Book Review of High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis, by John Englander; revised and updated; forward by Jean-Michel Cousteau, new introduction by Governor Christine Todd Whitman; published by The Science Bookshelf, Boca Raton, FL (2012, 2013); 227 pp.
This is the first of a two-part series on climate change and rising oceans; Part II will be published in a succeeding issue.
Since January of this year, heavy rains from three big Nor’easter storms have brought flooding, some of it minor, to a number of coastal communities along the US Atlantic seaboard stretching from Maryland to Massachusetts. On the West Coast, big rainstorms blowing in from the Pacific have recently caused flooding in the Seattle area and the Southern California town of Montecito, where 23 people died early in the year after intense rains triggered a deadly mud and debris slide along steep slopes recently scorched by wildfires.
In February, a report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warned that coastal flooding during high tides, even in the absence of big rainstorms, is “rapidly increasing in frequency, depth and extent along many U.S. coastlines.” NOAA researchers acknowledged that at present, such “sunny day” flooding, with no contributions by storm surges, still is rare. Yet given current global warming trends, the report predicted, at least minor tidal flooding on sunny days could occur along parts of the Gulf Coast virtually 365 days a year by the year 2100.
In late March, a report by University of New Hampshire researchers abstracted in Science Daily stated that the frequency of nuisance flooding of roads along the US Atlantic coast has increased by 90 percent over the last 20 years. The original study, first published in the journal Transportation Research Record, found that tidal “nuisance flooding” threatens more than 7,500 miles of roadways along the entire East Coast, causing drivers using these roads an estimated 100 million hours of delays annually. The problem, the report added, is on schedule to get worse.
For democratic socialists who’ve been paying attention, what the NOAA report and the University of New Hampshire study suggest is that over the next century, global climate change is a problem we must address in some fashion, if we want to achieve traditional socialist objectives concerning social and economic justice in the United States and around the world. Along with climate change itself, we also have to grapple with one of its most immediate side effects: the rising of average ocean levels around the planet, due to the gradual melting of the Earth’s biggest ice masses in Greenland and Antarctica, and the destructive coastal floods that rising oceans inevitably bring.
At present, an estimated 145 million people around the globe are living in coastal areas no more than three feet above currently existing sea levels. If ongoing climate change causes the average levels to rise more than three feet above where they are today — and there is a growing chorus of scientists who think this likely — tens of millions of people or more will become climate refugees, grossly overshadowing the global refugee crisis that already exists due to war, poverty and environmental degradation in places like Syria, North Africa and South Sudan.
Many of the world’s great cities, including Venice, Miami, and Mumbai in India, also could be seriously flooded if not destroyed by rapid sea level rise in our lifetimes. For lower-income, working-class and even middle-class Americans in coastal cities including New Orleans, Boston, New York and little Toms River, New Jersey, meanwhile, rising seas could bring economic damages to homes and communities, the loss of entire neighborhoods, even forced displacement. And for public officials in the most threatened cities, bigger coastal floods could trigger a crash in local real estate markets that removes hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars’ worth of property from local tax rolls, triggering a massive crisis in urban financing.
All these risks of sea-level rise have potentially tremendous implications for socialist campaigns to eliminate poverty, increase average wages, address racial injustice, defend immigrant rights and work for “nonreformist reforms” such as universal health care in this society. If huge fractions of future state, federal and local budgets not already devoted to war must be employed to keep New York, Miami, New Orleans and San Francisco from drowning — even as military planners demand tens of billions to reconfigure large naval bases like Naval Station Norfolk, to make them less vulnerable to swelling tides — the funds left over for pursuing important socialist priorities may well be squeezed dry.
This is why DSA members, and, for that matter, everyone else in the United States who’s awake, should devote some time and thought to oceanographer John Englander’s book “High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis.”
This 2013 work, admittedly, may be a little dated by now; a more recent study of rising ocean levels, by Rolling Stone contributing editor Jeff Goodell, was published in 2017 and updates a few of Englander’s points and even questions one or two of his conclusions. But for socialists and other readers who want a quick summary overview of the sea-level problem, “High Tide on Main Street” is a useful place to start.
Englander, a former associate of the famed scuba-diving pioneer and environmental advocate Jacques Cousteau, is a former CEO of The Cousteau Society, a sometime CEO of an organization of wealthy yacht owners dedicated to ocean research, the International SeaKeepers Society, and member of an impressive list of scientific societies. His book comes highly recommended, with favorable cover blurbs from such scientific and environmentalist notables as Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org., the prominent climatologist Dr. James Hansen; and Sir Crispin Tickell, former president of the UK’s Royal Geographic Society.
Christine Todd-Whitman, a Republican former governor of New Jersey who served as EPA administrator under George W. Bush, provides an introduction to the second edition of “High Tide,” calling it “a rare book that has excellent scientific credentials, yet speaks in plain language” about the changing coastal flooding prospects for our society.
