Sea Levels Are Already Rising. What's Next?

Climate change is battering coasts with storms and floods, but we still haven’t grappled with the risks of what’s to come.

President Trump has dismissed climate change as a hoax. But scientists project that, within the next 100 years, rising sea levels caused by climate change will submerge much of southeast Florida—including Mar-a-Lago, his beachfront Florida “White House.” And a new category of exiles will be created, says Jeff Goodell in his new book The Water Will Come—climate change refugees. [Seven things to know about climate change.]

When National Geographic caught up with Goodell at his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he explained how water contamination is one of the greatest threats from rising seas; why poor nations are demanding compensation; and how President Trump’s policies are causing people, and states, to push back.

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After Hurricane Irma, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida said: "So many areas that you never thought could flood, have flooded." What does this tell us about climate change and rising sea levels?

What Governor Scott’s remarks say is how poorly we understand the risks of what we face now and in the future. The idea that areas flooded that we didn’t think could flood suggests we don’t have a very good sense of what the risk is along the coastline, especially in Florida where we’re continuing to build out at an incredible pace.

It also suggests we don’t understand the risks we face in a world where climate change is happening. We know that, as the Earth’s atmosphere heats up, climate change is likely to create bigger and more intense hurricanes, which will push more water up onto the land. Combine that with rising seas—and sea levels are rising faster in southern Florida than anywhere on the planet—you get more flooding.

It doesn’t take much of a grasp of science to understand that when the atmosphere heats up, ice is going to melt—just like an ice cube on a picnic table on a hot summer day. That’s what’s happening at the planet’s poles in Greenland and Antarctica. We’re turning up the heat on the planet and as the heat rises the ice is going to melt. A warmer ocean also expands and that is a factor in sea level rise.

The real question is not if this is going to happen. This is a fact. But it’s hard to say where and when. With sea level rise we know it’s going to be an incremental process, which will accelerate as time goes on. But we don’t know how fast the water will come or how high it will go.

The vast majority of south Florida is less than six feet above high tide. That risk is exacerbated by the fact that it’s on a hurricane track, so you get these storm pulses that come through every year.

In Florida, you also have a geology of porous limestone that makes it difficult to build sea walls around places like Miami and Miami Beach because the water will just come through underneath and flood from below. In the Netherlands they’ve built the dikes to keep the water out. In New Orleans, which was flooded severely during Hurricane Katrina, they have also built big dikes.

But you can’t do anything like that in Miami or South Florida. There’s no real technological fix for rising seas there other than elevating structures or retreating.

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Sea-level rise causes other negative effects apart from flooding, doesn’t it? You suggest coffins and septic tanks may soon be floating around.

Even small amounts of sea level rise, six inches or a foot, can cause a lot of problems. We’re already seeing that happening in places like south Florida and other places around the world. Anyone who’s been on a boat knows how corrosive salt water is. And as you get more flooding and high tides, you get more corrosion.

In south Florida and other places, septic tanks are also starting to get flooded, so the sewage leaks out into the floodwaters. I’ve waded through floodwaters in Miami where the bacteria content was thousands of times higher than is recommended for public health!

With Hurricane Harvey, we also saw the problems of floodwater pollution where industrial zones leached chemicals into the waters. And many of these chemicals and septic systems that are polluting floodwaters are in lower income, poorer neighborhoods.

The third problem with even modest sea level rise is the contamination of drinking water supplies. This is especially true in Florida and small island states, like the Marshall Islands, where the drinking water is in aquifers right below the surface. As the seawater comes in, it moves underground and contaminates the drinking water.

I would argue that the contamination of drinking water is going to be one of the first things that force people out of areas like the Marshall Islands and makes it more and more difficult—and expensive—to live in places like south Florida.

Cities from New York to Venice are gearing up to defend themselves against sea-level rise. Tell us about some of the innovative approaches being considered.

A lot of cities are thinking about how to deal with this but one of the complicated things about sea level rise is that it’s different in every place. One strategy is to build a wall.

That’s what they’re doing in Manhattan with what’s referred to as the “Big U.” On Staten Island, they are developing breakwaters that mimic barrier islands to break up storm surges and create habitats for oysters and other marine life.

