UN­DER WA­TER

The oceans are rising much faster than we thought, says cli­mate ex­pert Bill McKibben. We won’t be ready for the del­uge.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Bill McKibben is the founder of the global cli­mate move­ment 350.org and the au­thor of the novel “Ra­dio Free Ver­mont.”

Some 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 that, as the planet warms, 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 con­se­quences 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 re­port- ing. 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.

JOSEPH MICHAEL LOPEZ FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

THE WA­TER WILL COME Rising Seas, Sink­ing Cities, and the Re­mak­ing of the Civ­i­lized World By Jeff Good­ell Lit­tle, Brown. 340 pp. $28

JOSEPH MICHAEL LOPEZ FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Wealth­ier coastal cities, such as Mi­ami, may be able to en­gi­neer ways to hold back rising seas. Poorer places have fewer op­tions — and are already ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the ef­fects.

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