Rising Sea Levels: Who’s Building The Ark?

On all coasts, people are hostage to property values. As seas rise, there will be a tremendous reversal of fortunes.

By Judith Stapleton


Hurricane Harvey has been named by the US National Hurricane Centre “The Biggest Rainstorm On Record.” At least 31 people have died as a result of it and, with Houston under water, mass evacuations are underway.

This abnormal weather event is paralleled in South Asia, where floods in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, have killed at least 1,200 people, drowned untold thousands of animals, and left millions homeless.

Climate science has predicted extreme storm events as the New Normal for quite some time. As sea levels rise, and wind patterns change due to Arctic warming, there will inevitably be more intense and more frequent storms just like these.

The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) vets all the scientific analyses, and it is their prediction that there will be, on average, a three-to-six foot sea-level rise within 80 years.

But, as author and professor, Christian Parenti has recently noted in Jacobin Magazine, sea-level rise is not evenly distributed over the globe. In fact, the North Atlantic is rising more rapidly than other regions, affecting coastlines here more quickly than other coastlines.

With major city centres—London and Lisbon, New York and Washington, DC, under certain threat, it is worth wondering why mainstream, corporate media would not want to carry stories about governments increased funding for disaster planning, evacuations schemes, engineering designs for the restructuring of national and international infrastructure, and about the sense of urgency such dire threats present to life as we have known it.

For decades, the popular media have been massaged by industry—through outright ownership or advertising—to promote consumerism and deny dangers. This is as true for Exxon and others now as it was for Big Tobacco, the Sugar industry, Agri-Business, and Big Pharma since WWII. The world’s wealthiest climate-denier, Charles Koch, now funds campaigns of obfuscation led by the merchants of doubt. Everybody knows the White House is run by climate deniers. They run the world’s political class, who make a sport of dodging and weaving around the facts.

As if anyone needed proof of this fixed race, the EPA, ”Rejected a contention by scientists that historic rainfall from Tropical Storm Harvey was linked to climate change.” The EPA said that this was, “An attempt to politicize an ongoing tragedy.”

We are no longer surprised by such pronouncements since, as Pareti says, “We’re aware that we’ve got these lunatics in there that are stripping out reference to climate change.”

Clearly, we cannot depend on the present political arrangements to plan for the coming disasters. For Pareti, “[ ] a more important thing to talk about is what is climate change gonna do in the near term? I think what we’re looking at is a new urban crisis. Houston, Miami, all these other cities, eventually it’s gonna be no longer possible to deny the fact that sea levels are rising. And the most dangerous thing about rising sea levels is not the steady, incremental rise of sea levels, but the threat of storm surges coming from these big hurricanes.”

A climate-driven urban crisis could happen much sooner than we may like to imagine. The weather is unpredictable. Where we now see inundations of urban infrastructure, it will be harder and harder to rebuild those drinking water and wastewater pipes, those transit tunnels, those bridges and off-ramps, those drainage systems, those school basements, those fibre-optic cables, and gas lines.

In Houston, the effects of Hurricane Harvey are not yet known. They are one of those “known unknowns” made infamous by VP Dick Cheney. But we know it is going to be very painful for all those homeowners and businesses—the vast majority—who do not have flood insurance, because it is so expensive, and lives on the “unthinkable” side of the ledger of life. These people will not get compensation for their losses. FEMA is the agency assigned to deal with domestic disasters of the “acts of God” sort. Under President Trump, it has not received any attention.

The very real question is: what if there are several urban centres, simultaneously or serially affected by record storms? As Pareti points out, at some point, governments will not be able to continually subsidize the rebuild. And it is the rebuilding process that maintains property values. Without faith in the persistence of property values, people are not free to recover their losses and move to higher ground, and the whole economy crumbles.

On all the coasts, people are hostage to property values.

If someone on North West Marine Drive in the Jericho Beach neighbourhood of Vancouver decide to get out while they can, they do not want to say they are selling because of rising sea levels—not out loud, anyway. The City takes pains to sandbag the area whenever high-tides and storms converge. This stretch of homes with fabulous sea views is keeping its head above water, for now. To make their fears public might produce a stampede out of local real estate and collapse the sky-high real estate values. The City depends on real estate as a tax base. Everything else is built on it.

