How can we learn to see climate change around us? What would it really look like for climate change to come into our homes and lives? It used to be that climate change was portrayed as a distant, abstract phenomenon. Popular writing sought to persuade readers of its existence and scientific credibility, to rouse them with calls to action in hopes of combating incipient warming before predicted effects became palpable.1 By contrast, three recent books—Jeff Goodell’s The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, Ashley Dawson’s Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change, and Elizabeth Rush’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore—drop us into a world that is undeniably and irrevocably in flux.
The books traverse overlapping geographies in their shared attention to a United States already marked by flooding seas (for the authors, Hurricane Sandy was a common turning point, the moment when climate change’s ramifications hit home). Yet they offer lessons that are distinct. Each book provides a different lens, a specific tool in crafting a new way of seeing. This is a sight that allows us to look through physical, economic, social, and political “certainties,” showing them to be faulty guides to the reality we face.
No easy answers or assured next steps are forthcoming here, but we emerge empowered nonetheless—better equipped to navigate our turbulent present and future and to grapple with truths about climate change in newly tangible, alarming, and necessary ways.
We Can’t Buy Time
Building on a series of articles in Rolling Stone, Jeff Goodell’s The Water Will Come takes readers on what feels like a rock-star tour of resilience. Or, more accurately, the dispiriting lack thereof—even and perhaps especially among those who bring ample resources to bear.
From a helicopter hovering over the gleaming towers of downtown Miami to Air Force One in the company of President Barack Obama, Goodell chronicles how a subset of the rich and powerful are coming to perceive the challenges posed by global warming. On the one hand, this is a vantage point from which certain dimensions of change are increasingly visible; in Greenland, for instance, “climate paparazzi” now swarm the melting “Kim Kardashian of glaciers,” while ever-higher tides swamp the luxe streets of Miami Beach. On the other hand, this visibility gives rise to schemes that seem driven by much the same boosterism and thirst for profit that brought ill-fated developments such as Miami Beach into being in the first place.
One outsized example Goodell describes is the MOSE barrier, aka the “Ferrari on the seafloor,” under construction in Italy’s Venetian Lagoon. With a name intended to invoke Moses’s divine power to part the waters, MOSE is promoted as a way to protect the ancient buildings of Venice from rising and corrosive waves.
However, despite MOSE’s mind-boggling immensity—costly enough for corrupt officials to skim off perhaps as much as $1 billion from the project before being caught, weighty enough to tip the scales at more like 25,000 Ferraris—the barrier appears dazzlingly inadequate. It was designed for a mere eight inches of sea level rise by the end of the century, Goodell reports, a point in time now expected to see closer to eight feet of extra water.
Still, a spokesperson assures him, MOSE should keep the water out until 2050 or so. “After that,” the spokesperson acknowledges, “the sea will come in from other places … There is nothing we can do to stop it.” Like many of the other plans and projects Goodell encounters over the course of the book, MOSE presents an enormous investment of resources aimed primarily at “buying time”—a phrase that recurs throughout The Water Will Come.
The pervasiveness of attempts to “buy time” speaks to the dominant desire to forestall a particular future for as long as financially possible or profitable. It also signals a wish or perceived need to prolong the status quo, even when so doing will paradoxically work to hasten rather than avert the direst outcomes. When pressed on what happens next, beyond the buying of time, Goodell’s interlocutors have a tendency to issue vague assurances in the passive voice: “solutions will be found,” they say, “something will be done.”
The flipside of this evangelical faith is acquiescence to the apocalyptic, which leads people of particular means to play what Goodell calls “real estate roulette.” The gamble: when to sell one’s property in order to make maximal gains and escape before the money—and time—runs out. Until then, fossil-fueled lifestyles continue apace, driving ever up worst-case estimates of what the future holds.
We Can’t Ignore History
If much of The Water Will Come depicts the misadventures of those with power to buy time, Ashley Dawson’s Extreme Cities details how this power became concentrated among an elite few partly through foreclosing the futures of others. In the “extreme cities” of the book’s title, vulnerability to the impacts of climate change stems as much from extreme inequality as it does from exposure to extremes of weather or geography.
Extreme Cities begins with Hurricane Sandy, which wreaked especial havoc in Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the Americas, before going on to strike New York City, one of the wealthiest cities in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Here, too, those who had been most vulnerable before the storm made up most of the hardest hit: 55 percent of storm-surge victims in New York City, Dawson notes, were low-income renters making an average of $18,000 a year.
The story of these local and global disparities extends beyond the storm; “Haiti and New York were linked long before Sandy by centuries of imperialism and racial capitalism,” Dawson explains, which laid the groundwork for uneven vulnerability in the present. Taking readers back to the 18th century, he narrates how the people of Haiti succeeded in overthrowing their French enslavers and declaring independence, only to have France demand payment for slaveholders’ lost “capital.” The resulting debt was compounded in ensuing decades by US-backed dictators and foreign aid that went to fund private NGOs in place of public infrastructure and services. “The plunder of Haiti,” Dawson writes, “which left the island defenseless when Hurricane Sandy barreled down on it, is a product of the very same system that has amassed wealth, power, and a degree of insulation (for some) from disasters in global cities such as New York.”
