Present at the Destruction: Humanity’s Success in Ruining Nature

This unholy alliance of producers, consumers, and parochially focused governments is sleepwalking the Earth off the climate cliff. On "The Water Will Come."

Present at the Destruction: Humanity’s Success in Ruining Nature

The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell. Little, Brown and Company. 352 pages.

IN HIS URGENT NEW BOOK, Jeff Goodell takes readers on a tour of places likely to be swallowed up by the sea — among them Florida; New York City; Venice; Norfolk, Virginia; Rotterdam; Lagos; and the Marshall Islands. The book tells the engrossing story of their likely demise, and how our inability to deal with climate change renders this tragedy increasingly inevitable. Many other places, too, will be swallowed up if humans don’t stop spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And, alas, even if they do stop, there’s no telling when the sea will stop rising. While keenly observing and poignantly describing rapidly changing coastal ecologies, Goodell also reports with empathy and acumen on his conversations with a mix of scientists, engineers, community workers, real estate agents, activists, and politicians.

At an event hosted by the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce in 2016, the theme of the evening was the “Economic Impact of Sea Level Rise.” Goodell describes chatting with a real estate broker who became apoplectic over the suggestion that flood risks related to sea-level rise should be revealed before a sale. “That would be idiotic,” she said, gulping down her gin and tonic. “It would just kill the market.”

Some politicians, such as former President Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry, convey to Goodell their concern about climate change, whereas, predictably, plenty of others, such as Senator John Barrasso, make clear their commitment to ignorance. Representing the big coal state Wyoming, Barrasso introduced legislation in 2011 not only to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon pollution but also to stop the agency from even studying what is going on with the climate. Too many politicians, some concerned with other matters and some in hock to the fossil fuel industry, are in denial. And a sizable number of them assure the general public — who, after all, want to be comforted — that climate change is either not a major concern or else a Chinese hoax, a liberal conspiracy, and a job destroyer. They claim that coal has a future, and that drilling for oil in the Arctic, in National Parks, and off the East Coast, will “make America great again,” and that therefore no change is required to how we live, consume, and produce. Just as chain-smoking, junk food, and sugary drinks are not a health hazard but a birthright!

In contrast to this willfully engineered popular ignorance, the consensus in the scientific community is overwhelming. Goodell recounts how scientists carefully describe to him the conclusions they draw from data trends and observable phenomena. Already in 2005, many of them were part of the national science academies of Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United States calling in a joint statement for a global response to climate change. By late 2017, over 15,000 scientists from 184 countries around the world issued the attention-grabbing “Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” (disclosure: I am one of its endorsers).

Taking climate change as a given, Goodell cautions in the prologue that “if you’re still questioning the link between human activity and climate change, you’re reading the wrong book.” His purpose is not to recapitulate the science behind climate change but to show what will happen if humanity fails to stop burning fossil fuels.

Still, it is useful to review the scientific consensus, which is broadly as follows: for hundreds of thousands of years, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO


), the major heat-trapping (greenhouse) gas, have been between 180 and 280 parts per million (ppm). This remained so during the roughly 8,000 years of human civilization. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, humans have burned through enough fossil fuel — coal, oil, and natural gas — to add some 1,500 billion tons of CO


to the atmosphere, with deforestation contributing another 700 billion tons of CO


. Each year, we are adding another 40 billion tons of CO


, an amount that is still increasing.

With the data showing that global temperatures and CO


levels are tightly linked, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide by the 1960s had risen to about 300 ppm and the Earth was getting warmer. The year 2016 was the first in which atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide were consistently above 400 ppm, and the Earth had warmed about one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in the 136 years since temperature measurements have been taken. As carbon dioxide absorbs and emits infrared radiation and thus leads to higher global surface temperature, a vicious feedback loop results: higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide lead to ever higher temperatures.

Unlike, say, steam, which evaporates, CO


accumulates in the atmosphere and lingers for centuries, even thousands of years. Thus, present-day atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are the result of both cumulative emissions since the Industrial Revolution and current emissions. In recent years, the rate of emissions has not slowed but skyrocketed — and the temperatures have been rising in tandem. To wit: The aggregate emissions of the two centuries from 1751 to 1950 were less than those of the past seven years. From 1945 to 2016, they increased ninefold. At nearly 40 gigatons, the year 2016 set a record for CO


emissions. It was also the hottest year ever documented, following on the record-breaking year 2015, which, in turn, came after the so-far-hottest year 2014. As it happens, 13 of the 14 hottest years ever recorded were in the 21st century (the one prior to the 21st century was 1998, the eighth warmest). The year 2017 was the 21st consecutive year that the annual average temperature in the United States exceeded the average. For the third consecutive year, every state across the contiguous United States and Alaska experienced above-average annual temperatures. “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it,” writes Goodell, quoting Neil deGrasse Tyson from the email signature block of Florida International University geologist Henry Briceño.

