Journalist and author Jeff Goodell has dedicated much of his career to sounding the alarm on the climate crisis. In his incredible 23 years as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, he’s written countless stories about the need for urgent action. Most writers would be content there, but Goodell’s also produced a series of revered books from Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future (2006) to 2017’s The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World.
Across this wide body of work, what consistently distinguishes Goodell’s writing is the combination of deep research and exquisite prose seeking to reveal the truth about our warming world and the dangerous stakes of a fossil fuel-driven future. Which makes him a voice worth listening to.
>> Learn more: What Is Sea-Level Rise? <<
As part of our global broadcast event exploring the climate-health crisis, 24 Hours of Reality: Protect Our Planet, Protect Ourselves, long-time Climate Reality friend and fellow Rolling Stone journalist Jamil Smith sat down to speak with Goodell about sea-level rise and how it puts the health and well-being of millions at risk.
Interview condensed and edited for brevity.
Jamil Smith: So, we obviously we know each other from working together at Rolling Stone, but I want to know more about this book, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. What would you say is the key finding of your book?
Jeff Goodell: Well, I think the most important thing that I kind of discovered about while I was reporting this book that I think is sort of widely misunderstood about the risks of sea-level rise is that this is something that is already kind of baked into the system. You know, we've talked a lot about the importance of cutting carbon emissions and all of that – and that's important for all the reasons that we've been talking about on this show for hours now.
But it's also really important to understand that from a sea-level rise point-of-view, you know, this is already kind of a done deal. It doesn't mean that cutting carbon emissions isn't important because it can certainly slow the trajectory over the long-term.
But we have, you know, depending on… certainly five to six feet of sea-level rise sort of baked into the system now, which is a really, really big deal, and really important to think about because it means that we really have to think both about how do we cut carbon pollution as quickly as possible but also how do we begin to adapting to a different world. Because that's what we're making for ourselves, and I think sea-level rise is sort of emblematic of that.
JS: To research your book, you traveled the globe extensively interviewing scientists. You traveled to Alaska with former United States President Barack Obama to investigate the extent to which the climate crisis and rising sea levels will impact humanity. What did you find – and how dire is that situation overall?
JG: Well, you know, one of the things about sea-level rise is that it's different everywhere, right? I mean, so we have a global sea-level rise that the scientists talk about and the range right now is between say, three to seven feet or so, one to two meters by the end of the century, and it'll continue going after that depending on what we do with carbon emissions. But thinking about the risks and economic costs of sea-level rise is very different in different places.
So for example, I spent a lot of time reporting this book in Miami, Florida, where you have a lot of really high-value real estate and a lot of population living in a very flat area, and not only that [but] you have Miami sort of built on a kind of porous limestone that's basically like Swiss cheese, which makes it very difficult to build sea walls or other kind of protections.
So the risks in a place like Miami are very different than say Jakarta, which is also low-lying but it also happens to be subsiding or sinking. The land happens to be sinking itself, which exacerbates the risks of sea-level rise. So there's much greater sort of urgency there.
Then, you know, you could compare it to a place like New York, which everyone saw with Hurricane Sandy has a lot at risk from storm surges and sea-level rise, but also has a lot of high ground that one can imagine sort of migrating to – and [there’s] a lot of money obviously in New York to spend on sea-level defenses. So one of the most important things I realized and learned is that this story plays out differently everywhere. Even though it's a global story, every sort of city and locale has an individual narrative.
JS: Yes, I was reporting in Miami recently and I know that certainly it is entered into the dialogue of our politicians as well. I wanted to know what you found in reporting your book and throughout your overall reporting? How has this talk about rising sea levels entered our political dialogue as you've seen it?
JG: Well, I mean it's starting to enter into our political dialogue in a very tangible way because people are experiencing the flooding – like wildfires and like heat extremes. This is one of the manifestations of climate change in the here and now. It's another example of how this is not a distant faraway future event; this is an event that we're beginning to see and experience in real time. And I think that with increased flooding in a lot of regions, we're seeing people who are experiencing more and more floods within the United States with these hurricanes and the bigger storm surges that come with that. So it's starting to drive politicians to think about, “Okay what are we going to do? How are we going to deal with this?”
In South Florida, you're starting to see the city of Miami Beach spend $500 million to increase drainage and install an elaborate system of pumps to help pump the water out and elevating streets.
