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As rising sea levels threaten cities, how will they adjust?

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey, climate scientists are warning that extreme weather events will become more consistent as atmospheric CO2 levels and ocean temperatures continue to rise. Jeff Goodell, author of The Water Will Come and contributing editor to the Rolling Stone, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Baltimore to discuss the futures of coastal communities.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The increase in severe weather events from Superstorm Sandy to Hurricane Maria have come at a time when the amount of carbon dioxide emissions of the Earth’s atmosphere have soared, and when the planet’s average ocean temperatures have warmed. In his new book “The Water Will Come,” Rolling Stone magazine contributing editor Jeff Goodell writes about how communities all over the world are coping with climate change and preparing for sea level rise. Jeff Goodell joins me now from Baltimore.

    First, what are the estimates? What do we know so far? I know that these things change as scientists get more information but what are they looking at?

  • Jeff Goodell:

    The estimates for sea level rise, you know, they keep climbing. Basically every time they rethink them. But we’re looking at the high end now of six to seven feet by the end of the century. And if you think about what the implications of that are for coastal cities around the world, it’s enormous.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And you also go to great lengths, even to glaciers, to point out how this is all kind of interconnected, how, you know, increase sea level in one part of the world ends up affecting climate. And another one.

  • Jeff Goodell:

    Right I mean you know that’s one of the, that’s one of the big things about climate change and what we’re doing to the atmosphere by pumping it up with CO2 is that it’s all connected. I went up to Greenland and felt very powerfully watching these giant glaciers calve into the into the sea there that I was watching, you know, the direct impact of what’s going to cause the seas to rise in and is causing the seas to rise in places like Miami and Norfolk and Galveston, San Francisco Bay and all around the world.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of the things that is a bit depressing is that even if we were to stop creating carbon pollution right now, that there’s so much that’s been soaked up by the oceans, that this is going to continue.

  • Jeff Goodell:

    Yeah that’s true and it’s a really important point. We’re not going to stop sea level rise. That does not mean however that it’s not important to cut carbon pollution because it’s very important to cut carbon pollution for a variety of reasons, and it can potentially slow the sea level rise somewhat. But yes, we have it sort of baked in to the heat that’s already on, in the Earth’s atmosphere.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You also visited several cities around the world who in different ways think that they can engineer their way around this.

  • Jeff Goodell:

    Every city in every situation is different. So there are places like the Netherlands where they’ve been kind of engineering to protect themselves from water for a long time. You know 70 percent of the country is below sea level, so they have an enormous and elaborate network of dikes and things like that that have been erected to keep the water out. We have places like New York where after Hurricane Sandy, all the damage has been done there. They’re doing a lot of things to raise infrastructure and considering a large wall around lower Manhattan. So there are things that can be done certainly, but there are also a lot of places that are far more vulnerable, places like Miami which is very low-lying, built on a porous limestone that makes it very difficult to keep the water out, you can’t really build sea walls. And so the hard truth about this is that for a lot of places it’s going to mean retreat, and politically and economically, that’s a very complicated idea.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know finally one of the things that you mentioned is that we’re almost genetically incapable of responding to things that are such long time frames. I mean, what you’re talking about are things that are going to happen to us over a period of decades and centuries, and we can’t even seem to get to the next election cycle.

  • Jeff Goodell:

    That’s true. That’s certainly true with sea level rise in the sense that it’s a long-term problem, but it’s really important to understand that it’s also a near-term problem. I mean I’ve been to Miami Beach at high tides and I’m walking through you know water knee-high. You go to places like Norfork, it’s already inundating the streets.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. The book is called “The Water Will Come.” Author Jeff Goodell, thanks so much for joining us.

    JEFF GOODELL: Thank you.

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