Warming is a major driver for the extreme events of the past few months, such as floods in Bangladesh, droughts in Africa, hurricanes in the Caribbean as well as in the Southern United States, and wildfires in Canada and California. The damage attributable to natural disasters in 2017 in the United States alone exceeds $300 billion (up from $75 billion for Hurricane Sandy in 2012, according to the National Center for Environmental Information), which makes prevention look like a bargain. Unless a trend reversal happens, the risk of unremitting CO


emissions is potentially catastrophic temperature increases, which, in turn, lead to extreme weather events — hurricanes, droughts, heat or cold waves, sea-level rise owing to the collapse of large ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, disrupted global food supplies and tropical rainforests, further ocean acidification, the spread of deserts, and mass migration of climate refugees.

The reasons are legion for why doing something to counter climate change is so incredibly hard. Perhaps too hard.

Dale Jamieson, a philosophy professor at NYU, considers climate change the largest collective-action problem humanity has ever faced. He refers not to the underlying science but to the politics — the temptation to grab a free ride, even though we know that the costs for us and everybody else will only increase as time passes. Waiting for others to go first with reductions means that there will be no winners, and we will all be worse off. Goodell attended the Paris Climate Conference in December 2015, when world leaders committed themselves to holding the increase in global average temperature below two degrees Celsius or 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The Paris Agreement is a major achievement in defining problems and outlining the tasks ahead. Yet mapping the journey is not the same as actually moving forward. As matters stand, the emissions-pledge pathway negotiated in Paris has a probability of more than 90 percent to exceed two degrees Celsius, and only a “likely” chance of remaining below three degrees Celsius in this century. So, even if current commitments were kept, a one-third probability of climate change in excess of three degrees Celsius would remain. Achieving the Paris goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius — a 50 percent increase over current temperature — is all but impossible.

Climate change is caused by production and consumption patterns originating in the Industrial Revolution. Its consequences extend far into the future and affect the entire globe. While no one will escape, it is a cosmic injustice that the hardest hit will be those who have barely if at all contributed to the problem and are our planet’s most vulnerable citizens: the poor, the citizens of developing countries, those not yet born — as well as other species. In Goodell’s words:

Climate change was set in motion because of the two-hundred-year-long fossil fuel party the West has been throwing for itself. […] To put in perspective how little the Marshallese have done to cause the problem, consider this: the entire amount of CO2 emitted by the Marshallese in the last 50 years is less than the city of Portland, Oregon, emits in a single year.

For the citizens of the Marshall Islands, the Maldives, and many other small island states, climate change is not about costs, economic advantage, or power maximation. It is about survival.

The Water Will Come concretely and compellingly tracks the reasons why our current production and consumption patterns are unsustainable. Powerful economic and political interests are preventing us from taking meaningful remedial action. Goodell is not given to drama, and more in sorrow than anger does he pile on evidence that prevention and mitigation are much cheaper in the long run than damage repair, quite apart from the intangible but surely consequential benefit of preserving nature in all its glory. For the past several decades and more, economists have analyzed the “tragedy of the commons,” or what they term “externalities.” We can think of the atmosphere as “the commons.” Using it as a sewer has no cost, and those who will suffer from our use and misuse of it receive no compensation. Since market prices do not reflect the social and environmental cost of economic activity, our way of life is based on recklessly “externalizing” the costs of our lifestyle to poorer continents and future generations. This is not a theoretical argument but an existential one. People have become a force of nature, indeed a destroyer of nature. Paul J. Crutzen, the Nobel Prize–winning atmospheric chemist, popularized the term “Anthropocene” to describe the new era when human actions drastically affect the Earth, threatening the regenerative, life-preserving balance of nature.

The environmental movement originally was concerned with an exploding population, a polluted nature, and the reckless exploitation of nonrenewable resources that, inevitably, would lead to a Malthusian nightmare of famine. However, it has become increasingly clear that the danger stems less from the depletion of raw materials than from the consequences of using them. There is a glut, not a shortage, of fossil fuels (which are cheap, since they are not priced to include the damage they cause to “the commons”), and the formidable challenge is to figure out how to leave them in the ground. This will be hard, if it is at all possible.