Coming to terms with climate change means learning a new way of seeing.
It is these insulated some whose high levels of consumption have also contributed disproportionately to the emissions that drive global warming. And in a further climate injustice, the world’s wealthiest are well positioned not just to protect themselves from what they’ve wrought but also to profit, becoming insulated and enriched through what Dawson terms “accumulation by adaptation,” while the majority of the world’s population, urban and rural alike, suffer the consequences.
Extreme Cities does more than simply lay out the existence of these disparities; it illuminates the relationship between them. By recovering such connections, the book tells a different story than The Water Will Come, even as both engage common sites, projects, and experts in climate science and urban engineering.
Dawson and Goodell similarly decry the stark inequality that characterizes climate impacts and the ability to adapt (both books, for instance, contain chapters called “Climate Apartheid”). But while The Water Will Come depicts the dramatic social divides of cities such as Miami and Lagos, Extreme Cities analyzes the production of these divides and, in so doing, draws out their relationship to the forces driving environmental destruction and runaway warming. The book thus works to avoid what Kyle Powys Whyte critiques as the “bad luck view” of climate injustice, which presents uneven vulnerability as arising from “an accidental convergence” of the new problem of climate change with the existing but purportedly unrelated effects of systems such as settler colonialism.2
In truth, carbon-intensive industrial development was facilitated by acts of colonial and capitalist extraction, exploitation, and violence. This continues to be the case, driving environmental change while actively constraining the ability of those most affected by this change to adapt.3 It is these histories of engineered vulnerability that fill the pages of Extreme Cities, underscoring the extent to which the past recurs in the present and—barring the success of social movements and mass collective action—threatens to persist in producing radically unequal futures.
We Can’t Pretend We Are Not of This World
The threat from which the “elite emitters” profiled in Extreme Cities and The Water Will Come seek to protect themselves is not simply the warming climate and resulting redistribution of water. Rather, it is the associated redistribution of wealth and population that might follow. It is anxiety about such redistribution that gives rise to racialized visions of what The Water Will Come unfortunately follows its subjects in referring to as a “flood of climate refugees.” (Those with assets as mobile as they are, the players of real estate roulette, are not counted among this “flood,” nor is their search for safety freighted with the same policing and concern).
Reporting from the Paris climate talks in December 2015, shortly after a series of terrorist attacks on the city, Goodell describes an “unspoken fear” pervasive among attendees at the talks. The fear is that the attacks offered “a preview of things to come,” should climate change go on to displace vast numbers of people.
A dangerous link is thus constructed between displacement and terrorism, a link that reappears after Goodell visits Makoko, a neighborhood of informal homes in Lagos, Nigeria. Residents there have proven skillful at sustaining themselves in a permeable landscape, but Makoko is a place under increasing threat—not from climate change but from government officials bent on demolishing the neighborhood as out of place on a waterfront being rebuilt for the wealthy. “In a rational world,” Goodell writes, “the city of Lagos or the government of Nigeria or some wealthy oil baron … would invest a few hundred thousand dollars in improving sanitation for the people in Makoko and hold them up as model citizens of the future. Instead,” he laments, “their houses will be chain-sawed or burned and they will be forced to live on the streets or jam themselves into tiny rooms in shabby concrete-block buildings … creating a new generation of refugees who may or may not turn to crime or terrorism.”
The intended point, that the very people who have engineered some of the most innovative and sustainable solutions to living with environmental change are being maligned, ignored, and forced ever further to society’s margins, to the detriment of all, has merit. But in casting the victims of violence as its potential future perpetrators, such statements risk reinforcing the very trend Goodell condemns, of countries turning “inward” and “turning their backs on displaced people of any sort.”4
As The Water Will Come and Extreme Cities both illustrate and warn against, anxieties about climate change can all too easily slip between the fearful power of rising waves and racist fears projected onto the least powerful.
Elizabeth Rush’s Rising is a book that seeks to unravel such fears. The encounters with climate change that it traces are at once less anthropocentric and more humane. To the hard-hitting analysis of Extreme Cities and globetrotting action of The Water Will Come, Rising brings close attention to the emotional, embodied experiences through which effects of climate change become meaningful in everyday life.
Rush reports from parts of the United States where these effects are viscerally present: a Maine marsh whose “musky, almost strawberry scent” reveals its rot from the intruding salt water, an Oregon forest where shifting birdsong marks changes in habitats and migratory routes, the Gulf Coast barrier island eaten away by oil-company canals whose inhabitants have begun the slow, solemn “work of unsettling the shore.”
Throughout, she chronicles the toll taken not just on her myriad interlocutors—plant, animal, and human—but also on her own body and mind. Rush finds her sleep disrupted by dreams of surging water and recognizes a new kind of nausea-inducing anxiety she terms “endsickness,” which sets in with any sign of unusual environmental conditions. “The world isn’t only the physical universe of objects outside the body,” she writes, meditating on a quote by Wendell Berry, “it also hums within the mind, is the constellation of thoughts we have about tangible matter,” such that “just imagining an end to the world as we know it means also, at least partially, losing your own mind.”
