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145 million live within three feet of sea level. Rising oceans are a first world problem too

Poor nations such as Bangladesh are especially vulnerable, but the West’s prime real estate hotspots are also at risk.

What a pity that President Trump does not believe in climate change. Had he developed the modest critical thinking skills required to understand that the world is warming and sea levels are rising thanks to our continued burning of fossil fuels, he could have found his métier: building big, beautiful seawalls to keep out the increasingly frequent floods and storm surges that are hitting the US.

As a globetrotting Jeff Goodell reports in The Water Will Come, these are puny interventions in the face of potentially catastrophic forecasts. The faster-than-expected melting of ice sheets at the top and bottom of the world suggests that we cannot easily dismiss predictions that global sea levels could rise nine feet by 2100. And this in a world where 145 million people live within three feet of sea level.

Poor nations such as Bangladesh are especially vulnerable. But Goodell concentrates on high-end submersion: at-risk areas include prime real estate hotspots strung around the coasts of developed countries. There is a political reluctance to utter the phrase “climate change”, for fear of triggering a collapse in property markets. There is also scant incentive for authorities, particularly in the US, to acknowledge a hotter world when fossil fuels have generously oiled so many political campaigns.

Goodell, a Rolling Stone journalist, begins his watery odyssey in Miami Beach, a playground built on swampland with the intention of “defeating nature in pursuit of pleasure”. Flooding has become a fact of life: residents are, regularly and literally, up to their knees in shit. Sand is trucked in to replenish eroding beaches and pumps have been installed to clear waterlogged streets.

One of the most jaw-dropping vignettes is Goodell’s encounter with Scott Robins, in charge of Miami Beach’s flood mitigation plan (viz: raise the city by two feet). When challenged on this, given that scientists predict that nine-feet sea level rise, Robins reveals his misunderstanding of the most basic science: “If we can’t even predict the tides this week, how are we going to predict sea-level rise in the future?”

Tides are determined by small, chaotic changes in winds and currents; sea level is about long-term averages. It is hard to tell whether Robins’s slippery grasp of facts is due to ignorance or (fiscal) calculation: Robins is also a local property developer.

In increasingly affluent Lagos, Nigeria, Goodell finds luxury waterfront condominiums being built with flood-prone underground car parks – and massive sea defences. He makes excursions to Greenland to report on ice sheets (the pilot urges passengers to enjoy the views while they can); to the Netherlands, 30 per cent of which is below sea level; to a sinking Venice; and to New York, which wants to encircle Lower Mahattan (ie Wall Street) with a protective barrier. There are not-very-revealing interviews with Barack Obama and John Kerry, and more illuminating conversations with scientists.

This engaging, pacy book does not seek to convince sceptics that man-made climate change is happening; to disbelieve today is to be a flat-Earther. Goodell’s reportage amounts to a snapshot of a world in denial, fiddling with sandbags and buckets while the water creeps menacingly upwards.

Despite accords such as the Paris Agreement, he also makes clear that we have contemplated only in the most shallow terms the profound consequences of a sinking world. What moral, political, legal and financial obligations do richer countries, which are responsible for the bulk of historical emissions, owe to poorer ones? Do developing countries deserve compensation for being unable to pursue the kind of carbon-burning economic expansion that developed nations historically indulged in?

Then there is the existential threat to low-lying nations such as the Marshall Islands. If its lands disappear under the waves, will the effect on its people, language and culture amount to genocide, as the Marshallese argue? And how will the world deal with 200 million climate refugees by 2050, as predicted by the International Organisation for Migration? We can expect geopolitical consequences too. The Maldives now permits foreign ownership of land that it has expensively reclaimed from the sea. It is a means by which China may enhance its strategic presence in the Indian Ocean. 

Local politics also becomes worrisome. Does a homeowner pay property taxes if his home is underwater? While some residents in vulnerable areas are being bought out – the state of New York spent $240m to buy 610 properties slammed by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 – that does not look financially sustainable. Who decides which communities are bailed out and which abandoned? At what point do landlocked taxpayers refuse to subsidise their coastal brethren? The inability of a local government to provide meaningful help may stoke civil unrest.

This dystopian spectre has prompted talk of “seasteading” – creating floating cities able to rise with the oceans, and out of the jurisdiction of any government. Peter Thiel, the Paypal co-founder and Trump ally, has previously championed this vision of ultra-libertarian Utopias on the waves.

Which brings us neatly back to Trump, the climate sceptic. It’s been reported that the bridge to Trump’s Miami playground, Mar-a-Lago, is being raised by four feet. Somebody knows what’s coming. 

Anjana Ahuja is an FT contributing writer

The Water Will Come
Jeff Goodell
Black Inc, 352pp, £17.99

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game