All Western economies have become dependent — or rather, addicted — to fossil fuels. The countries of the Global South, with full moral justification, aspire to the same comforts and levels of consumption as their northern neighbors. Fossil fuel producers, whether they are companies or states, relish the income they derive from fossil fuels. Manufacturers of cars, planes, consumer durables, electronics, and so on prefer their markets to expand. Consumers in the North enjoy — and those in the South desire — the luxury of mobility and the convenience of enjoying a multitude of apparatuses in spacious, smoothly climatized quarters. This unholy alliance of producers, consumers, and parochially focused governments is sleepwalking the Earth over the climate cliff.

Timely remedial action is essential, but politics is local and mired in the present. How then can existing political institutions, mechanisms, and tools adequately deal with climate change? Goodell interviewed President Obama, who, he thought, might balk at the phrase “climate catastrophe.” He did not. When asked if the science wasn’t scaring the hell out of him, he flatly answered, “Yeah.” Still, Obama cautioned that “no matter how urgent the science is on climate change, you have to take the politics slowly.” It is an open question, given the current state of politics in the United States and in much of the world, if the warnings of scientists and rational arguments will catalyze action, even if only slowly. Or does the combination of self-interest, ideology, and hostility to science constitute an insurmountable roadblock to action?

Since nature is neither responsive to declarations of intent nor prone to negotiation, surely the normal tools of politics and economics do not apply. Accommodating the powerful and playing for time or splitting the difference are not going to protect the ecosphere. Discounting future benefits and assigning monetary values to biological diversity and climate stability is a hapless attempt to be rational. Too many unknown factors, including the frightful irreversibility of a number of tipping points, mean that we don’t have time to take the politics slowly. Indeed, we don’t have time for politics as currently practiced. In late January 2018, the hands of the iconic Doomsday Clock were pushed 30 seconds closer to midnight, the closest it has been since 1953 to the symbolic point of annihilation. In a statement published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, aptly titled “It is Now 2 Minutes to Midnight,” scientists involved in setting the clock warned:

[A]voiding catastrophic temperature increases in the long run requires urgent attention now … The nations of the world will have to significantly decrease their greenhouse gas emissions to keep climate risks manageable, and so far, the global response has fallen far short of meeting this challenge.

But climate change, sadly, has become an ideological battleground — even though our survival depends on its depoliticization. There will be no winners if action is delayed. It is hard to imagine today that, in 2007, Republican Senator John McCain testified to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works that:

The science tells us that urgent and significant action is needed. […] If the scientists are right and temperatures continue to rise, we could face environmental, economic, and national security consequences far beyond our ability to imagine. If they are wrong and the Earth finds a way to compensate for the unprecedented levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, what will we have accomplished? Cleaner air; greater energy efficiency, a more diverse and secure energy mix, and U.S. leadership in the technologies of the future. There is no doubt; failure to act is the far greater risk.

Such courage and leadership are even more imperative today. Instead, we harbor the vain hope for a deus ex machina, some miracle cure that will, seconds before midnight, rescue us. Regardless of the facts or odds, we assume that problems won’t turn out as badly as they could have, and that solutions will somehow emerge. As the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, who Goodell quotes, puts it, “Governments, corporations, and citizens allow themselves to act in a very irresponsible way because they assume that when push comes to shove, the scientists will invent something that will save the day.”

A cacophonic public discourse and an overcrowded political agenda militate against taking action on what, in the public mind, is a clear-but-not-quite-present danger. Change occurring over years and decades, Goodell reminds us, is the kind of threat that we humans are genetically ill-equipped to deal with. “We have evolved to defend ourselves from a guy with a knife or an animal with big teeth, but we are not wired to make decisions about barely perceptible threats that gradually accelerate over time.”

Jeff Goodell’s excellent book gives new meaning to “après moi le déluge.” However, this time, the water will rise not after, but during, our lifetime.


Franz Baumann is a visiting professor at NYU whose work focuses on the international governance of climate change. Prior to entering academia, Baumann worked for the United Nations for over 30 years. He is currently working on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

LARB Contributor

Franz Baumann, PhD, is a visiting professor at New York University who focuses on the governance of climate change. Prior to entering academia, he worked for the United Nations for over 30 years in many places and capacities. As an assistant secretary-general, his last assignment was special advisor on the environment and peace operations.


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