Refusing to detach the intrusions of human-caused climate change from other interrelated forms of systemic, embodied violence, Rising also depicts the sexual assault and harassment Rush confronted while doing reporting for the book.
Anxieties about climate change can all too easily slip between the fearful power of rising waves and racist fears projected onto the least powerful.
On one trip to Pensacola, Florida, Rush relates, she made her way to a trailer at the far end of a flood-prone neighborhood mostly abandoned by its former residents. Accompanying her was a fellow researcher, Samuel, an expert in assessing risk. Samuel’s presence, Rush notes, soothed her initial fear of entering the home of the man who opened the trailer’s door. This man, Alvin, was, in contrast to Rush and Samuel, black and poor, a wound visible on his leg. “In the moment I first stood in Alvin’s doorway,” Rush confides, “I believed—if briefly—that he was the risk and Samuel a feeble form of protection.” Yet, as it happened, “the exact opposite had been true.” After leaving Alvin’s home, when they are alone on a Pensacola beach, Samuel grabs Rush from behind and kisses her without consent.
Reflecting on her faulty first impressions, Rush comes to see a pattern in how the dominant cultural tropes of a racist, patriarchal society taught her to misidentify the true threats to her safety. “The more I sat with this knowledge,” she writes, “the more I felt that I had begun to understand the perverse nature of risk: That those considered at risk are taught to fear or distrust each other, instead of those who stand to lose the most should the edifice of white male power crumble.”
Such fear and distrust, Rush notes, can make it difficult to cultivate the empathy, solidarity, and collective action necessary to sustain ourselves in these times and to alter the course of “an unjust society whose governing principles, social norms, and laws were not, generally speaking, written by those who know, intimately, the fear that comes with physical peril.” Written by men like Samuel, for whom “peril is primarily financial … at a safe remove” from his own body and mind, the time is ripe for their dismantling, for new authors, perspectives, and practices to emerge.
We Can’t Look Away
For Rush, Dawson, and Goodell, coming to terms with climate change means learning a new way of seeing. Reading The Water Will Come, this way of seeing surfaces in the disjuncture between the book’s glossy cover, featuring futuristic half-submerged Miami skyscrapers, the spiel of Miami Beach boosters, and Goodell’s barefoot encounter with the sewage that floods up through the city’s storm drains, lacing the encroaching tides with levels of fecal matter hundreds of times higher than state limits.
For Dawson it arises in the small moments of foreboding that fill daily life in New York after Sandy—when “endemic subway delays from heavy rain … no longer seem like mere temporary inconveniences, but rather prologues to a permanently drowned city”—and the glimpses of possibility in mutual aid forms of “disaster communism” that suggest more viable futures.
In Rush’s case it is as much a mode of listening as seeing, of tuning in to the sounds, songs, and warning bells of species she does not readily understand, as well as to the voices of people whose stories she can hear and record but whose reality she can never fully inhabit. Making space for these voices on the page, Rising intersperses Rush’s writing with the transcribed firsthand accounts of others, modeling a more open, “radically egalitarian” way of living with change. “What,” Rush asks us to imagine, “might [it] look like if we thought of sea level rise as an opportunity to mend our relationship with the land and with each other?”
Ultimately, all three authors conclude with the realization that in Rush’s words, “we must learn to retreat”—to unbuild the places where we live and, in the process, learn to unsee our homes, habitats, and the borders and boundaries in between as fixed, coming to see them instead as fluid, impermanent, and open to change, while recognizing that “the ability to move … is a privilege not shared equally by everyone and everything currently residing along the water’s edge.”
On the Origin of Extinction
One wonders what these ways of seeing climate change might have revealed had they not been set at “the water’s edge.” What if it had been a heat wave, drought, or even inland flooding rather than the baptism of Sandy’s surge that served as their shared inspiration and starting point for figuring what the future holds? Still, sea level rise is a reality difficult to deny, the effects of which are starting to become evident even far from the coast.
Speculative images of coastal cities swamped and abandoned are easy to come by. Harder to imagine is how we will get there and what might happen in the meantime. The Water Will Come, Extreme Cities, and Rising take on the needed work of slowing down to chronicle and consider this meantime, without shying away from its messiness. Taken together, their depictions reveal the fault lines of the future, a future that is uneven, multiplicitous, and still very much in the making.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- Both James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (Bloomsbury, 2009), and Heidi Cullen, The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet (Harper, 2010), for instance, cast global warming as an impending threat. ↩
- Kyle Powys Whyte, “Is It Colonial Déjà Vu? Indigenous Peoples and Climate Injustice,” in Humanities for the Environment: Integrating Knowledge, Forging New Constellations of Practice, edited by Joni Adamson and Michael David (Routledge, 2017), p. 100. ↩
- Ibid., p. 102. ↩
- On the dangers of such rhetoric, see Akhil Gupta, “Is Poverty a Global Security Threat?,” in Territories of Poverty: Rethinking North and South, edited by Ananya Roy and Emma S. Crane (University of Georgia Press, 2015), and Todd Miller, Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security (City Lights, 2017). ↩