Climate Change Journalist Warns: 'Mother Nature Is Playing By Different Rules Now'

Oct 24, 2017
Originally published on October 25, 2017 11:06 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have shown how extreme weather can destroy towns, cities and islands. My guest Jeff Goodell is the author of a new book about what cities around the world face in a future of rising seas and increasingly intense storms. It's called "The Water Will Come." Goodell is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and has covered climate change for 15 years. He's also written about fossil fuels, including the coal industry and their impact on the environment.

Jeff Goodell, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, Maria - all the climate people say no one event can be attributed with certainty to climate change. But what about the confluence of these three consequential hurricanes?

JEFF GOODELL: Well, I mean, I think that we're seeing what's happening as we're warming up the earth's climate here. I mean, it's a very well-established fact that as the ocean temperatures heat up, that is going to increase the intensity of these storms. One of the complicated things about what's happening in our - as CO2 levels rise in our climate is that no one can predict exactly how these sort of new impacts are going to play out and what kind of consequences we're going to see.

So you know, these hurricanes, these storms that we've seen this season are an indicator that, you know, we're moving into this sort of new age when the sort of old rules of how our climate works are off the table. And Mother Nature is playing by different rules now.

GROSS: So just to sum up, do you think that these three hurricanes are the result of climate change?

GOODELL: The hurricanes themselves are not the result of climate change. But certainly the additional intensity, the fact that we've had a number of Category 5 hurricanes is likely the result of warmer ocean temperatures and higher CO2 levels.

GROSS: So your book opens with a very upsetting description of what Miami might look like by the end of the 21st century. So give it a go for us. Describe what, like - your dystopian fantasy of what Miami will look like as a result of climate change.

GOODELL: Well, I mean, one of the problems with Miami is that it's very - you know, it's a very low-lying place. There's no high ground to run to. And so you know, with only, you know, 5 or 6 feet of sea level rise, which we could certainly see by the end of the century, you know, you're going to see major parts of the city inundated.

You're going to see more and more flooding in residential areas. You're going to see more and more kind of pollution coming out of those flooded areas like we're seeing in Houston with Harvey - major infrastructure like the airport underwater or not functional, massive losses in real estate investment along the coast, fleeing from low-lying areas inland, which are also going to be flooded out, places like Hialeah and Sweetwater. I think the real thing that you're going to see that people don't really think about is just this sort of economic collapse and economic problems that are going to be caused by a plummet in real estate values, which are really important to the Florida economy.

GROSS: What actually is happening in Miami now? You spent some time in Miami Beach, and you saw flooding just caused by high tides. Describe what you saw.

GOODELL: Well, I started this book, you know, shortly after Hurricane Sandy hit New York. And you know, there was nine feet of storm surge that came into New York. And I was talking to some scientists after that, and they said, you know, think about this as a sort of, you know, experiment of what sea level rise will look like. Imagine if you had nine feet that came in and didn't go away the way it did with Sandy. So then I started thinking about that, and other scientists said, well, if you're going to really think seriously about this, you need to go to Miami.

So I did. And I happened to be there on king tides, which is the time of - in the fall when the high tides are particularly high. And I started wandering around through Miami Beach on the western side of it in this sort of very wealthy neighborhood, and there was water up to my knees. I mean, there were people kayaking through the streets of Miami Beach on king tide. And it didn't take a whole lot of thinking to figure out that if you had 2 or 3 feet of sea level rise, much less 6 or 8 feet of sea level rise, this place was in big trouble. And thinking about that and thinking about what the kind of trouble it would be in and the kind of trouble that other coastal cities would be in was really the genesis of the book.

GROSS: What do the people who live there do about those waters that you can kayak in?

GOODELL: Well, since then - this was four years ago, and since then, they've, you know, invested $500 million in building - improving the storm drainage, improving - putting in a bunch of pumps. And so some of these areas are - you know, in short term, you know, the flooding has been better. But that's just a sort of short-term fix. And so what people are doing now is they are, you know, kind of living in a kind of denial.

They are hoping that - you know, a lot of people who live in Miami Beach aren't there for - they're not thinking about being there for the next 50 years. They're thinking about being there for the next five years and how much fun they can have and, you know, how they can enjoy their retirement or their parties on the beach. And there's not a lot of long-term thinking going on in a place like Miami Beach. And so basically people's time horizon is the next five years. And will I be OK for the next five years - you know, probably. And so that's where it's at. People who think more broadly about it - and there are a number that I know - are selling and moving.

GROSS: What makes Miami Beach so vulnerable?