Whether most socialists will endorse all of Englander’s policy recommendations is a different question. Among other things, England states that “The Business Community Is Not the Enemy” and that in his personal opinion, “free markets [are] the most flexible and effective vehicles for change.” He adds that to address the challenges posed by relentlessly rising oceans, “Healthy partnerships between government and business will be essential . . . I simply do not see any other way that we will make the massive changes that we need in time.”
Despite his capitalist economic ideas, though, Englander’s overview of the science behind climate change and sea-level rise is one even hardened leftist readers should find invaluable. In the first half of the book, Englander gives readers a wide-ranging and comprehensive, yet simply written, account of the Earth’s climate history over the past one billion years, with brief discussions of the coming and going of ice ages and previous warming periods and what some of these have meant for human survival. For readers who are a little uncomfortable with physical sciences, some of this material may seem a little dry, but it supports the growing agreement among the planet’s climate scientists concerning the causes and nature of the climate challenges we now face.
Englander’s analysis obviously supports the idea that civilization needs to move quickly to address emissions of “greenhouse” gases that are triggering destructive climate changes, which is no doubt why Bill McKibben and others like the book. Yet “High Tide on Main Street” is not mere green propaganda favoring a rapid phase out of fossil fuels. The reason is that the science, in Englander’s view, doesn’t support the idea that this will eliminate future coastal flooding.
Almost regardless of what humanity does regarding climate change today, Englander states, global average temperatures are likely to keep rising for another 1,000 years or so. Most of the “global warming” that industrial societies have already generated through greenhouse gas emissions is stored as heat in the oceans, and because the oceans release such heat very slowly, while most of the carbon dioxide emitted by the burning of fossil fuels will remain in the atmosphere for centuries, the planet in Englander’s view will keep warming until virtually all the Greenland and Antarctica ice caps melt and release their contents into the oceans.
This should cause an eventual rise in the oceans of 212 feet above present average levels — meaning that adaption to coastal flooding will be required of human societies far into the future, Englander warns. Even by 2100, there will be an “unavoidable collision between a rising sea and our civilization.” For now, Englander adds, even “band-aid solutions” to coastal flooding, such as the replenishment of vanishing beaches with sand imported for this purpose, may seem attractive, “but only if your time horizon is very short.”
Yet while Englander acknowledges that many readers may consider his forecast a “bleak” one, he adds that “the success of our species is intricately linked to our ability to adapt. If we have the courage to look at our future, we can make it a livable one.”
In the book’s second half, Englander sketches out the specific flooding challenges facing a number of the world’s biggest coastal cities, as well as efforts at adaptation — some of them potentially workable, but others less so — that selected cities are making to survive in a wetter world.
A chart on page 111 of “High Tide” lists the world’s top 20 port cities, as measured in terms of potential economic exposure to coastal flooding damages, with a side glance at the human populations in these places that face flooding as well. Turning to specific prognoses for individual cities, in Chapter 12 Englander summarizes the sea level prospects for Miami; Boston; Providence, RI; the Norfolk/Hampton Roads area in Virginia; Washington, DC; San Francisco; Seattle, New York City; London; Venice; Vancouver, BC; Shanghai; Mumbai; Singapore, Manila; Tokyo; and — somewhat surprisingly — Sacramento, CA.
Also in this chapter, Englander briefly addresses the coastal flooding future facing such small island nations as the Maldives and Kiribati, which he believes are essentially doomed. In Chapter 15, Englander outlines his ideas on “Intelligent Adaptation,” with rather encouraging accounts of how officials in San Francisco and Boston are beginning to address the issue. In Chapter 16, he discusses “New Technology and Political Will,” with Englander describing some proposed cures for climate change as dangerously deluded, but others as worthy of consideration.
In Chapter 17, “Moving to Higher Ground,” Englander predicts that over the coming century, “many coastal cities will somehow find the millions of dollars needed for civil engineering [works] that can buy a few decades of survival.”
In cases where geological conditions permit — as they do not in Miami, for example — Englander believes this sort of investment “probably makes sense.” But over the long term, he predicts that such investments will eventually cease to be financially sensible, and in at least some places, urban officials will inevitably begin a major retreat from the coasts. Ideally, it will be well planned and fair to all residents — not a chaotic rout.
Just how to convert Englander’s analysis into workable socialist solutions for coastal cities is a challenge that will require enormous thought and creativity on the part of DSA activists. But we owe it to the twin causes of socialism and democracy, and to future human generations as well, to engage in the effort. We also will need to look beyond Englander’s pioneering work to a more recent analysis of the coastal flooding problem offered by Jeff Goodell’s book “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of Civilization,” which the Washington Socialist will review in a succeeding issue.