Retreat from a Rising Sea

Retreat from a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change
 Orrin H. Pilkey, Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, and Keith C. Pilkey
 Columbia University Press

retreat rising sea.jpgWhat’s going with our planet’s climate is going to make the bursting of the real estate bubble look like a picnic on a sunny spring day. Upside-down equity and underwater mortgages don’t begin to describe the scope of what rising sea levels are going to do to us.

The grim picture painted and the solid evidence presented by the Pilkeys in Retreat from a Rising Sea is one of inexorable foolishness and inequity. Through a combination of denial and greed—often interlocked, as with politicians and real-estate developers—we are doing pretty much the opposite of what we should be doing.

It’s a kind of willful blindness, as described by Margaret Heffernan in her book about why we ignore the obvious at our peril: “we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know.”

Instead of buying people out of their repeatedly flooded coastal homes and businesses, we are, through the National Flood Insurance Program, forking over billions of taxpayers’ dollars to enable people to rebuild in the same spot. And then, after the next storm, we do it again, and again, and again… It’s a grotesque Groundhog Day.

The vast majority of that NFIP money goes to people with incomes in the upper 30 percent; just one percent of those billions goes to those with incomes in the lower 30 percent. And that’s just in the U.S. Globally, the main victims of rising seas are those contributing least to climate change. The islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, for example, are looking at wholesale relocation in the next few decades—and what is low-lying Bangladesh going to do with its teeming millions?

“‘We’ll be back because we are Americans and we don’t give up’ is the cry often heard after a big storm has blown by,” the Pilkeys write. Fortitude and stick-to-itiveness are admirable traits—if an outcome other than the inevitable can be expected. As Einstein said, Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

But the results won’t be different, there’s going to be more of the same, more frequently, and worse, much worse. Miami (apparently the stupidest city in America, per the Pilkeys, and it’s hard to argue with that given developer hubris like this) and New Orleans are both doomed, the authors argue. New Orleans is sinking, and Miami sits on top of a limestone sponge. There is no escaping the waters.

As for what New Orleans has already been through, “The Army Corps of Engineers bears the primary responsibility for the failed levee protection of the city… The breakdown of the levees has been characterized as the greatest civil engineering failure in the history of the United States.” Cue the blues: “Mean ol’ levee taught me to weep and moan.”

Risk reduction in the U.S. is a joke. We plan for “hundred year” events, meaning floods and storms that have a one percent chance of happening in any given year. But look at just the past couple months in America, where we’ve had two 1,000-year floods: in June in West Virginia, in July in Maryland, in August in Louisiana. And that’s just the U.S. A quick search turns up similarly catastrophic storms killing people in China, Assam state in India, and elsewhere. Heavy rains and strong winds that amplify storm surges are magnifying the effects of sea-level rise. Give the sea an inch, it take a mile.

“The deniers of climate change and sea-level rise continue to have a voice that seems to grow weaker with each superstorm. But a closer look shows that the deniers provide a façade of credibility for a host of politicians who contrive to ignore the rising sea,” the Pilkeys write, adding that “even though these politicians may not believe the findings of climate scientists, they are likely to believe the science of their doctors, dieticians, and meteorologists.” Or, maybe more likely, they believe the pseudo-science of quacks and TV food faddists but, whatever, these too shall drown.

“Like it or not, we will retreat from most of the world’s non-urban shorelines in the not very distant future. Our retreat options can be characterized as either difficult or catastrophic,” the Pilkeys write. The U.S. has an estimated 88,633 miles of coast; even Donald Trump can’t build a wall that long.

We need to be more like the Dutch, where possible, the Pilkeys argue. (But even the Dutch are only designing for 500-year events.) After centuries of fighting the water that laps at their low-lying lands, they are now engineering solutions that let them live with the water. Because we can keep the sea back, for a while at least, but what’s the point? Beach fortifications, such as levees and sea walls, just encourage erosion. Pretty soon, there’s no more beach, and all you’ve got left is an expensive house teetering on the edge of a cliff, ready to slide into the briny deep with the next stiff breeze or king tide.

But, you say, we can shrink our carbon footprint! And the seas will stop rising! Yes, let’s hope we can reduce our carbon output. But we’ve already dumped so much into the global system that CO2, with its half-life in the thousands of years, is going to keep a warm blanket wrapped around the globe for a long time to come.

The doom-and-gloom crowd walks around the digital landscape with their virtual sandwich boards predicting the coming apocalypse. But, for a lot of people, the apocalypse is now. As Paul Cox and Stan Cox wrote in a recent piece in Motherboard:

Inequality, landscape planning, and now climate change are all human affairs. That is why it matters how we imagine the apocalypse: it’s something we make. While popular culture dwells on the big planet-wide catastrophe to come, it is easier to ignore the smaller catastrophes that strike somewhere every day, ones that are in no way small to those caught in their path…. You could call it how the world breaks.

It’s been said a bunch of different ways but it comes down to this: Nature bats last, and nature bats 1000. To paraphrase Stevie Wonder, “Deniers, keep on denying.” But me, I’m heading for higher ground.

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