The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World by Jeff Goodell, Little, Brown and Company, US $28.00, Pp 352, October 2017, ISBN 978-0316260244
President Donald Trump’s announcement in June 2017 to withdraw from the Paris Climate agreement and delivering the notice in August 2017 to the United Nations to this effect left the world baffled. The United States is perhaps the only country in the western hemisphere that shows total disregard for the environment. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration is unable to see what all environmental scientists are warning about. In The Water Will Come, Jeff Goodell tells us about what our coming generations will go through if we did not take immediate steps to save our environment.
Rising and falling seas represent one of the ancient rhythms of Earth, the background track that has played during the entire four-billion-year life of the planet. Jeff Goodell says that scientists have understood this for a long time. Even in relatively recent history, sea levels have fluctuated wildly, driven by wobbles in the Earth’s orbit that change the angle and intensity of the sunlight hitting the planet and cause ice ages to come and go. One hundred and twenty thousand years ago, during the last interglacial period, when the temperature of the Earth was very much like it is today, sea level was twenty to thirty feet higher. Then, twenty thousand years ago, during the peak of the last ice age, sea levels were four hundred feet lower.
Today, the humans are interfering with this natural rhythm by heating up the planet and melting the vast ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. Jeff Goodell writes, “Until a few decades ago, most scientists believed these ice sheets were so big and so indomitable that not even seven billion humans with all their fossil-fuel-burning toys could have much impact on them in the short term. Now they know better.” In the twentieth century, the oceans rose about six inches. But that was before the heat from burning fossil fuels had much impact on Greenland and Antarctica (about half of the recorded sea-level rise in the twentieth century came from the expansion of the warming oceans). Today, seas are rising at more than twice the rate they did in the last century. As warming of the Earth increases and the ice sheets begin to feel the heat, the rate of sea-level rise is likely to increase rapidly.
But, if you live on the coast, what matters more than the height the sea rise to is the rate at which they rise. If the water rises slowly, it is not such a big deal. People will have time to elevate roads and buildings and build seawalls or move away. Jeff Goodell argues that Mother Nature is not always so docile. In the past, the seas have risen in dramatic pulses that coincide with the sudden collapse of ice sheets. Jeff Goodell says that the best way to save coastal way cities is to quit burning fossil fuels. But even if we ban coal, gas, and oil tomorrow, we won’t be able to turn down the Earth’s thermostat immediately. For one thing, carbon dioxide (CO2) is not like other kinds of air pollution, such as the chemicals that cause smog, which go away as soon as you stop dumping them into the sky. A good fraction of the CO2, emitted today will stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years. That means that even if we did reduce CO2 tomorrow, we can’t shut off the warming from the CO2 we’ve already dumped into the air.
Jeff Goodell argues that this doesn’t mean that cutting CO2 is pointless. If we can hold the warming to about three degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial sea-level rise this century, giving people more time to adapt. However, if we don’t end the fossil fuel party, we are headed for more than eight degrees Fahrenheit of warming – and with that, all bets are off. We could get four feet of sea level rise by the end of the century – or we could get thirteen feet. The long-term consequences are even more alarming. If we burn all the known reserves of coal, oil, and gas on the planet, seas will likely rise by more than two hundred feet in the coming centuries, submerging virtually every major coastal city in the world.
The Water Will Come is an eye-opening and scary account of what humans have done to the environment and how our not caring about the environment is coming back to haunt us. Jeff Goodell expertly shows us that if we did not take immediate steps to reverse our anti-environment practices, our coming generations would have to pay a very heavy price. This well-researched and -argued book is one of the best books on the coming environmental disasters. Only Jeff Goodell could write such a scholarly book in such an easy-to-understand language. Even a high schooler will understand and enjoy this book. This is a must-read book for every American, particularly President Donald Trump and his team in the White House.