge possible only in a warmer world.) Meanwhile, heat melts ice: Greenland and the Antarctic are vast stores of what would otherwise be ocean, and now they’re beginning to surrender that water back to the sea.

These effects were somewhat harder to calculate than other impacts of climate change. In particular, scientists were slow to understand how aggressively the poles would melt, and hence the main international assessments, until recently, forecast relatively modest rises in sea level: three feet, perhaps, by century’s end. That’s enough to cause major problems, but perhaps not insuperable ones — richer cities could probably build seawalls and other barriers to keep themselves above the surface. Yet new assessments of the disintegration of glaciers, and more data from deep in the Earth’s past, have convinced many scientists that we could be looking at double or triple that rate of sea level rise in the course of the century. Which may take what would have been a major problem and turn it into a largely insoluble new reality.

Consider Miami and Miami Beach, where Goodell has concentrated much of his reporting. Built on porous limestone or simply mounds of mud dredged from the surrounding sea, low-lying South Florida streets already flood regularly at especially high tides. The simple facts, however, haven’t stopped the Miami real estate boom: When Irma hit, more than 20 huge cranes were at work building high-rises (and two of them toppled). Goodell manages to track down the city’s biggest real estate developer, Jorge Perez, at a museum opening. He was not, he said, worried about the rising sea because “I believe that in twenty or thirty years, someone is going to find a solution for this. If it is a problem for Miami, it will also be a problem for New York and Boston — so where are people going to go?” (He added, with shameless narcissism, “Besides, by that time I’ll be dead, so what does it matter?”)

Goodell dutifully tracks down the people who are working on those “solutions” — the Miami Beach engineers who are raising city streets and buildings; their Venetian counterparts who are building a multibillion-dollar series of inflatable booms that can hold back storm tides. In every case, the engineering is dubious, not to mention hideously expensive. And more to the point, it’s all designed for the relatively mild two- or three-foot rises in sea level that used to constitute the worst-case scenarios. Such tech is essentially useless against the higher totals we now think are coming, a fact that boggles most of the relevant minds. When a University of Miami geologist explains to some Florida real estate agents that he thinks sea level rise may top 15 feet by 2100, Goodell describes one “expensively dressed broker who was seated near me” who sounded “like a six-year-old on the verge of a temper tantrum. . . . ‘This can’t be a fear-fest,’ she protested. ‘Why is everyone picking on Miami?’ ”

No one is picking on Miami. But the developed world is definitely picking on the low-lying islands of the Pacific and Indian oceans. (Goodell gives sharp descriptions of the imperiled Marshalls and the outsize role the nation played in international climate negotiations.) The vast majority of people at risk live in places such as Bangladesh and Burma, where rising seas are already swamping farmland and forcing internal migration, mostly of people who have burned so little fossil fuel that they have played no serious part in causing the crisis we now face.

There are precisely two answers that give some hope to a world facing this greatest of all challenges. The first is to stop burning fossil fuels. If we moved with great speed toward 100 percent renewable energy, we might still hold sea level rise to a meter or two. And this is now a realistic possibility: The rapid fall in the price of wind and solar power over the past few years means we could conceivably make the transition in time. That’s precisely what President Trump is now preventing (and to be fair, it’s more than President Barack Obama wanted to do, either — Goodell’s extensive interviews with the former president capture both his fine rhetoric and his sad policy waffling). At this point, the world seems more likely to stumble along a path of slow conversion to clean energy, guaranteeing that the great ice sheets will crumble.

The other way forward is to adapt to the unpreventable rise in sea level. Goodell describes a few of the plans for floating buildings and such, but if you want a real sense of what this option looks like, you’re better off reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s massive and massively enjoyable novel “New York 2140,” published this year. Robinson is described as a science fiction writer, but in this case he’s more like a political scientist, describing a New York a century from now that’s been largely inundated but where people inhabit (often with surprising good cheer) the ever-shifting intertidal zone. Of course, this metro-size version of the Swiss Family Robinson happens only after two great pulses of sea level rise have killed off a huge percentage of the human population, so it’s not the ideal scenario.

