We All Have a Role to Play in What Will Be the Biggest Story of 2019

New Orleans, Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina
New Orleans, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, showing Interstate 10 at West End Boulevard, looking towards Lake Pontchartrain, August 29, 2005. Photo credit: AP / US Coast Guard / Wikimedia

The recent UN report on climate change indicated that we could be facing existential risks — ever more extreme weather events and rising sea levels — within 20 years. So what is the world to do?

Jeff Goodell, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, joins Jeff Schechtman for this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast. Goodell, the author of The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, takes us deep into the grim reality we’re already facing: By century’s end, hundreds of millions of people will be retreating from the world’s shores. From island nations to the world’s major cities, inundated coastal regions will disappear. Bold engineering projects to hold back the water may buy some time, but despite international efforts and tireless research, no permanent solution is in sight. No barriers or walls will protect us in the end from the drowning of the world as we know it.

Goodell has stated, “We’ve spent 40 years denying the risks of climate change, thinking that if we can just get everyone to buy a Prius and recycle their plastic, everything will be OK. The message of recent fires and hurricanes is that it will not be OK.”

We’re living, according to Goodell, “in a new world now, and we had better get ready.” He reminds us that it’s not too late — if we rethink almost every aspect of how we live in the world.


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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman. Right now, we think that politics might actually change the world, for better or for worse. It probably won’t. It’s certainly more likely that climate change, weather, and rising sea levels will have a far more profound impact. The recent UN report on climate indicated that we could be facing real risks within 20 years. So what is the world to do? We’re going to talk about that today with my guest Jeff Goodell. Jeff Goodell is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five previous books, including Sunnyvale, a memoir about his growing up in Silicon Valley and Big Coal, a story about the dirty secret behind America’s energy future. It is my pleasure to welcome Jeff Goodell here to talk about his latest work, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. Jeff, thanks so much for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Jeff Goodell: Thank you for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you get a sense at this point that all this talk about the impact of climate change, things like the recent UN report, things like your book, the weather, the hurricanes we’ve been having, that it’s beginning to sink into people, the profound effect that all of this could have?
Jeff Goodell: I think that the key word there is beginning. I think that it is beginning to have an effect. I think that people really are kind of understanding that climate change is not some kind of thing you kind of choose to believe in, like the tooth fairy or not, but it’s a real thing that’s happening in our world. The consequences are immense. I do think that there’s a kind of dawning awareness. What there’s not, though, unfortunately, is a kind of signs of real action being taken to deal with this, certainly in the near term future.
Jeff Schechtman: And certainly things like the UN climate report indicate that there’s very little time left to take any kind of action that can have a real impact.
Jeff Goodell: Well, I would argue that a little bit, the latest IPCC report is certainly alarming and basically says that we’re going to see, start to see real dramatic changes in our climate in as little as 10 to 15 years and that, in order to hold off what climate scientists have said, is the sort of threshold of real dangerous climate change, we need to virtually eliminate fossil fuels from the world essentially by 2050, which is a huge and incredibly difficult task to imagine doing. But on the other hand, everything, every ton of CO2 that is not admitted into the atmosphere, every coal plant that is shut down, every SUV that is swapped out for an electric car, it all has an impact. And the more we can reduce CO2 emissions quickly, the more we can reduce the changes that will be seeing in the future, and our kids and grandkids will see.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the extent to which this is a global problem today, that this isn’t something that’s just a US problem.
Jeff Goodell: Well, I mean, it’s kind of the definition of a global problem, really, because we all live on one planet and the CO2 that we emit from burning fossil fuels, whether it’s in New York City or Los Angeles or Beijing or Jakarta or Lagos or Bangladesh, it all goes up into the same atmosphere and warms our planet. So it matters what happens in the United States, it matters what happens in your life and in my life, but it really matters what happens globally. And so this is really a problem and an issue that we need to deal with in a global manner. United States has to do their share, but so does Europe and so does China and so does India, and we’re really all in this together. And to be kind of use a cliché and a metaphor, we kind of sink or swim together with how we deal with this.
Jeff Schechtman: Is part of the problem, though, how large the scope is that it’s hard for the average person to kind of get their head around the idea that what they do then can make a difference?
Jeff Goodell: Well, I think that’s true if you restrict thinking about individual actions to things like changing light bulbs or driving electric cars or something, but we really need are the sort of larger policy levers, things like carbon taxes, things like changing of how we build buildings, and where we build to reduce risks from disasters. There’s a whole bunch of things that need to be done to rethink our world, given what’s coming with climate change. And by far, the most important individual action that anyone can take is voting. This is not really a partisan issue in the sense that I’m not saying one has to vote Democrat or Republican, but voting in candidates who understand the scale of the problem and who are willing to talk about it and are willing to do something about it, is by far the most empowering and important individual action that anyone can take.
And is really urgent right now because the kind of changes that we need to begin to deal with, both on the reducing emissions side and on the adapting to higher sea levels and wildfires, all that kind of thing, can only be really dealt with on a kind of higher political level. That’s where the real leverage is and that’s where individual action really matters.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the cost of some of these consequences, the economic cost of rising sea levels, the fires that you mentioned, and the way in which that might be the ultimate way to really bring this issue home.
