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An urgent treatise on rising sea levels predicts a wild and watery future

The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World

Jeff Goodell
Little Brown
2017
349 pp.
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It is hard to disagree with Jeff Goodell’s observation in his new book that “the water will come,” and “it will reshape our world.” As I write, Hurricane Irma is making landfall in Florida, even as governments and aid organizations struggle to respond to historic flooding in Texas and in South Asia.

The Water Will Come begins with the premise that sea-level rise, precipitated by climate change, is inevitable and that it will have massive consequences for settlements on coasts around the world. An attention-grabbing prologue envisions a future in which the sea has reclaimed large coastal areas, creating a new Atlantis. The question the book asks is not “What can we do to stop it?” but rather “What will it be like?” and “What will we do about it?” In other words, the focus is on adaptation to, rather than mitigation of, climate change.

Goodell does not waste much time rehashing the scientific arguments that establish the existence of anthropogenic climate change. Instead, he uses conversations with scientists and eyewitness accounts to reveal some of the processes that turn global warming into flooding and environmental change. These dramatic vignettes are balanced by a recognition that Earth has witnessed massive changes in temperature and sea level in the past and will do so again long after we are gone.

Goodell’s journalistic writing style is engaging and will be accessible to a wide audience, although his choice of case studies and interviewees introduces a definite slant to the narrative. (The book favors an American and developed-world perspective.)

The first chapters highlight the uncertainty of future climate patterns, the need to act fast to limit the damage they will cause, and the societal challenges of doing so. Interspersed throughout are historical examples of communities that successfully adapted to rising seas, such as the Calusa tribe of South Florida, who—before they were wiped out by smallpox—created an entire island out of discarded oyster and mussel shells. These stories remind us that many of the challenges we face today are not new.

The subsequent chapters tell tales of places on the brink of disaster and those at the forefront of approaches to risk management. The selection of regions covered appears to be fairly random, with a focus on large and prominent cities and a nod to small islands. However, the book succeeds in revealing many key points of contention in the adaptation debate and illustrates experiences that will resonate with lay and expert readers.

AARON FAVILA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Two children ride a bicycle down a flooded street on the outskirts of Manila, Philippines, on 26 July 2017.

We hear about Miami, where the reality of higher tides is already threatening prime real estate and the city’s image as a wealthy playground, driving officials to take radical measures, including raising the highways. In New York, we learn of the difficult choices officials faced in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the innovative ideas, such as the “Big U” proposal—a plan to create a flood barrier that would masquerade as a public park, which won the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force’s “Rebuild by Design” competition.

Goodell describes the ongoing efforts to preserve Venice, where a costly integrated system of adjustable gates allows the city to temporarily isolate the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. Here, he raises the issue of the primacy of cultural and historical values: Can a place be too precious to lose?

European risk management experts stress that barriers can limit future risk and buy us time but acknowledge that they will eventually be breached. Other methods, they argue, will need to be used, including water parks, which are designed to store water temporarily at times of flooding, or choosing not to defend some coastal settlements.

The inequity of climate impacts is a small but continuous thread throughout the book, highlighted particularly by stories from Lagos, Nigeria, where life on the water is both precarious (for the poor) and a luxury (for the rich). The Marshall Islands, meanwhile, threatened with the worst impacts of climate change, have proposed to hold richer nations responsible.

Through conversations with politicians, engineers, property developers, architects, artists, and residents at risk—to name just a few—Goodell reveals how adaptation involves multiple interest groups. However, the cost of adaptation, and the implications of failing to adapt, will be felt differentially across different sectors. Self-protection through denial and lobbying emerges as the preferred route for many organizations that believe they will bear the brunt of these costs.

No unified vision to combat impending catastrophes ever emerges. The book concludes instead with a mixed message of fatalism and hope in which more questions are raised than are answered. There may be no easy answers, but this thought-provoking tour through our watery futures offers both challenge and inspiration.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Architecture and the Built Environment Department, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK.

  • Keren Prize Bolter

    This book is going to be the stimulus for many things. I believe that one if them will be a sea level rise emoji.
    But seriously, there is a movement, a shift that is impending and Jeff’s creative narrative needs to be shared and celebrated in order to empower our global society towards a solution oriented and collaborative culture.