Or we could take the path laid out by Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine at the 100th anniversary of the founding of Miami Beach. “If, thirty or forty years ago, I’d told you you were going to be able to communicate with your friends around the world with a phone you carried around in your pocket,” he said in 2015, “you would think I was out of my mind.” Thirty or 40 years from now, he promised, “we’re going to have innovative solutions to fight back against sea-level rise that we cannot even imagine today.” Forget building the ark, Noah — we’ve got an app for that. your social media marketing partner


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+28 # PABLO DIABLO 2017-11-12 10:55
Just think where we would be if Al Gore had assumed the Presidency he was elected to. Remember two of the Supremes were appointed by Bush's Dad and did not recuse themselves. Just think where we would be if Obama had the courage to do the right thing when elected and had a compliant Congress in his first two years. We (the people) have to remove the stranglehold our corporations have over the neck of "our" government.
-1 # LionMousePudding 2017-11-13 13:30
And kick Democrats in the a$$ rather than this pretense of "holding their feet to the fire" when they yawn and decide doing nothibg is so much more comfortable than doing their jobs and duties to this country.
-15 # jsluka 2017-11-12 13:46
'Civilisation' isn't 10,000 years old; the first states evolved about 3,500 BC or 5,500 years ago.
+8 # economagic 2017-11-12 18:01
I believe that by "civilization" Mr. McKibben intends the root sense of the word, "living in cities," specifically, the first semi-permanent settlements of the Agricultural Revolution.
+7 # Kootenay Coyote 2017-11-12 21:30
States don't make civilization: stable settlements do. 10,000 for late neolithic, when complex villages appear, is a good date.
+3 # ericlipps 2017-11-12 16:54
The "innovative solutions" we need are ones which will prevent, or at least reduce, sea level rise by taking on climate change at its source.

Unfortunately, at the moment we're up against well-financed opposition to doing any such thing, because it's painfully clear that addressing the issue will require a massive shift away from fossil fuels and that would hurt the oil, gas and coal industries and the billionaires whose money comes from those industries.

It's all too likely that too little will be done in time to stave off, at the very least, a "minor catastrophe"--w hich the late Isaac Asimov once defined as "one from which civilization can recover."
+8 # Realist1948 2017-11-12 18:18
Whether you say that civilization began 10,000 years ago (about the time people first settled permanently in one place and began practicing agriculture) or later than that (5,500 to 3,500 BC) is not IMHO all that important a detail in the article above.

The more significant dates relate to when humans began burning of fossil fuels on a large scale. For coal, this was in the late 18th century (Watt began producing his improved steam engines around 1775. Use of coal-fired steam engines took off in the decades that followed). The first well meant for obtaining petroleum was drilled in 1859. Coke made from coal began to be used in iron and steel production around that time, too. Widespread use of internal combustion engines (usually burning fuels derived from petroleum) began late in the nineteenth century.

