Climate Challenge II: How Selected Coastal Cities Are Planning for Rising Ocean Waters -- or Not

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

Book review of The Water Will Come:  Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, by Jeff Goodell; published by Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group; New York (2017); 341 pp.

The May issue of the monthly Washington Socialist carried a review of High Tide on Main Street, a 2013 book by oceanographer John Englander about global climate change and rising sea levels.  In this Update issue, we review a more recent look at the threat that rising seas pose to coastal communities by journalist Jeff Goodell, a Rolling Stone contributing editor.

For democratic socialists, the future scenarios in both books pose major political challenges, for the growing economic impacts of coastal flooding are likely to place severe constraints on society’s ability to support important socialist goals.  At the same time, the struggle by threatened city governments to prepare for rising seas offers DSA’s ecosocialists a wonderful organizing opportunity.

Although climate denialism is still popular with a surprising number of U.S. voters and political elites, the practical problem of keeping homes and neighborhoods from being flooded is likely to jolt many pragmatic city dwellers into taking the climate challenge extremely seriously.

In The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, Goodell describes in some detail how some of the world’s major cities already are starting to face the challenge.  Yet as Goodell notes, economic and psychological pressures are still motivating some urban residents to ignore the problem, and in some cities that began decades ago to take steps to protect themselves, there’s reason to think new climate realities may make their early efforts obsolete – even useless.

Moreover, in a global capitalist system marked by severe economic inequalities and racial inequities, even some of the most promising plans to curb coastal flooding seem destined to protect rich white people and corporate headquarters from rising oceans, while neglecting the needs of the nonwhite, the working class and the poor.   This may indicate a place in sea-level planning where socialist campaigns might make a difference.

Regarding long-term change, Goodell agrees with Englander’s harsh predictions in High Tide on Main Street, but not completely. Even if we ended all greenhouse gas emissions today, Goodell writes, the climate would still keep warming and ocean levels rising for centuries.   Yet by aggressively acting now, Goodell adds, we can give coastal cities precious time to adapt.

“If we can hold [global warming] to about three degrees Fahrenheit, we might only two feet of sea-level rise this century,” he writes.  But “if we don’t end the fossil fuel party … we could get four feet of sea-level rise by the end of the century – or we could get thirteen.”  The difference could spell the doom or survival of major coastal cities and save millions of people in low-lying parts of the developing world from being turned into climate refugees in coming decades.

In another departure from Englander’s vision, Goodell states that in comparison with other current threats to human welfare, notably nuclear war, sea-level rise from climate change need not spell the doom of our entire civilization.

Legends from around the world, from the story of Noah’s ark to the oral traditions of Australian Aborigines, indicate that human societies have somehow been surviving terrifying fluctuations in ocean levels for thousands of years.  In southern Florida, Goodell notes, a fierce tribal people known as the Calusa built their entire society around the water.  When rising seas threatened their settlements, the Calusa either raised them on stilts or moved further inland.

But despite the Calusa’s example, it’s impossible to imagine how the Marshall Islands will escape drowning as the climate keeps warming, Goodell writes.  And ironically, the very technological sophistication of modern Western cities makes it hard for them to adapt as the Calusa did.

Modern U.S and European cities are supported by intricate networks of roads, subways, water and sewer systems and other critical infrastructure which can’t easily be moved.  Skyscrapers and other big urban buildings also are stuck in place.  This tells Goodell some urban places could be doomed unless they begin making ambitious efforts soon to meet the challenge.  And in the case of southern Florida, certain economic and psychological barriers to even thinking about the problem may preclude city officials from taking effective action.

Miami and Miami Beach, Goodell notes, are cities founded on real estate speculation and the promotion of luxurious lifestyles and escapist fantasies centered on leisure and wealth.   Their tax bases depend on rising estate values, in part because Florida has no state income tax.  To fund city government without causing tax rates to skyrocket, Miami city officials allow continued building right up to the shore.

Thus in Miami, Goodell writes, many upper-income owners of condos and estates are playing “real estate roulette,” holding on to their homes while being uneasily aware that the buildings could be flooded out relatively soon, and hoping they can sell off doomed properties to suckers before public awareness causes real estate markets to crash.  

In Venice, Italy, a city built around water, Goodell found far less denial than in Miami.  Venice, originally built on a series of small islands in a lagoon off the Adriatic Sea, has endured repeated floods for centuries.  In the past its architects responded to rising waters by building higher – often by constructing new palaces on a foundation of older ones.  But in 1966, after surging waves from a big Adriatic storm covered most of the city up to six feet deep, Venetians became far more concerned about coastal flooding.

In the 1980s, officials began talking about erecting barriers in the lagoon to shield Venice from future storm surges, and in 1994 Italian officials approved a technically sophisticated plan called MOSE, or Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico, which is supposed to shield the city with a complex series of retractable barriers seated in the lagoon.  Unfortunately, MOSE’s construction only began in 2003, and thanks to political corruption and huge cost overruns, is expected to reach completion this summer -- more than 50 years after the flood that inspired it.