Jeff Goodell: Well, I mean, just in a place like Miami where I focused a lot of my book, I wrote about rising seas as a consequence of our warming planet and rising seas are, given the amount of warming that we have on our planet, a kind of given right now, no matter what we do with cutting emissions, we’re still going to see significant sea level rise. And the economic implications for a city like Miami or for that matter, New York or Boston, or even the Bay Area are really enormous and we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of real estate and various kinds of infrastructure that is underwater, literally underwater. And it’s not something that’s going to happen… this is not an issue for the way distant future when there are sharks swimming through the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Miami Beach. Already real estate values are being hit because of the increased flooding and that’s just going to get worse over time, which has huge implications for cities and communities that are dealing with this because as property values decline, tax revenues decline and cities and states will have less and less money to deal with these changes, building sea walls and doing the elevating structures, and doing the kinds of things that they need to do because right when they need additional money for that, the property values are going to be declined.
So it’s a real big economic issue, sea level rise. It’s a similar thing with wildfires for example. I mean, it’s a little bit different there, but there’s still this question of a lot of development depends on pushing out into the boundaries of areas that have high wildfire risk. A lot of cities and counties are trying to do that for jobs and development reasons. But as we push farther into the regions where there’s a higher wildfire risk, places like Arizona and Northern California where my family lives, you see more and more real estate and property that is at risk.
The phrase that I really like to use to think about this is that we’re kind of manufacturing catastrophes. We’re continuing to build our world in a way that doesn’t recognize the sort of realities of climate change and the realities that our world is changing very fast and we need to change how we build and how we think about where we live and how we live to accommodate that.
Jeff Schechtman: What role did things like insurance companies and corporate America have in all of this and really understanding from a purely economic perspective what’s transpiring?
Jeff Goodell: Well, insurance companies have a huge role and because they obviously underwrite risk, and to the degree that they can accurately put a cost on that risk that will help drive changes in where we build and how we build and how we think about those risks. Specifically with sea level rise, part of the problem is most of the insurance for that comes from something called the National Flood Insurance Program, which is a kind of government program, which is notoriously backward looking, doesn’t really factor in sea level rise, encourages rebuilding in low lying areas and is really problematic. So, I mean, I think one of the most important things that can happen is getting more transparency on the real risks that we face and insurance can be a big part of that.
Corporate America too, I mean, corporate America obviously has a lot of political influence and they can have a lot of influence on reshaping laws and urging government to take larger actions on this. A lot of their headquarters and corporations are literally at risk for sea level rise and other things and some corporations are doing a lot. I mean, Walmart, for example, has really done a lot to push progressive environmental laws to reshape their supply lines and really force all of their people they work with throughout the world to adopt more sustainable practices. So they have enormous swing weight and they have enormous risks, and so they’re a very big player in this.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about who some of the other big players are that really are at the cutting edge of some of the things that need to be done.
Jeff Goodell: Well, I mean, real estate developers are at the cutting edge of how we think about where we build and things. Clean tech entrepreneurs are at the cutting edge of how we think about generating electricity and generating energy, and in general, I think that it’s obviously and broadly true. I think that I spend a lot of time talking to people in the energy world as a journalist, I was just talking to some Midwestern power company executives yesterday. President Trump talks a lot about this sort of war on coal and combat on coal, but that’s basically a kind of political slogan. Even in the Midwest, power company guys who I talked to, who burn a lot of coal know that there’s no future for coal and that the world is going to move pretty quickly away from fossil fuels. That’s absolutely the future. And to the degree that energy companies and corporations can embrace that and push that faster, that is a huge deal.
So certainly, they’re sort of big players in this. I think Wall Street is a big player in this, as hedge funds and others who can help force companies and force communities to deal with the risks that they face on this, the financial risks. And last point is bond rating companies like Moody’s and others are starting to look at climate vulnerability for bonds, for cities and counties and states, and that is having a big impact because cities that are not taking action are going to see it become more and more difficult for them to get bonds, to get money that to help deal with these changes they’re facing.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course, Wall Street has the added risk that it itself could be underwater.
Jeff Goodell: Well yes, I mean, Wall Street is certainly in lower Manhattan, is at enormous risk as we saw with Hurricane Sandy, I mean, their ideas about building what’s called the BIG U which is essentially a big wall around Lower Manhattan to help keep the waters out, and I think that that will absolutely happen. It may take a decade or so. And in the short term, a lot of the big companies there, Wall Street firms have done a lot to make their buildings and their enterprise themselves more storm ready, more resistant to this kind of outages and problems that they saw after Hurricane Sandy. So that was a warning to them and they’re pretty savvy about all that. But ultimately, the future of Lower Manhattan is a big lesson. I mean, there will have to be a wall built there to protect that real estate because it’s very, very vulnerable.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the storms that we’ve seen of late and what we might be expecting over the next several years.
