These effects were somewhat harder to calculate than other impacts of climate change. In particular, scientists were slow to understand how aggressively the poles would melt, and hence the main international assessments, until recently, forecast relatively modest rises in sea level: three feet, perhaps, by century’s end. That’s enough to cause major problems, but perhaps not insuperable ones — richer cities could probably build seawalls and other barriers to keep themselves above the surface. Yet new assessments of the disintegration of glaciers, and more data from deep in the Earth’s past, have convinced many scientists that we could be looking at double or triple that rate of sea level rise in the course of the century. Which may take what would have been a major problem and turn it into a largely insoluble new reality.
Consider Miami and Miami Beach, where Goodell has concentrated much of his reporting. Built on porous limestone or simply mounds of mud dredged from the surrounding sea, low-lying South Florida streets already flood regularly at especially high tides. The simple facts, however, haven’t stopped the Miami real estate boom: When Irma hit, more than 20 huge cranes were at work building high-rises (and two of them toppled). Goodell manages to track down the city’s biggest real estate developer, Jorge Perez, at a museum opening. He was not, he said, worried about the rising sea because “I believe that in twenty or thirty years, someone is going to find a solution for this. If it is a problem for Miami, it will also be a problem for New York and Boston — so where are people going to go?” (He added, with shameless narcissism, “Besides, by that time I’ll be dead, so what does it matter?”)
Goodell dutifully tracks down the people who are working on those “solutions” — the Miami Beach engineers who are raising city streets and buildings; their Venetian counterparts who are building a multibillion-dollar series of inflatable booms that can hold back storm tides. In every case, the engineering is dubious, not to mention hideously expensive. And more to the point, it’s all designed for the relatively mild two- or three-foot rises in sea level that used to constitute the worst-case scenarios. Such tech is essentially useless against the higher totals we now think are coming, a fact that boggles most of the relevant minds. When a University of Miami geologist explains to some Florida real estate agents that he thinks sea level rise may top 15 feet by 2100, Goodell describes one “expensively dressed broker who was seated near me” who sounded “like a six-year-old on the verge of a temper tantrum. . . . ‘This can’t be a fear-fest,’ she protested. ‘Why is everyone picking on Miami?’ ”
Wealthier coastal cities, such as Miami, may be able to engineer solutions to hold back rising seas. Poorer places will have fewer options. (Joseph Michael Lopez/For The Washington Post)
No one is picking on Miami. But the developed world is definitely picking on the low-lying islands of the Pacific and Indian oceans. (Goodell gives sharp descriptions of the imperiled Marshalls and the outsize role the nation played in international climate negotiations.) The vast majority of people at risk live in places such as Bangladesh and Burma, where rising seas are already swamping farmland and forcing internal migration, mostly of people who have burned so little fossil fuel that they have played no serious part in causing the crisis we now face.