A number of excellent books have been written on the climate change-related flood risks for American cities most at-risk from sea level rise; I’ve read them all and can highly recommend them for anyone living in these cities or considering moving there.
“Charleston: Race, Water, and the Coming Storm,” a 2023 book by Susan Crawford, has a detailed look at the flooding issues of the Charleston, South Carolina, region. The book has the best proposal I’ve seen on how we should be handling managed retreat from sea level rise:
“Imagine gradually making it more expensive to live in dangerous places while simultaneously providing time-limited incentives and subsidies supporting moving away — a multidecade plan, for example, to gradually phase out the mortgages on properties that will be eventually returned to nature, and to subsidize future rent payments if made in higher, drier places. Imagine planning for a multidecade, gradual move, in consultation with each community, to new and welcoming locations well-connected to transit and jobs. Imagine caring for the least well-off among us, ensuring that they have a voice in this planning and choices about whether, when, and how to leave, while firmly setting an endpoint on human habitation in the riskiest places, or, at least, making it clear that these places will be repurposed for other uses. Without this kind of vision, the coming transition will be a cliff rather than a slope, casting millions into sudden misery. Governments at all levels need to understand that the riskiest response of all would be to do nothing, or to act only incrementally, in the face of already accelerating threats that may at any moment abruptly begin accelerating even more quickly, robbing us of our ability to plan. Would you get on an elevator if you knew there was a substantial chance of the cables holding the car snapping just before you reached your floor? Would you have your city’s residents collectively get on that elevator? I don’t think so.”
“The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration,” a 2023 book by Jake Bittle, has in-depth chapters on the flood risk for Norfolk, Houston, and the Florida Keys. See my April review here. A great quote from the book:
“Consider that there are at least eight thousand homes today in the Norfolk region that will see significant flooding over the lifetime of their mortgages. Depending on how fast the ocean rises, that number could double or triple over the next fifty years and increase tenfold by the end of the century. In other words, this midsize military town contains billions of dollars of real estate value that are all but guaranteed to vanish sometime in the next few decades. Now consider that more than half the people in the United States live within an hour’s drive of the ocean. The combined value of all the coastal real estate in the United States that faces flood risk from sea-level rise is somewhere between half a trillion and two trillion dollars. That represents between 2 and 4 percent of the national economy, about the same as an industry like construction.”
“Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe,” a 2020 book by Mario Ariza, highlights the concerns the Miami metro area faces. Listen to Ariza talk about the book here. He writes:
“The scientific literature regularly puts the cost of adaptation for the region in the hundreds of billions of dollars, next to which the millions the area has already forked over for plans and studies and physical infrastructure improvements barely amount to a down payment. The cost of adapting the South Florida regional drainage system — one of the world’s largest — past 2030 is already pegged at $7 billion. (For reference, Miami-Dade County’s annual budget hovers around $8 billion.)”
“The Water Will Come,” a 2017 book by Jeff Goodell, also has a chapter on Miami. See my review here. He writes about a cocktail hour after a conference on the economic impact of sea level rise in Miami that he attended, where he talked to a real estate broker about whether brokers should be required to disclose flood risks related to sea level rise:
“That would be idiotic,” she told me, gulping down a gin and tonic. “It would just kill the market.”
“The Geography of Risk: Epic Storms, Rising Seas, and the Cost of America’s Coasts,” a 2019 book by Gilbert Gaul, details the flood risk for coastal New Jersey, particularly Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Gaul writes:
“The story of New Jersey’s failures to manage building at the beach and along its coastal waterways mirrors the larger story of the nation’s coast. Time and again, private interests and money have trumped sound environmental policies and public interests, whether it is restricting access to the beach or limiting risky development.”
“Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change,” a 2017 book by Ashley Dawson, details the flood risk for New York City and how it recovered from Hurricane Sandy of 2012. He argues that our best hope to adapt cities to sea level rise lies not with fortified sea walls but with urban movements already fighting to remake our cities in a more just and equitable way. He writes about two social historians who commented on the use of the term “Anthropocene” to describe the current era:
“A more appropriate (if rather unwieldy) term for this epoch, they argue, would be the Oliganthropocene, the era in which a small fraction of humanity exploited the planet’s fragile environmental systems, not to mention immense numbers of their fellow human beings, beyond the point of sustainability. The fossil capitalism that is driving planetary ecosystems toward a mass-extinction event was adopted for the profit of a minuscule but powerful global elite.”
“Retreat From a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change,” a 2016 book by Duke University sea level rise expert Orrin Pilkey and co-authors, includes a chapter on Miami and New Orleans. The book provides an excellent overview of how fast sea level is rising, the vulnerability of coastal cities to sea level rise in both the U.S. and worldwide, the failed government policies that subsidize the wealthy and encourage high-risk development near eroding shores, and the well-funded PR campaign by the fossil fuel industry to keep us from recognizing the problem. The authors write:
“Like it or not, we will retreat from most of the world’s non-urban shorelines in the not very distant future. Our retreat options can be characterized as either difficult or catastrophic. We can plan now and retreat in a strategic and calculated fashion, or we can worry about it later and retreat in tactical disarray in response to devastating storms. In other words, we can walk away methodically, or we can flee in panic.” See my book review here. Pilkey has also authored a 2019 book that I have not read, “Sea Level Rise: A Slow Tsunami on America’s Shores.”
“Nomad Century,” a 2022 book by Gaia Vince, though not focused on the U.S., is another great sea level rise book. It argues that the coming climate change-related migration should be encouraged because it drives economic growth and reduces poverty. It calls for a safe, fair process for migration, overseen by a global agency with powers to police it. She writes:
“If rich countries increased their population by just 3 per cent through immigration, they would boost global GDP by over $356 billion in less than a decade, according to a World Bank study. The lead researcher, Michael Clemens, said that there were effectively ‘trillion dollar bills lying on the sidewalk’ to be picked up if borders were all opened. It makes sense: to grow an economy, you need to increase productivity, and one way to do that is to increase the labour force. A study by the UN’s International Labour Organization of fifteen European countries found that for every 1 per cent increase in a country’s population through migration, its GDP grew by 1.25–1.5 per cent.”
While not reviewed here, another book on my reading list is the 2019 book A New Coast, by Jeffrey Peterson, a former Senior Advisor in EPA’s Office of Water. According to the publisher, the book is “a compelling assessment of the dramatic changes that are coming to America’s coast. Peterson offers insights and strategies for policymakers, planners, and business leaders preparing for the intensifying impacts of climate change along the coast.”
Bob Henson contributed to this post.
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