By Bill McKibben, The Washington Post, 12 November 17
One more round of “messaging” won’t do it.
ome of humanity’s most primordial stories involve flooding: The tales of Noah, and before that Gilgamesh, tell what happens when the water starts to rise and doesn’t stop. But for the 10,000 years of human civilization, we’ve been blessed with a relatively stable climate, and hence flooding has been an exceptional terror. As that blessing comes to an end with our reckless heating of the planet, the exceptional is becoming all too normal, as residents of Houston and South Florida and Puerto Rico found out already this fall.
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria provide a dramatic backdrop for the story Jeff Goodell tells in “The Water Will Come”: If there was ever a moment when Americans might focus on drainage, this is it. But this fine volume (which expands on his reporting in Rolling Stone) concentrates on the slower and more relentless toll that water will take on our cities and our psyches in the years to come. Those who pay attention to global warming have long considered that its effects on hydrology — the way water moves around the planet — may be even more dramatic than the straightforward increases in temperature.
To review the basic physics: Warm air holds more water vapor than cold air does, which means you get more evaporation and hence drought in arid areas, and more rainfall and hence floods in wet ones. (Harvey, for example, was the greatest rainfall event in American history, the kind of deluge possible only in a warmer world.) Meanwhile, heat melts ice: Greenland and the Antarctic are vast stores of what would otherwise be ocean, and now they’re beginning to surrender that water back to the sea.
These effects were somewhat harder to calculate than other impacts of climate change. In particular, scientists were slow to understand how aggressively the poles would melt, and hence the main international assessments, until recently, forecast relatively modest rises in sea level: three feet, perhaps, by century’s end. That’s enough to cause major problems, but perhaps not insuperable ones — richer cities could probably build seawalls and other barriers to keep themselves above the surface. Yet new assessments of the disintegration of glaciers, and more data from deep in the Earth’s past, have convinced many scientists that we could be looking at double or triple that rate of sea level rise in the course of the century. Which may take what would have been a major problem and turn it into a largely insoluble new reality.