What we are now facing is a perfect storm of inaction, Pareti claims. “There are immediate consequences for property owners and for municipal governments to start articulating the nature of the crisis and say: We need money to defend against rising sea levels. And so we have this really bizarre denial at that level in city governments. Very few cities are actually planning and aggressively building infrastructure to prepare for these kinds of inundations.”

Today’s floods have brought Mumbai to its knees. It is the financial capital of India. Schools are closed. People are trapped overnight in their offices. The airport diverted all flights. The lack of waste treatment infrastructure here makes the threat of water-borne disease such as cholera a very real possibility.

Houston is America’s fourth most populated city, the centre of its fossil energy industry where the nation’s largest refining and petro-chemical complex is located, and home to dozens of Fortune 500 companies. As usually happens when fossil fuel and chemical plants shut down or lose electrical power, their systems leak toxic gases and chemicals into the surrounding environment. This has happened in the Texas storm.

Al Jazeera reporter, Shihab Rattansi, was one of the very few reporters on the scene in Texas who referred to the obvious connection between the impacts on the climate and the fossil fuel industry. He said, “We can’t make a connection between the oil and gas industry and climate change much clearer. [ …] We understand the largest crude oil refinery in the United States in Port Arthur is shutting down. That might sound very prudent, but what we know from experience is when you shut down these refineries, there’s a huge amount of toxic gas that’s released, so we gotta watch out for that. In the past, oil and gas companies just got away with covertly losing a lot of toxic waste in emergencies like this, but this […] is not rocket science. I mean this has been warned about for years by climate scientists. ProPublica had a piece just last year warning something like this was about to happen in the Houston area at the very least, and yet this is all coming as a surprise, and there just aren’t the preparations for it, and yet so much money has been generated here. The mayor yesterday [was] talking about how she spent five million dollars on roadways for drainage. Well, it wasn’t enough! And yet there is more money here, and Texas politicians clearly have a lot to answer for…”

Projections are not hard to realize. Coastal cities are critical bottlenecks for the world economy. As seas rise, these transit nodes—New Jersey, Seattle, London, Lisbon, and the rest—will become disabled without proper planning, and we are not seeing politicians taking this responsibility seriously.

With a publicly financed subsidy, Bill de Blasio is building a tramway in NYC right on the Brooklyn waterfront, in a further wave of gentrification of this warehouse district. Rather than build properly engineered seawalls, or even backing away from the shoreline altogether to leave a skirt of wetlands to break storm surges, NYC is investing in a luxury housing fantasy that denies all indications to the contrary. This urban development is particularly egregious to the people here who have not yet recovered from Hurricane Sandy.

Parenti points out another factor which is hidden-in-plain-sight, and that is the public sector, without which capitalism could not function. de Blasi’s project is a typical example, where public taxes underwrite a private for-profit project which will displace the entire class of people who presently occupy this space. These people are overwhelmingly poor people of colour. He makes the argument, “No society has ever been what Karl Polanyi described as a market society where [ ] everything was governed according to the laws of the market. But we’re in denial about the importance of the public sector. So if the public sectors throughout the world took action, we could deal with this.”

One thing we could do would be to follow Iceland’s example, and turn CO2 into limestone. This amazing technology involves pumping CO2 into an acidic mixture of water, and then forcing it down into basalt rock formations. Basalt is one of the most common forms of rock on Earth. In other words, the technology exists to start stripping CO2 out of the atmosphere much faster than just planting trees could do. We can actually store it safely.

We have commercial-scale solar, wind, and advanced batteries. We have the electrical grids. We have electric vehicles. “It’s not like all this stuff has to be invented,” says Parenti.

We also already have laws to protect the environment, and if they are not commodified and “free-traded” away, they can be used as intended. The US Clean Air Act, as amended by the lawsuit Massachusetts vs EPA, requires the federal government to take action to reduce greenhouse emissions. Canada, and most European countries, have similar laws.

And we have plenty of money. “The wealth accumulation that creates bubbles and then crashes comes from capital accumulation without profitable, productive, healthy, sustainable outlets to absorb all the investment. In stead, this wealth goes into stock markets, fictitious assets, and real estate, and then it collapses. What if governments said: Look, you either shift your investments out of fossil fuels into these productive, renewable sectors, or we start taxing you 90%. You decide.”

Because, Parenti reminds us, “Everything we need is in place to really start dealing with this problem.

Publisher’s Note: Judith Stapleton is a writer in the fields of science and medicine.