Jeff Goodell: Well, that’s an interesting question. I mean, so these storms, it’s well known that climate scientists have long known that as the atmosphere heats up, storms are going to get more intense and that with higher air temperatures and things the air is capable of carrying more moisture, more water. So we’re seeing these dramatic, these hurricanes that are not just big storms, but are carrying a huge amount of water. We saw that with Michael recently, we saw with Florence, we saw with Hurricane Harvey in Houston last year.
So the increase power of intensity and rainfall, these storms is not really surprising, it certainly is the shape of things to come. But I think that the real difficult thing to grasp here is that the scientists know basic parameters about what this warming world will do and how it will make storms more intense and things, but it’s very difficult to really predict in any kind of concrete way that we’re going to have X number of storms more in the next decade or in a certain way, we’re in a situation where kind of all bets are off about how crazy this can get and how quickly. I mean, Nella, the top science agency in America is talking about adding a category 6 to the already category 1 through 5 for storms. We don’t really know what to expect in the sense of how much worse it can get and how quickly, but they are certainly alarming signs.
Jeff Schechtman: You mentioned Miami before and other cities that are in real danger. What did they have the ability to do at this point? Is it really just about as you said, with lower Manhattan, just building more walls?
Jeff Goodell: Well certainly in Miami it’s not. I mean, one of the tricky things and difficult things about thinking about the implications of sea level rise, both economically and just sort of for the future of these cities. In my book I traveled all around the world and looked at different cities and how they’re dealing with this. And there is no sort of one size fits all solutions. There is not as simple as well we’re just going to build a wall or not and if we build a wall, we’re fine, and if we don’t build a wall, we’re in trouble. And Miami’s emblematic of that because Miami is, as anyone knows who’s been to South Florida, very flat. There’s a lot of real estate built right on the water and it’s built on basically Swiss cheese or kind of porous limestone that lets water go right through it.
The upshot of all this is that you can’t really build walls in a place like Miami because the water will go right underneath and come up the other side. So Miami has a very difficult future because sea walls essentially won’t work. Every engineer knows that. And because it’s so flat, there’s not a lot of high ground to move to. So you really, if you think seriously about the future of Miami, it’s a sort of Venice-like future, and that is certainly doable, possible in an engineering sense, but it’s a massive transformation of this place and it’s a lot of questions about how fast that can happen. And what will happen to a lot of places that are just submerged and there’s going to be a lot of lost real estate, there’s going to be a lot of migration out of there, I think, and it’s going to be a radically different place in the not so distant future.
Jeff Schechtman: And Venice is another place, you mentioned that it’s another place you look at in the book.
Jeff Goodell: Yeah, Venice as everyone knows is the sort of poster child for a sort of sinking city and in the past, that was largely because of subsidence. They were pumping the groundwater out underneath the city for various industrial reasons, and for drinking water. And so the city was sinking, and that was causing more and more flooding. And they’ve sort of fixed that, but now the sea level rise is increasingly encroaching on them to lagoon and so that even on normal high tide, you have water flowing into the Piazza San Marco and into the city. Venice is really in a tough spot also because with all those historic buildings, they’re not easy to just elevate them to raise them higher.
And so what they’ve done is spent about $7 billion building these giant barriers outside of the lagoon to kind of wall off the lagoon that surrounds Venice and try to keep the rising seas out. And it might work for a little while, but it’s a big problem because they spent 25 years engineering these giant barriers, which the Italian engineers called a Ferrari on the sea floor because it’s a very fancy wall that kind of goes down when it’s not needed and it comes up when there’s high tides and storms, but they didn’t factor in sea level rise, so it’s going to be obsolete in a decade or so. And how a place like Venice protects itself is very, very much an open question. I think that eventually they may have to build kind of a moat-like wall around the entire city to keep the waters out and they will be a kind of entirely protected but sort of get waterway all around it.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent is there enough money to begin to address all of these needs even over the next 20 years? I mean, is it just something that just is going to be too expensive to really address?
Jeff Goodell: Well, yes and no, I mean, obviously, you look at the Pentagon budget or something like that there’s just in the US, I mean, there’s a lot of money out there, right? I mean, we spend billions and billions of dollars developing new fighter jets and things like that. So it’s not actually a lack of money. The implications of sea level rise for example just for US cities, much less globally, is enormous, but there are ways of thinking about this that you could see private capital coming in and helping out various kinds of philanthropic partnerships. I mean, there’s ways of thinking about this that would encourage rebuilding in smarter ways and all that.
But there’s going to be huge, huge economic losses. There’s just no question about it. Places like Boston and New York and even to some degree Miami are going to figure out ways to deal with this that are interesting and creative. But there’s a whole lot of smaller places, less glamorous places, less rich places that are not going to be and they’re just going to be drowned. And that’s true broadly around the world. There’s not going to be Danish architects building $8 billion walls in Bangladesh where there’s millions of people who live at sea level. So you can have a lot of people on the move and the kind of political implications of all these displaced people, not just in the US but around the world, are obviously enormous.
Jeff Schechtman: Jeff Goodell, the book is, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World. Jeff, I thank you so much for spending some time with us today.
Jeff Goodell: Thanks a lot for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from flooding (US Air Force).

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