In Lagos, a Nigerian architect built a floating school in a slum neighborhood. It was a very innovative project, using plastic barrels with a simple, two-story, wooden structure on top.

I also talked with architects in Miami who are thinking about building platform cities in Biscayne Bay. Instead of just building walls and trying to defend ourselves from it, the question is how do we live with it in a more elegant, sustainable way?

The inspiration for this kind of thing is Venice, which is an extraordinarily beautiful city. Part of its beauty comes from the presence of water all around but, as we all know, Venice has been sinking for a long time due to groundwater pumping and other issues. It’s been stabilized and they’re now building what one engineer I talked to called “a Ferrari on the sea floor,” a retractable barrier to keep the storm surge out of the lagoon.

Aboriginal myths in Australia, as well as Western stories like Gilgamesh, seem to record past changes in sea level. Give us a quick synopsis.

The earliest recorded human stories are about dealing with floodwaters and rising seas. I spent some time talking to anthropologists in Australia who have chronicled some of these Aboriginal stories. They were able to track them back to the end of the last Ice Age, the last warm period, when the seas were rising quickly around the world. They think these stories have been passed down from generation to generation through oral storytelling.

Similarly, many scholars now believe that the oldest written story, the epic of Gilgamesh, was the basis for the flood story of Noah. It again tracks back to this warm period when seas were rising fast.

What’s fascinating about this is that it suggests just how dramatic and central this is to human experience. Both the oldest oral stories we are aware of, and the oldest written stories, deal with floods and coming to terms with the changing border between land and sea.

You call Alaska “the dark heart of the fossil fuel beast.” Tell us about your walk along the shoreline with President Obama and how his successor, Donald Trump, is altering the narrative on climate change.

I’ve covered climate change for a long time and have a very good bullshit detector for people who understand what’s at stake and what’s not. And I was surprised by how well Obama understood what he was talking about and was able to parse the risks and political strategies. His trip to Alaska was part of his push to get a deal done in Paris. He wanted to draw attention to what was happening, using Alaska as a “poster child” for the risks of climate change. The whole state is basically melting like a Popsicle.

If you had told me that the following year Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil, who has done more to subvert and distort the conversation about climate change than virtually anyone, would be the secretary of state, I would have thought it more likely that little green men from Mars would be selling chocolate at Yankees games. [Laughs]

But we have a president who doesn’t understand or care about climate change. It’s not benign neglect, as it was under President George W. Bush. Trump has an active strategy to undermine not only every accomplishment of President Obama, but to subvert all progress in dealing with climate change, from rolling back coal mining regulations to cutting fuel efficiency standards.

The hopeful side of it is that it’s galvanized a lot of people to become active. A lot of states, like California and New York, are also pushing ahead with clean energy. So there’s a hope that the backlash against Trump will mitigate all the damage that he’s doing. But it’s not a happy moment.

A new category of the dispossessed now exists—“climate refugees.” Which countries are particularly at risk—and should the rest of the world be held financially accountable for them?

The countries that are most vulnerable are places like Bangladesh, India or West Africa. Globally, 145 million people live 3 feet or less above high tide. Small island states, like the Marshall Islands, may not only have to move to escape the rising seas, they’re going to lose their entire cultures as their nations are literally going to be under water.

The central paradox is that the people who are going to suffer most, like the Marshall Islanders or people in Bangladesh, are those who have done the least to contribute to this problem. These are not the people who are driving around in SUVs and dumping CO2 into the atmosphere!

Do I think that richer nations should compensate? I absolutely do!

But that’s not going to happen. The Green Climate Fund is meant to transfer money to help with adaptation and other things, but it’s been very slow to get going. One of the central problems is that the world doesn’t have a lot of empathy for people who are suffering from the consequences of our fossil fuel consumption.

You end the book with an apocalyptic vision of Miami underwater. How likely—and how soon—might that happen? And what can we do to prevent it?

How likely? It’s a virtual certainty. Sea levels have risen dramatically. The idea that we have a stable coastline is a fantasy of our own imaginations.

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