Jeff Goodell at Long Now Foundation

Jeff Goodell is a journalist focused on energy systems and climate change. At the end of his talk Jeff Goodell was asked what he would do with $200 billion. His answer was surprising. He said he would spend it all on finding ways to improve the quality of political change and its ability to adapt to solving big long-term problems. He said we have the intelligence and capacity to deal with the problem of a constantly rising sea, but first it must be recognized as daily and inevitable by our leadership. He adds this is a problem that will last for several centuries, so we might as well get started.  His full discussion of “The Water Will Come” is available at the Long Now Foundation.  His five main points are below. Buy “The Water Will Come.”

1. Gravity

Sea rise is like the existence of gravity. It is all around us; it is happening now every day. Like gravity, the increase in seawater it is subtle, and it is a fixed part of the world because water is matter — you cannot make water go away, all you can do is watch it get redistributed. In every locality, the hydrology of the rise will be unique. The conservation of matter remains the physical driving principal – added moisture in the atmosphere from the sea; the higher intensity in storm surges is part of a global system with a deep billion-year-old history.  The need for action to deal with sea level rise and adapting to it is not physical. It is the hyper-political “not on my watch” principal. They are incompatible. What can we do today is the value to instill in leadership.

2. Rate of Change

The geological record covering billions of years shows 25 to 60 feet of sea level rise is part of the system, leaving the time and rate as the central question. Jeff refers to Richard Alley as the world’s top ice analyst (climate scientist) who finds the rise of 15 feet by 2100 “is not out of the question.” The geological record also suggests the sea rise occurs in pulses, but the historical average is 13 feet per century. Huge unknowns remain. How will trillions of tons of water change the sea due to the catastrophic collapse of Antarctica? The how big and fast questions will last for a century and vary in probable impact in places all over the world. Definitive answers to these questions drive political policy toward resilience. For example, the effect of climate change in the form of “storm surge” on the value of the coastal property is top on the list. The political response, on the other hand, is little more than a finger in the dike.

3. Value

Long before any individual city or region comes up with the resources for mitigation, the “troubles” will have spoken and measured in dollars. A part of the American culture is that it tends to leave the important things unsaid. For example, the coastal states are losing property value. People are selling (caveat emptor) and moving to get ahead of their sea rise fears following one experience such as a sunny day flooding or a crushing surge in the ocean’s new normal. Others take advantage of generous publicly funded encouragements to sustain tax revenues with “move to the shore,” campaigns deemed essential to borrow long term financing for local “fixes” (higher roads, bigger dunes, pumps and so on) and. In political words, what we have here is a capital mess with a Catch 22 attached.

4. Resilience is Now

There is no way to know what plan will work best, or who will call for spending and take the win/lose leadership responsibility to protect against the impact of sea rise. Goodell has traveled the world and has seen brilliance and stupidity. Some jurisdictions pump the water from one place to another, others raise buildings, but protecting a city is a very different problem. The who is in and who is outside a mitigation area scream of substantial social justice issues on why protections planned for one locality are not in another. Resilience policies are in response to ongoing “chaos costs” provides because it is too late to achieve sustainable development for five main reasons outlined by Dennis Meadows over a decade ago.

  1. Public discourse has difficulty with subtle, conditional messages.
  2. Growth advocates change the justification for their paradigm rather than changing the paradigm itself.
  3. The global system is now far above its carrying capacity.
  4. We act as if technological change can substitute for social change.
  5. The time horizon of our current system is too short.

5. Why “Catastrophic” Resolution

The business models used to treat climate change as an economic opportunity is often disguised by waiting for catastrophe. Nevertheless, there are places far less driven by profit making than quality of life that may be getting it right and doing so in a timely way.  Lagos is floating places to live, others in the Netherlands and similar geographies are finding ways for the sea to take what it will. The re-building design for a flooding world is easily envisioned across the economic spectrum of engineering. Geo-engineering work will attempt to physically alter the atmosphere may buy time or open Pandora’s box but will not stop sea level rise. The question “what now” will help regions know what to do, the skills exist and get them. To get creativity from skill, it will be necessary to make climate change risks transparent in order to get the markets and governments to function.

What Now?

The coastlines of North America are urban, dense and represent 80% of the nations GDP. From the islands of New York City to the shipyards of Virginia, to the soft links of the North and South Carolina beaches and from Savannah to Miami, the sea is rising. From hot and sunny, New Orleans, Louisiana to San Diego California and way up north to the cold and wet of Seattle, Washington the sea is rising. It took three centuries to build this coastline and this investment continues.

To sustain these economic giants as viable will require a new force capable of combining political will, economic genius, design and engineering brilliance and bringing it to the forefront of our thinking. They are all unique urban environments requiring solutions specific to the geology and hydrology of each place, but they are all equally threatened. There are no “need to know” problems, only the need to make an effort. The alternative to a successful push for democratic transparency on these problems will be an authoritarian process that will choose winners and losers they way despots have always chosen.

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