Taken together, we've had less than 250 years of intensive fossil-fuel combustion, out of 5,500 to 10,000 years (take your pick) of civilization. Either way, less than 5 percent of the "civilized" era has seen our species spewing large amounts of excess CO2 into the atmosphere. We have been unwittingly (until recently) conducting a MASSIVE experiment on our environment by raising the concentration of atmospheric CO2.
+5 # economagic 2017-11-13 16:08
I think that is precisely McKibben's point: For all but the past 250 (give or take) out of the ten thousand or so years since agriculture and animal husbandry really began to replace hunting and gathering, the climate has been relatively stable. In addition to making it highly unlikely that the changes in climate that have also occurred over that period are mere coincidence, it helps people to justify their remaining complacent in their ignorance.
+2 # futhark 2017-11-13 18:32
Nature has run this "experiment" of correlating high atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations with high temperatures multiple times over the last billion or so years. The result was always the same: whether the CO2 was emitted in a volcanic eruption or some other natural process, the subsequent average global temperature increased. And China didn't even exist as a social entity to create a hoax 55.5 million years ago at the time of the Paleocene-Eocen e Thermal Maximum.
+2 # Wise woman 2017-11-13 11:49
According to Wikipedia, early civilization began in the middle east about 9130 years ago so that would translate to roughly 11,000 years ago. Before spreading nonsense, jsluka, you should avail yourself of easily acquired facts. It's these kind of rumors that keep people mired in ignorance which prevents them from dealing with problems such as climate change.
+1 # LionMousePudding 2017-11-13 13:28
" That’s enough to cause major problems, but perhaps not insuperable ones — richer cities could probably build seawalls and other barriers to keep themselves above the surface. Yet...double or triple that rate of sea level rise in the course of the century. Which may take what would have been a major problem and turn it into a largely insoluble new reality"

I can barely keep from spitting out worse invectives than a sailor hammering his thumb. You$$÷₩$₩@( ;&^$$$₩ IT IS A MAJOR PROBLEM WHEN @90% OF THE WORLD (and @60% of this country) CAN'T SAVE THEMSELVES FROM FLOODS.

How can anyone be so craven as to state that as long as the rich are ok there is no real problem?

No wonder these pundits never address the real problems of more and more starving and poorly educated children; of the worst maternal mortality rate in developed countries; of 20-40,000 Americans dying each year for lack of health insurance; of not only poor but middle class families living on the streets. No wonder. Because all that matters is the waters rising to their doors.
+1 # Allears 2017-11-13 14:14
Is it the greatest of all challenges? Water will rise if trends hold and projections unfold as predicted, true, yes, but what about the pollutants in the water, both ocean and fresh? What about fresh water depletion? What about the pollutants in the ground, in the air? What about the pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and overuse of fertilizers?For some reason some kind of tunnel vision is preventing the examination of climate fluctuation problems in context with what is afflicting and will continue to worsen our environments, and the principal solution to all these problems is forgotten in the carbon obsession.So much concentration on the one piece only of the picture-and even the proposed solutions to that one piece are futile until cutting back on energy use of all kinds, and ratcheting down of the production and consumption of wasteful goods, is part of the proposition. Instead we entertain carbon trading and buying, under the presumption that the whole planet is not fully developed until wired into the last wilderness, to raise developing nations out of poverty, goes the trope. Until every blessed river is dammed or full of plastics, every bit of fossil fuel is out of the ground, every soul is wearing petroleum based clothing and using products meant for one, or for very short-term, usage. Then none of us will have usable water, clean air nor food. A new form of poverty, already in great evidence worldwide, devised by humankind. But God forbid the oceans should rise!
+4 # futhark 2017-11-13 14:24
If one finds some small satisfaction in nature revenging itself on those too stupid to operate within the constraints of natural law, consider the vulnerability of Mr. Trump's vaunted Mar-a-Lago Florida coastal retreat, even now just a few scant feet above sea level and almost certain to be one of the first palatial structures of the super rich to become a victim of sea level rise.

"The Seas Are Rising Around Donald Trump "
-2 # Depressionborn 2017-11-15 06:16
Sea water level hasn't risen much. (NASA claims duo to sea floor falling?)

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act."
+2 # universlman 2017-11-15 10:37
sea floor falling . . . . hahahahahahaha
+1 # Depressionborn 2017-11-15 17:33
Quoting universlman:
sea floor falling . . . . hahahahahahaha

Yes, I thought so too so looked it up. hahahahah, only warmers came up with that one.

Sea level not rising much bothers them
+3 # universlman 2017-11-15 10:41
Bill states that "the exceptional is becoming all too normal."

This is the same thinking our media applies to gun violence, and with the same result - no action whatsoever.
+2 # chapdrum 2017-11-15 13:21
We're not even part, because preparing for disasters is not a profit center.

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