Hurricane Irma, Rising Seas and Our Endangered Cities

Why the back-to-back blows of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have certainly woken people up to the risks of climate change

Large waves produced by Hurricane Irma crash into the end of Anglins Fishing Pier September 10, 2017 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Credit: Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Donald Trump and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt may not want to talk about climate change right now, but judging from these storms, Mother Nature sure does.

I began covering energy and climate change in 1990, shortly after George H. W. Bush was elected president and announced the fossil fuels were going to be a big part of American life again. I wrote about coal mines and electric cars (My test-drive of a prototype Tesla roadster through the hills above Palo Alto made me an early and enthusiastic convert to electric cars), and interviewed influential climate scientists like NASA's James Hansen. I understood a lot about climate change in an intellectual and theoretical way, but I had not yet had what Al Gore calls an "oh-shit" moment. For me, my oh-shit moment was Hurricane Sandy, which spun into New York City in 2012. In the days after, as I walked through the sodden, mold-smelling streets of the Lower East Side, I understood not just the power of Mother Nature, but, more specifically, the power of water to destroy – or at least, deeply wound – a great American city. And it wasn't just big storm surges. As one scientist said to me, "Imagine a world where the water comes in ... but then doesn’t go out."

In the aftermath of Sandy, I tried to imagine exactly that. A scientist I was interviewing suggested that if I wanted to see a city that was really at risk from sea level rise, I should visit Miami. So I did. I arrived during the annual king tides (the highest tides of the year), and was stunned to find myself wading through knee-deep water in the swanky streets of Miami Beach. It became clear to me within 24 hours that the city of Miami was doomed. (At least, the city of Miami as we know it today). The average elevation of Miami is only about six feet above sea level; the porous limestone foundation that made it impossible to build effective sea walls; and there's a stunning amount of valuable real estate built right on the beach. I laid all this out in a piece titled, "Goodbye Miami," which was, as far as I know, the first time that the risks from sea level rise to a great American city were fully articulated. As it happened, I began the piece with an account of a future hurricane that looks very much like what Florida is experiencing today with Hurricane Irma – except instead of hitting dead center in Miami, it's Tampa Bay that’s in the cross-hairs.

After writing about Miami, I returned to New York City – a city with very different risks and very different politics. There, the question was not how the city would survive, but who would be protected behind walls and who wouldn't? It was easy to imagine a future Fortress New York. What was less easy to imagine was a city where the poor and working class did not bear the worst of climate change, displaced by rising waters, the value of their homes declining fast, employers relocating to higher ground. In fact, some preview of this coming chaos played out in Houston during Hurricane Harvey a few weeks ago. Like Miami, Houston is a city that is poorly designed for the future – a low, flat metropolis right on the water, where city planners have given little thought to how to build a resilient city in this age of rapidly accelerating climate chaos.

Read together, these stories offer a preview of what cities around the world face in a future of rising seas and increasingly intense storms. In some ways, they are oddly and eerily prophetic, foreshadowing the dramatic scenes that many of us are watching on our TV screen this week. They are also the foundation for my latest book, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World, which will be published on October 24th. In the book, I travel from Lagos to Rotterdam to Venice and beyond, looking at how rising seas are re-mapping our shorelines, our politics, our cities, and our appreciation for the power of Mother Nature.