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This is an excellent book in so many ways but it left me feeling glum all week. The reason for my being sad is not the book but the people the book is about. It appears that human beings are incapable of perceiving a risk that they haven’t experienced personally. Few people have comprehended that the warming of the air by only a few degrees has warmed the water of the oceans a tiny amount, but water expands when it warms and so the oceans expand and thus they rise. Also, water from melting glaciers and groundwater being pumped out for agriculture are flowing into the oceans. These things are certain to continue because the CO2 in the air can not be removed, and it will take thousands of years of natural processes to pull it out and back to preindustrial levels. That means that the ocean will expand in total volume and the coasts of the world will be inundated. This process is inevitable and over the course of our human lifetimes the oceans will get several feet deeper. That doesn’t sound like much, but many cities of the world are built at sea level and a couple of feet more water will ruin their subsurface infrastructure.

When the ports of the world were built it made economic sense to build them exactly where they are now located, but with sea-level rise they are at risk. Levees and sea walls are expensive to construct and will eventually fail at the worst possible time, and the higher they are built the more catastrophic it will be when they fail, causing the destruction of whatever they were meant to protect. What happened in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina should be a warning to all coastal cities to prepare for the worst, but that is impossible. The relative stability of modern society masks the underlying threats from most people.

The reasons why failure is inevitable are many, but an example is that politicians are elected for four years by a public that is only looking at the pain they are suffering at the moment and they are unwilling to think a decade ahead. Thus the politicians are compelled to ignore obvious threats until the public they are representing is suffering. The state of Florida is at particular risk because most of its people live very near sea level, and yet the politicians are so happy with their quick profits to be had by building in these soon-to-be-flooded locations that they refuse to acknowledge what is about to happen. Perhaps they do know perfectly well but their personal profits will outweigh their public responsibilities, and they will simply use their money to move to wealthy towns at a higher elevation and leave the public they were supposedly representing to suffer the results.

Orrin Pilkey and co-authors, in Retreat from a Rising Sea, are much more circumspect in their analysis than I, but they state the facts clearly and recommend what actions should be taken. For individuals with their assets in soon-to-be-destroyed locations the best strategy is to sell and move to higher ground. The best solution for governments is to purchase those locations and convert the land to uses that will function well with rising ocean water. This is a book that must be read by every politician, and by everyone who votes for a politician. Unfortunately –

When people live in paradise they refuse to look at risks.