Books

Jeff Goodell
The Water Will Come

Reading – or even writing – a book about climate change isn’t the same as doing something about it. But surely we can take heart from the fact that books on the subject continue to be published. That must mean it’s a lucrative genre, indicative of substantial public concern and engagement. Mustn’t it?

A book such as Tim Flannery’s Atmosphere of Hope appealed to readers seeking cause for optimism in the face of projections that insist it’s already too late. By comparison, The Water Will Come, focusing on the threat posed by rising sea levels, covers more familiar ground, measuring risk against reluctance to change.

The book addresses its theme from a range of standpoints: environmental, geopolitical, logistical. And human. What will it take for people in coastal and low-lying regions to abandon their homes and their heritage, and where will they find asylum?

Jeff Goodell makes the by now standard acknowledgment that we humans are constitutionally ill equipped to deal with climate change: “... we are not wired to make decisions about barely perceptible threats that gradually accelerate over time”. That fallibility is confirmed as he tours the world’s soggy spots – Miami Beach, Lagos, Rotterdam, Venice – interviewing politicians, property developers and planners who, even as the high tide laps at their loafers, deny that sea-level rise is a threat to their cities. Or, at least, not in their lifetimes.

Goodell writes about environment and energy issues for Rolling Stone, and it shows. Without oceans, he tells us, “not only would there be no sushi and no kayaking … but life as we know it would not exist”. He visits “the Kim Kardashian of glaciers” to hang out with “a young maverick scientist and Greenland ice junkie”. And interviews with former secretary of state John Kerry and former president Barack Obama are marked by a stagy self-consciousness that highlights, mainly, the author’s proximity to power.

Goodell confronts scientists, politicians and public officials with the direst predictions of sea-level rise: 1.8 metres or more by the end of this century, compared with “official” projections of less than half that. Ultimately, though, he retreats from his worst-case pitch, concluding that global calamity can be averted if we move to high ground – at “a leisurely stroll” rather than a stampede – and stop burning fossil fuels by 2050.

So… that’s all right then. No need to worry about it yet.  FL

Black Inc, 352pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 27, 2018 as "Jeff Goodell, The Water Will Come ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL

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