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Friday, November 30, 2018

Review: The Water Will Come - Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World

The Water Will Come has a nice long bombastic title. The subject of course, is ocean levels rising and the impact it will have on coastal cities. When I first started the book I expected to hear that the project rise will be something frightening. So when the number came, I was shocked by how inconsequential it would be. The projection is that the sea level will rise by 3' by the end of the century. That's 36 inches. Now, this might have some impact on low lying areas in Florida, but I can't imagine it having any effect in the San Francisco Bay Area, where even Sunnyvale has an elevation of 125'. Indeed, the author doesn't even bother wasting time visiting San Francisco.

We get a ton of lamentation about how Miami would be in trouble, but given how the entire state of Florida keeps voting for climate deniers, it's hard for me to muster up any sympathy for any damage that happens. For instance, various cities in that state and the state itself have successfully lobbied for lower rates in flood insurance for many at-risk properties in the state, which means the rest of us will be the one footing the bill if and when the chickens come home to roost on that one. It's such a pity that there's no way to short at-risk real estate the way you can short stocks. The nice thing about science is that it works whether or not you believe in it, which means that the ability to short real estate would at least let some of us recoup some of  the losses when the socialized costs of relocating or paying for the damages in Florida eventually come.

The author does cover European efforts such as the efforts to protect Venice, Rotterdam, and other European cities where the population generally does understand the effects of climate change. Despite the wealth of these cities, the outlook doesn't look that good, but again, I can't get worked up about 3 feet (the natural sea level rise here on the West Coast of America due to the changing tides can easily be 20 feet or more!). And it seems like Venice does just fine despite being flooded most of the time.

There are a few other references to innovative architectures in Africa that can help deal with sea level house, some of which involve basically floating houses (like boat houses, an ancient technology which might come back into fashion). But again, it looks like most of the problems they have in that area are problems involving the governments of the various countries (i.e., if the police can come and confiscate your property or burn it down, there's no point putting a ton of effort into construction that's meant to last long enough to see signifcant sea level rise).

Somewhere in the book there's a mention of how during the time of the dinosaurs, sea levels were multiples of hundred feet higher. That got my attention but the author never got back to that statement and never talked about whether it was within the realm of possibility.

All in all, climate change is definitely a big problem, but I don't see sea level rise as the one that's going to be a major threat to civilization. (Yes, there will be refugees from people displaced from the coast, but even an estimate of 200 million people in a world of 11 billion people seems like it'll be a workable problem)

I don't feel like the book was entirely a waste of time, but the title of the book was definitely "click-bait", and I don't feel like I can reward that by placing a "recommended" tag on the book itself.


Scott said...

Sea level rise, even if it were hundreds of feet, wouldn't be civilization-ending, especially since it likely would happen over a long period of time. The various other impacts of climate change are likely to have much bigger effects on us.

BUT, right now we are really unwilling to invest in prevention. If we can afford it and are just being dumb, maybe things will be fine, but what if we really can't afford it? Then having trillions of dollars of infrastructure heavily impacted isn't going to be a positive. Basically, I'm not willing to assume any intelligence in how we deal with this issue, given the evidence on the ground.

Peter said...

Did the book talk about events like "king tides", especially combined with surge tides? Those are things that cause a lot of damage.

You might also want to see this program: -- especially the Tokyo program, which shows the extensive preparations that have already been taken, and which will probably be insufficient with global warming.

Piaw Na said...

I think you just made the point of my book review. Compared to "king tides" and storm surges, the amount of sea level rise that's predicted is miniscule. Sea level rise is the least of our climate problems.

Peter said...

Sea level rise makes the king tides and storm surges vastly more damaging because the current infrastructure and use of land assumes a lower level of high water.

But you're right ... the sea level rise is a gradual problem that can be solved over time; but rise in temperature will affect many other things that can't be easily solved by things like sea walls.