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The most frightening theme in Jeff Goodell’s tour of coastal cities is not the rising oceans but the maddening certainty of many residents living in these threatened areas that someday someone else will fix the problem… if there is a problem. This blind hope is especially pronounced in Republican-dominated U.S. cities where politicians and waterfront real estate developers claim that climate change is not a problem while water reclaims land that maybe should never have been built on in the first place. The poster child for this denialism is Miami, a city built on a drained swamp that is not only getting the brunt of rising seas but is also subsiding. Many have chosen to ignore the problem, living with the inconvenience of streets and basements periodically (but more frequently) flooded with water tainted with toxic and human waste; they choose to rebuild (often with government backing) when their homes are washed away.

Each chapter focuses on a specific city and its response to sea level rise. Most metropolitan areas, if they plan for it at all, use previous storms and best-scenario forecasts to plan multi-billion dollar projects that will not have much effect if the seas rise more than 3 feet. More recent estimates have been revised for a 6 foot rise by the end of the century (this might prove to be a conservative forecast). Engineering will only take us so far and rebuilding or raising our cities will prove cost-prohibitive. Goodell cautions that we should be practical and flexible in our approach to urban development, otherwise we will be throwing good money after bad.

Sprinkled throughout are the ethical choices we will need to make, the financial and social impact, and the legal battles to come. For instance, if island nations like the Marshall Islands and Maldives disappear beneath the waves, where will they move to, who is financially responsible, and who will save their culture from extinction? When the seas cover the land, who owns it? Is it ethical or advisable to geoengineer our planet, tinkering with the environment with unknown outcomes?

The bad news is we have known about the consequences of fossil fuel use increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for more than a century and we may have already passed a tipping point which will reshape our planet no matter what we do to mitigate the impact after this point. Developed economies have elected to not change their behavior and instead have increased dependence on the fossil fuels which are driving climate change. The good news is that humans are adaptable and we have found ways to live with and on the water. There are plenty of people who are rising to this challenge, but agreeing on what should be done is still being debated; there is no single solution to this complex problem. Retreat from the shores will become necessary in the next few decades. Allowing nature to reclaim our overbuilt shorelines might be the best and least expensive response, but it is unlikely to be a path taken voluntarily. Many people who face rising seas and plummeting land values may be choose to stay, but millions may not have a choice in the immediate future. Those on higher ground should prepare for the influx of climate refugees.


Image credit: YaleEnvironment360