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As the Waters Come, Will Our Politics Rise to the Challenge?

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It’s been five years since Hurricane Sandy, one of the most destructive storms in U.S. history, ripped through the East Coast of the country. The storm killed more than 100 people, destroyed communities in coastal New York and New Jersey, crippled mass transit, cut power to millions, and inflicted billions of dollars of damage to infrastructure. Today, the devastation of the hurricane’s aftermath is a stark reminder of the power Mother Nature wields over our cities.

Walking through the water-logged streets of lower Manhattan in the aftermath of the storm, Jeff Goodell, a Rolling Stone contributing editor who has been covering energy and climate change for more than two decades, says that he finally began to understand the long-term effects that rising seas will have on some of the world’s great cities. The experience spurred him to travel around the globe to investigate what will happen to coastal metropolises when the waters come in but never retreat. The reporting from his travels became his new book, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. What he learned from the places he visited, the scientists he consulted, and the coastal dwellers he interviewed is that Sandy was just a dress rehearsal for the climate-changed water world to come.

Goodell discussed this looming threat of rising seas as well as the question of whether our elected officials will rise to the challenge of preventing their devastation along our coasts alongside Democratic Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Sharon Burke, the senior adviser to New America’s Resource Security Program, on Oct. 24 in Washington for an event hosted by Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

One of the most significant problems facing coastal cities, Goodell says, is that a huge amount of infrastructure has been built under the assumption that the relationship between land and sea would not change. But Goodell didn’t have to travel far to see the consequences of developing in areas where that relationship has already been transformed. On a trip to Miami to witness the seasonal king tides, the highest high tides of the year, he found himself wading in their knee-deep waters, which now come high enough to flood the posh streets of Miami Beach.

“It doesn’t take 6 or 8 feet [of sea level rise]. You don’t have to wait till there’s a shark swimming through the lobby of a hotel for it to be a problem,” Goodell said, reflecting on the damage already being done to the area. “The problem is the cost of continued beach erosion, road erosion, buildings being eroded, washed out, and flooded.”

Compared with many of the other locales Goodell visited, Miami is in a particularly difficult situation because it’s built less than 6 feet above sea level on a coarse limestone plateau. While you can build sea walls in other places, like New York City, such defenses wouldn’t be options for residents of Miami-Dade County.

On top of their geographic disadvantage, they also face political and economic forces committed to pushing the idea that the status quo will hold. “There’s a powerful impulse for denial in Miami and in South Florida in general because the engine of the economy is basically real estate development,” Goodell said. When leaders finally acknowledge that there are real risks to the region from sea level rise, the prices of their most valuable properties—billions of dollars of beachfront buildings—will tank.

Miami is far from the only city in denial. In his travels, Goodell said he saw urban planners pouring money into coastal adaptation and infrastructure fixes that will last a few decades at best. Residents, too, are still signing off on 30-year mortgages on houses that might be underwater in a matter of years or unaffordable because the cost of flood insurance for them may exceed their value. Sen. Whitehouse explained that, despite what it may seem, housing and insurance industry leaders aren’t all willfully blind to the coming crisis. “Freddie Mac, the ginormous federal agency that backs residential mortgages, said very plainly that the coming property collapse along our coasts is going to be worse than the housing crisis and the Great Recession,” he said, adding that they’ve been backed by the Journal of Risk and Insurance.

Sen. Whitehouse, too, has been issuing strong warnings about the devastation looming for America’s coasts if we don’t take action to mitigate the pace of global warming and adapt to rising waters. As a member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and a representative of the people of Rhode Island—a state whose shores may see 9 vertical feet of sea level rise by the end of the century—it makes sense that this is a cause he’d champion. Though the Ocean State may be particularly vulnerable, it’s certainly not alone. The threats brought by rising seas, escalating temperatures, and intensified extreme weather will be a matter of geography, not politics. And Whitehouse says that he doesn’t want it to be on his watch that he wasn’t doing what he could to help his constituents prepare for this inevitability.

Why then are so many still refusing to take action against climate change, and why are we still building and rebuilding in places that face destruction from rising seas? Whitehouse pointed to entrenched interests that inhibit politicians from taking meaningful action to address climate change, foremost among them the fossil fuel lobby. With the U.S. and the global economy so reliant on fossil fuels, decreasing the industry’s influence on our political infrastructure, let alone our environment, would be a monumental task. Taking that into account, Goodell, Whitehouse, and Burke all agreed that the notion that some traumatic event—like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria—will finally wake people up, is misguided.

Despite the very complex and difficult-to-predict ways that climate change will transform our world, Goodell wants his readers to know that this can’t be an excuse for inaction. From his travels to places like LagosVenice, and Rotterdam, where residents have found ways to live with rising waters, he got a sense of how inflexible we, in the U.S., have become in how we think about the way we live. “But in fact,” Goodell says, “there are a lot of ways to imagine a wonderful modern life. And one of the challenges we have now is to rethink that.” We know we have to radically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, change our incentive structure so that we rebuild differently when disaster strikes, and make the looming risks of rising seas more transparent for residents in their path. But until we release our hold on the status quo, Goodell says, “There will be billions and billions of dollars wasted on coastal adaptation that is not going to last for very long or just going to be buying time or is just not going to work.”

Watch the full event on the New America website.

This article was originally published on Future Tense, a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.


Emily Fritcke was a program associate at Future Tense. She graduated from Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, with a BA in English literature and history.