I first came across Jeff Goodell’s writing in Rolling Stone, which published Why the City of Miami is Doomed to Drown in 2013. (Interestingly, the article has since been re-named Miami: How Rising Sea Levels Endanger South Florida.) I’ve referred to that article many times as a case study in the creeping reality of sea level rise, and society’s denial of the issues at hand, so I grabbed a copy of The Water Will Come as soon as I heard it existed. Plus, I get a shiver every time I say the title. It’s almost biblical. Like something out of the Book of Revelations. Messianic and mythic, but… also true.
At the same time, I’ve been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s book New York, 2140, set in an amphibious, post-diluvian New York City. (The combo is a trip. It’s almost like they collaborated on the books. I would love to hear a conversation between them about it some time.)
But Goodell’s book begins and ends with Miami, making forays to Venice, the Netherlands, Manhattan, and Lagos in between. It reads like a kind of disaster tourism — the author seeking out people and places in various stages of realization about sea level rise, and presses them into acknowledging what it means for their city, their livelihood, their future. The responses range from denial, to complete freakout, to stoic commitment to place — going down with the ship.
Officially, the event was hosted by the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce and the stated theme was The Economic Impact of Sea Level Rise. The unstated theme was: Holy shit, this is real. What are we going to do about it?!
Goodell’s approach to climate change journalism is refreshing — he makes it very clear early on that if you still have any doubts about whether it’s happening, or serious, you are reading the wrong book. This frees him up to explore what’s already happening, and our collective responses, without wasting a bunch of ink on things that have been covered ad nauseum elsewhere.
The Financial Entanglements of Land & Sea
Real estate appreciation is a big part of “the economy” and a primary mechanism of wealth concentration in the US, especially in places like Florida. That’s going to unravel in a bunch of deeply entangled, self-reinforcing ways as more people and institutions come to terms with what sea level rise means in the medium term. And by “medium term” I mean the 30 year timescale of the subsidized, fully amortized, FHA mortgages we’ve come to regard as our birthright. The book explores several of these entanglements, especially in the context of Florida and other low-lying inhabited areas in the US.
Access to housing and property is inequitably distributed in the US. We have a long history of putting poor communities, especially communities of color, in more polluted, less accessible, less desirable locations. Those places are more affordable, and so less wealthy more vulnerable populations tend to be concentrated in them. There’s no reason to think we’ll do any different with sea level rise. Low-lying at-risk locations will lose value, or appreciate more slowly, while safer, slightly higher elevation properties will become more desirable and expensive. This will likely put the people least able to deal with the consequences of sea level rise in the places where those consequences hit first, and hardest. Overall, the financial losses which will be incurred will be larger than society can cover, and it seems likely that we will concentrate the residual (un-covered) loses in poor communities that are less well connected and powerful politically.
Flood insurance is heavily subsidized in the US, which means the programs are undercapitalized relative to expected pay outs. They will eventually go bankrupt or have to take money from elsewhere to cover losses. A single direct hit on Miami by a large hurricane might be enough to bankrupt the state. The benefits these insurance programs pay are also capped on a per-property basis. In desirable places like Miami, many properties are (currently) worth more than the flood insurance will cover, so they’re only partially protected. Banks are starting to notice this, and require that their collateral be more fully insured. This means insurance (and re-insurance) coming from the private markets, which are more expensive. These insurance costs — which can be more than $1000 a month on many properties — end up being capitalized and suppressing the value of the covered property. These homes are truly worth less, because they are at risk of being destroyed before the loan is paid off. This reduces the attractiveness of the loans for the banks, and degrades the property as an investment for buyers, which is appropriate, but also fundamentally at odds with housing-as-wealth-accumulator, and much of Florida’s economic development model.
This arrangement also only works because in the near term the destruction of these properties is probabalistic — it will be the result of an especially bad storm surge, or some other uncertain event that might or might not happen in the next 10 or 20 or 30 years. But as Tyler Durden said: On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero. As sea level rise becomes more salient, the real value of coastal properties will capitalize the more predictable future losses that don’t depend on a particular storm or other unpredictable event, depressing property values across the board.
