17 Conference Report #techonomy17

The Water Will Come

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  • Jeff Goodell speaking during his conversation with Simone Ross at Techonomy 2017. Photo Credit: Paul Sakuma Photography

Speaker

Jeff Goodell
Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone

Interviewer

Simone Ross
Co-founder and Chief Program Officer, Techonomy


Session Description: Despite mankind’s engineering skills, our ability to hold back the rising water is limited when it comes to sea levels. Cities will become more vulnerable, island nations will disappear, and coastal regions remain constantly at peril. Can we survive our waterlogged future?

Below is an excerpt of the conversation with the full transcript available here.

Ross: We’re going to interview Jeff Goodell. He actually stood us up last year because he had a better invitation; he had to go to Antarctica with Secretary Kerry—couldn’t say no to that. But he did come back. Today we’re going to be talking about The Water Will Come. This is Jeff’s new book; it’s great. I read it a couple of weekends ago and I think I sent him an email toward the end saying that I needed a drink to get through it and that things looked pretty grim. But he insists with me that there is actually some hope for us all on this. So, Jeff’s written books about coal mining, geo-engineering; this book obviously tackles the rising sea levels and melting ice caps. Let’s talk about that a little bit. This is not a new problem so why is it so urgent right now?

Goodell: Well, it’s so urgent right now because we’re realizing that for a couple decades there’s been this idea that we were going to kind of get ourselves together and all be good people and cut carbon emissions and get this problem of climate change kind of under control. And I think it’s one thing—it’s pretty clear right now that we’re not doing that and that we’re going to be suffering the consequences of that. And for me, this book started after Hurricane Sandy. I’d been writing about climate change for a long time but I was in New York the day after Hurricane Sandy hit and, you know, it was obviously an incredibly dramatic event and as a journalist I was thinking about ‘how am I going to write about this’. And I talked to this scientist at Columbia [University] who said they had nine feet of storm surge in lower Manhattan and he said, “Well, one way to think about this is, imagine that that water comes in but doesn’t go away.” And that’s a kind of dress rehearsal for what sea level rise will look like and so I thought, wow, that’s a pretty interesting idea. And so I started pursuing this and I went down to Miami and realized that Miami was in big trouble and that was sort of the genesis of the book.

Ross: So let’s talk about Miami a little bit because it basically sounds like it’s underwater pretty much all the time? I mean, that’s what I took from the book and that’s what I keep hearing and now I cannot think about Miami without thinking about flooding constantly.

Goodell: Well, good, because it’s true. I mean, not all of Miami floods constantly but, you know, after Sandy I went to Miami right away and I happened to be there during king tides which is right about this time of year and I was walking around Miami Beach in this area called Sunset Harbor, lots of million-dollar condos and things in water up to my knees just on regular king tides.

Ross: What are king tides, can you explain that?

Goodell: King tides are just every year for various reasons of the positions of the sun and the moon and currents and things like that, the high tides are particularly high. So it’s just this two week event every year that, now, because it’s such a flooding event in Miami, it’s like a weird sort of tidal Mardi Gras down there in a way. I mean, it’s like parties in a way of the arriving of king tides.

Ross: But so you said that’s happening around now?

Goodell: Yeah.

Ross: So I’m going to Miami next weekend. Do I need wellies, because I didn’t pack any?

Goodell: Yeah.

Ross: Ah, okay. I’ll have to get some then. Okay. I don’t know if you guys heard earlier when we were in here this booming noise or some banging. Let’s talk about that a little bit. So I heard them; I know a few other people on the stage here [did] and we’re like why is all this banging happening? Turns out that they are reinforcing some pillars or something on the coastline and as it happens this apparently is sort of like a ground zero for this issue, is that correct?

Goodell: Yeah, so I mean one of the things about climate change in general and sea level rising in particular, is that a lot of people think of it as some far away problem. That it’s something that we’ll deal with when we get ready for it and we’ll take care of it later. And, of course, the wildfires here were one example of the urgency of what the consequences can be now. But for sea level rise, lots of people think it’s this sort of long, slow slope that, you know, maybe in 30 years we’ll worry about it. No, that’s not the way it’s happening, even modest changes in sea level rise have a big impact. And we know that seas in the past have risen in these very dramatic pulses, so it’s not a linear thing. And it turns out that right here, literally this hotel, is a great example of the risk of sea level rise right now. If you go outside and you walk out onto the patio and you see a chain link fence that’s up; they’re repairing the coast there in front of the hotel there, it’s eroding away. This place we are in right now is like the hot spot in northern California for the problems of sea level rise.

Ross: So we shouldn’t come back for a conference in a few years here; it’ll go under.

Goodell: Well, it won’t be here. I mean, no, seriously, obviously this hotel will be here for a little bit of time but I don’t know the details of like how this is valued as an asset but, you know, when you have a coastline that’s eating away 50 feet from your however many millions of dollars this hotel is worth, it’s going to be worth some millions of dollars less because it’s soon going to be in the Pacific. But this is not far away; this is a now problem.

Ross: And this is what you keep saying. This is really a now problem.

Goodell: Right.

Ross: Depending on where you are in the world you feel it slightly differently. So, you know, people are better with context and things that they’re used to so let’s think about this a little bit. So most of us will probably be dead but if I was Ray Kurzweil, because I’m never going to die, what are coastal cities going to look like in 100 years? Like, which ones are still going to be there, which ones will be gone; how is Silicon Valley going to do because I understand from you that this is actually not the best place to be building stuff as well.

Goodell: It’s hard to say exactly what they will look like because as we all know the future moves in unpredictable ways and I don’t want to predict the future in the sense of how a city will look. But I do know that coastal cities like Miami—it’s the poster child because the vast majority of all Miami-Dade County, and all of southern Florida is less than six feet above sea level and the projections for the end of the century are as high as eight feet. And we don’t know exactly what they’re going to be, most scientists that I know are on this sort of escalating side, and are becoming more and more likely for reasons that we could talk about. But a city like Miami is built also on a porous limestone so that even if you tried to build walls, it won’t really help because the water will go underneath. It’s like building a city on Swiss cheese.

So it’s very hard to imagine what Miami looks like by the end of the century and, you know, maybe there will be ways of creating floating houses. There’s a lot of attention to that kind of stuff, platform cities, but the problem is not just like, “let’s build our house a little bit higher and we’ll be fine.” The problem is airports, the problem is roads, the problem is all this coastal infrastructure, sewage, a huge problem for a lot of places. New York is very vulnerable in certain places, the Rockaways, South Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan—but Lower Manhattan they have a lot of money. It’s the most valuable real estate in the world; they’re going to build a giant wall. They don’t like to call it a wall; they call it a barrier with amenities.

[LAUGHTER]

So you’ll be able to get your Starbucks as you watch the tides come up. And Boston will be—the Back Bay of Boston, basically anything that’s built on landfill, the new Facebook headquarters, gone. I mean, you know, anything that’s on these landfill places are really in trouble.

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