>> Learn more: Climate Change and Florida: What You Need to Know <<
You know, one of the things that's driving this is a lot of concern in coastal communities around the world that people will begin to leave. And so as people leave there's obvious costs to the economy [and] to the tax base, and so there's a lot of political effort put in trying to convince people to stay and convincing them that we can deal with these risks. We can build sea walls. We can help with the drainage. We can elevate buildings. We can do all these things so that our community, our city will be viable for the coming decades.
JS: Now, of course Jeff, there are naysayers and climate deniers in every culture. Maybe some have a hard time imagining science as the future holds; maybe some have a political end. What in your experience is the best way to convince people who might not understand what rising sea levels mean for the respective communities?
JG: Well, I think the best way is to like go hang out on Miami Beach during king tides and see what's going on for yourself. You know, when you see three feet of water in Miami Beach on a sunny day, you get a sense that something's going on. But I myself, as a journalist and someone who's written about this and thought about this a lot, I think that for me there's a certain subset of people who don't want to believe this.
The water will be rising up around their chins and they'll still not believe that this is anything related to what humans are doing with burning fossil fuels or anything.
I'm really trying to address and think about it and help people understand. People get that climate change is an issue, that it is caused by humans. That it is a result of our burning fossil fuels and other human practices.
But [they] don't really understand the urgency of the risks. And I think talking about sea-level rise is a really good way of thinking about that and understanding that because it's pretty easy to visualize and think about what a city like Venice or Jakarta or Shanghai or Miami looks like with three or four or five feet of sea-level rise. It doesn't take, you know, a really vivid imagination to understand what a big problem that is.
Watch the Full Interview:
JS: Indeed. I remember reading a dystopic graphic novel where it envisioned a big wall outside of Santa Monica here in Los Angeles to protect against the rising Pacific Ocean. You've been writing about this for a very long time – about 15 years. What in your opinion are the actual practical solutions for dealing with these rising sea levels?
JG: Well, I think there there's a whole variety of solutions and they're different in every place. Some places, you know, like lower Manhattan for example, I'm sure that there will be elaborate sea walls built because it's the most valuable real estate in the world and there's a kind of granite foundation that would allow that. In places like Venice, you see these attempts of building large barriers outside the lagoon area to try to keep sea levels at bay. They're talking about building different kinds of barriers on the Thames to protect London. In some places in the Netherlands, they're experimenting with floating structures.
I think there's going to be a variety of solutions. I think that things like, you mentioned a seawall outside of Santa Monica. I mean, I think that that's highly unlikely, and I think that walls are very problematic for a lot of reasons – social justice issues being one of them.
You know, if you build me a wall in lower Manhattan and the wall ends at 42nd Street and you live downtown on 25th Street, you're happy. You feel safe behind the wall. If you're on 50th Street, you're wondering why the wall didn't go up there, and if you're living in Red Hook Brooklyn, you know, there's not going to be Danish architects out there building billion-dollar walls to protect you. So there's every media question: well, why do they get the wall and we don't?
There's a lot of complexity in this and there's a lot of complexity region-to-region. But I think the big thing that we're going to see, the really important overview, is that there's going to be retreat. People are going to leave from coastal areas. There will be adaptation. There will be sea walls. There will be all kinds of innovation and interesting structures and floating this and that. But there will also be people who leave. And there will be people who are left behind in flooding areas who don't have the means to retreat. And I think that as we move into thinking more about this and as the waters begin to rise more and more, we're gonna see more and more what a huge social justice issue this is.
JS: Indeed. Jeff Goodell, contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine, thank you very much, my friend and colleague. Appreciate you joining us.
RECEIVE UPDATES FROM CLIMATE REALITY
Our movement is at a critical turning point in the fight for common-sense solutions to the climate crisis. The good news is, the power to make meaningful progress on climate is in our hands.
But it all starts with understanding what is happening to our planet.
Sign up today to receive emails from Climate Reality and we’ll deliver the latest on climate science and innovative ways you can get involved in the climate movement right to your inbox.
Before You Go
At Climate Reality, we work hard to create high-quality educational content like blogs, e-books, videos, and more to empower people all over the world to fight for climate solutions and stand together to drive the change we need. We are a nonprofit organization that believes there is hope in unity, and that together, we can build a safe, sustainable future.
But we can't do it without your help.
If you enjoyed what you’ve just read and would like to see more, please consider making a generous gift to support our ongoing work to fight climate denial and support solutions.