That’s a problem, since property taxes are a big source of funding for local infrastructure. So, if property values tank because banks require more insurance, and insurance rates get higher because losses become more certain & predictable, the funding that’s available to adapt to rising sea levels will also decline, which will only increase the expected losses, and so you end up with a downward spiral.
This feels like a very bubbly situation — with real estate developers, property owners, and politicians all dancing around the issue. Nobody wants to go first. Nobody wants to touch off the exodus. But privately, quietly in the background, Goodell reports that almost everyone he spoke with is making their own calculation. Is it time? Should I get out? How much longer will this last?
What’s the right public response? If we decided to buy people out of the most at-risk areas, how would we choose who to save? How would we decide on an appropriate price, when in the long run we know the value of all these properties is going to zero? What about the fact that in the US, property below the average high tide line generally can’t be privately owned? What do we do when that line moves? At the same time, wealthy enclaves are starting to sue local governments for not rebuilding or upgrading vulnerable infrastructure that probably never should have been built, or that, knowing what we know now, ought to be abandoned. In some cases they’re winning. This seems like an inequitable fiscal time bomb. Those with the resources can demand support, fortify their enclave, insure against the losses, and finally, when the waters do come, bug out. The common people may not be so lucky.
In the end, Goodell paints a grim picture of Florida’s future coastline. Declining population and cratered property values in most places, with a few wealthy and protected holdouts. A sub-tropical Detroit, inhabited by cartels and folks who were unable or unwilling to leave.
Lost Cities of the Intertidal
All this makes the gray-market real estate world of The Intertidal in New York 2140 seem all too plausible. Nobody owns it, and it’s technically worthless, but the crumbling infrastructure has residual value to folks with few other options. Like the little old ladies living in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Sometimes an old building that belongs to nobody pancakes and kills everyone inside, but what are you going to do about it? In other cases the folks settling the ruins of an unsustainable past might have the wherewithal to retrofit a stable place — a new Venice of cooperatively owned amphibious skyscrapers.
Meanwhile, the people entrusted with protecting Old Venice realize that their task is temporary. That the lagoon will likely overtop the over budget, behind schedule tidal barrier later this century. That the only way to save their city is to put it behind a wall. In a fishtank. That the thousand year old practice of building a new city on top of the old is prohibited by present day preservationism. One way or another the city is lost.
The Lost City of Manhattan. Of Venice. Rotterdam. Miami. The overwhelming majority of the history of these places has already happened. Their pasts stretch out much further than their futures. But these are the wealthy places, with money and power and technological prowess behind them. Lagos, Nigeria is the only developing world city that the book spent any time on. Ten or twenty or thirty million people. The already Intertidal neighborhood of Makoko, housing as many people as Boulder on stilts, facing destruction not (yet) by the rising tides, but by a government making way for high rise waterfront developments — which will themselves in turn be taken by the sea.
Time and Tides
There’s a lot of uncertainty about how much and how fast the water will come. We know from the recent geologic record that it’s physically possible for sea level to rise as much as 40-60mm per year, as it did about 14,000 years ago. That’s a foot or two per decade, 20 times faster than the present rate of 2-3mm/yr. We don’t know the exact mechanism. We do know current levels of atmospheric CO2 (410ppm) are historically associated with sea levels about 20m higher than present. We know that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is acting pretty weird. And we know that global emissions are again at all time highs, rising again after a 3 year plateau.
Even if this catastrophe unfolds as quickly as we can imagine based on the geologic record — over the course of a single human lifetime — it will still feel like slow motion compared to the day-to-day crises of World Wars and flu pandemics, economic dislocations and extreme weather events. But there’s a universality, an inevitability, an irreversibility to this problem that makes it special. When it finally does sink in, I think it will change our minds and our societal response to climate change in some big ways.
Right now we can’t have a real conversation, because people are in various states of denial — that it’s happening at all, that it’s serious, that we can do anything about it, that we’ll need to do something about it within our lifetimes — but I’ll be surprised if that situation lasts longer than I do.