The half century it has taken for MOSE to be designed, approved, financed and built, Goodell comments, might not be so bad if Venice were only building a new city hall.  But “when you’re constructing something that has to adapt to climate change, fifty years is like fifty centuries.”  And in the half-century since the project was first contemplated, scientific projections about future sea levels have changed.

When MOSE was in the design stage, planners relied on a “prudent” scenario that envisioned sea waters rising by about 8 inches above current levels. Today, some respected climate scientists believe sea-level rise by 2100 could be as much as 6 feet, possibly more.

Even the latest sea level projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, published in 2013, were probably obsolete when they first appeared, since IPCC contributors failed to take into account an unexpectedly rapid melting of Greenland’s ice cap in 2012 and the long-term impacts of the Larsen B ice shelf off Antarctica collapsing in 2002.  Therefore the design for MOSE, based on sea-level projections even older than those in the IPCC’s 2013 report, is woefully out of date given what climate scientists believe now.  If sea levels rise far enough, MOSE might prove almost useless.

The city of London, in response to a severe 1953 flood that caused extensive damage, began work decades ago on a retractable barrier across the mouth of the Thames to protect against storm surges in the North Sea.  The Thames barrier was complete by 1982, and since then, rising seas and bigger storms have caused it to be closed far more frequently than its designers anticipated – some 75 times since the year 2000.  This puts stresses on the barrier that will shorten its useful life, Goodell suggests, and UK planners are now thinking about constructing a bigger barrier.

They’re holding off, though, because they’re not sure what future sea levels to expect. As Goodell writes, they have grasped “the essential problem with big infrastructure:  it’s very expensive, it takes a long time to build, and it’s not very adaptable to changing conditions.”  The lack of a firm number on future sea levels that most climate scientists can accept makes planning such infrastructure projects damnably difficult.

In the sprawling city of Lagos, Goodell notes, a controversial Nigerian billionaire is financing the construction of Eko Atlantic, a planned community for some 300,000 upper-class residents that will be protected from the nearby Gulf of Guinea by a 20-foot seawall. Once built, it should shield the Nigerian elite from floods for a long time to come.

However, the current Lagos population, most of which is extremely poor, is estimated at 13 million - 21 million individuals.  The projected 2050 population is 30 million.  Most residents already are living with recurrent floods today, and the development of Eko Atlantic will do nothing for them.  Nor will it help residents in many of West Africa’s other coastal cities, many of which already suffer from regular flooding.

In New York, Goodell reports, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 caused a storm surge of about 11 feet along part of Manhattan bordering the East River.  The floodwaters damaged 88,000 buildings and inundated some subway stations, killed more than 40 New Yorkers and caused nearly $20 billion in economic damages.  In Sandy’s wake, the city along with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sponsored a competition among architectural and engineering firms to develop plans to avert future flood disasters.

One outcome was a plan for an East Side Coastal Resiliency Project which, when completed, will protect about two miles of Manhattan shoreline with a 10-foot berm of reinforced concrete.  However, this two-mile seawall is only envisioned as the first stage of a more ambitious project, nicknamed “Big U,” that will girdle the lower part of Manhattan from 57th Street on the West Side to 42nd Street on the East Side.

But as one expert told Goodell, “Big U” is basically designed to save Wall Street, a few large public housing’ projects and an important utility substation in lower Manhattan.  What Big U won’t do is protect lower-income neighborhoods elsewhere in the city, such as the largely black Brooklyn community of Red Hook.

What’s more, building fully protective seawalls around all five New York boroughs, which together have a 520-mile shoreline, is financially impossible. “So how do you decide who gets to live behind the wall and who doesn’t?” Goodell asks.  He offers no easy answers.

Similar dilemmas face several other US cities surveyed in The Water Will Come, including the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, the location of the world’s largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk.  Goodell also considers the plight of some smaller communities, including Toms River, NJ, Sweetwater, FL, the tiny Alaskan villages of Kotzebue and Kivalina, and the working-class community of Broad Channel in Queens, NY, as residents face the reality of rising oceans -- or in some cases, try not to face it.

The news isn’t all bad:  in conclusion, Goodell writes that in working on the book, “I encountered a lot of thoughtful civil leaders and politicians who are thinking hard about how to reimagine the future in a world of fast-rising seas.”  Yet while city officials in many places are taking important steps to address the issue, Goodell emphasizes that they are “just the preliminary sketches of the changes that need to be made in the decades ahead.”

It’s not immediately obvious how socialists can incorporate Goodell’s observations into our work in coastal cities, but this book has the merit of laying out some of the big problems ahead.  Along with Englander’s High Tide on Main Street, it may help us start thinking about how to respond as the flood waters keep rising.

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