GOODELL: Well, it's interesting. Miami Beach is a barrier island not unlike the Outer Banks or Galveston, Texas, or - you know, there's many barrier islands around on the East Coast and on the Gulf Coast. So that's one thing. It's low-lying. Its elevation is 4, 5, 6 feet at max. But the real problem with Miami that makes it different than a lot of other places is that it's built on this sort of porous limestone. The particular kind of limestone it's on is full of holes. And so what that means is that you can't build sea walls in the traditional sense around Miami Beach. In New York and in Boston and of course in the Netherlands, there's lots of sea walls, and they can be an effective, if problematic, way of keeping water back for a while.

But in Miami, that's not really possible because of this porous limestone, which means the seawater can just go right underneath a wall and just pop up on the other side. And this has complications not just for kind of protection of the place but also because as that seawater rises and begins to seep underneath, it gets into the freshwater drinking aquifer, which is very shallow in Miami. And so there's going to be impact. There's already problems with the salinization of drinking water. So there's going to be a problem with drinking water in the very near term also.

GROSS: What's Governor Rick Scott's position - the Florida governor - on climate change?

GOODELL: Rick Scott is, you know, a pioneering climate denier. Rick Scott has, you know, unofficially kind of prohibited government employees from using the phrase climate change in any kind of government communication. I mean, he's this sort of prototype for what we're seeing in the Trump administration with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and others who are basically just trying to deny that this is a problem.

And it's a particular disservice in Florida because Florida is, you know, so obviously at risk. It's not like he's the governor of Oklahoma or something where, you know, sea level rise is not going to be a problem. In Florida, it's a direct risk not only to people's lives with flooding but also just to the economic future of the state.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeff Goodell. He's a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine and author of the new book "The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, And The Remaking Of The Civilized World." He's been covering climate change for about 15 years. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOOP 2.4.3'S "ZODIAC DUST")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jeff Goodell. He's a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and the author of the new book "The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, And The Remaking Of The Civilized World." And he's been writing about climate change for 15 years.

So let's talk about the ice sheets. Many of them are melting, and that's affecting sea levels, causing them to rise. And that's affecting climate change and ocean levels. So let's start with the ice sheets. You say that there's much more melting in the Arctic than in Antarctica. Why is that?

GOODELL: Well, a lot of the heat from the warming of the Earth is sort of concentrating itself up in the north in the Arctic right now, and that's the, you know, fastest melting place on the planet right now. And when we think about sea level rise, you know, there's a number of factors - the thermal expansion of the ocean, the melting of glaciers on land, you know, land-based glaciers around the world - but it's really - when it comes down to it, it's really all about Greenland and Antarctica. Those are the only two sort of big ice cubes on the planet that if they - when they go, that's big trouble. So what we've seen mostly right now is a lot of surface melting up in Greenland, and that's been a big cause for concern.

We've seen - in 2012 there was a record ice melt up there. And, you know, we're seeing acceleration of the glaciers in Greenland. But ice physics is very complex and, you know, scientists up until recently sort of had this idea that they could calculate how fast a big ice sheet like Greenland can melt and have a good idea of what sea level rise rates might be like in the future. But recently, a lot of attention is being focused in West Antarctica, especially this couple of glaciers there called Thwaites and Pine Island Glacier where the real problem is that you have a warming ocean - the ocean absorbs a lot of the heat of - as the atmosphere warms. And that warming ocean is getting underneath the ice sheets there, and that can cause big problems because you have melting from below.

And one of the things that scientists are figuring out is that you can calculate to a pretty good degree how fast an ice sheet will melt, but calculating how fast it can collapse is a whole a different thing. And some of the ice sheets in West Antarctica are a mile or two high. And if the water gets underneath them and they start to collapse, that could mean very rapid sea level rise.

GROSS: Yeah, why is a collapse so catastrophic?

GOODELL: Well, because you have an ice sheet that's, you know, a mile or two high. Imagine, you know, everyone - a lot of people have seen pictures of El Capitan. Imagine something like that or twice as high as that of sheer ice melting from below. And the physics of ice structure tells us that a cliff like that of ice can't stand on its own. So it will collapse, and as it collapses, it falls into the sea, and as it falls into the sea, sea levels rise. And so the risks of this are a really new idea that are only in the last three or four or five years are scientists really beginning to understand. And that's why when you talk to the best ice scientists in the world you hear a rising alarm in their voice about what we might potentially be facing.

GROSS: You've been to Greenland, and you say you actually stood on land that you might have been among the first people to stand on because it wasn't - it was ice before.

GOODELL: Yeah, it was a very surreal experience. I was there with a scientist named Jason Box, and we were flying a helicopter over the Jakobshavn Glacier, which is the fastest-moving glacier in the world. And he spotted this bare spot of ice, and he said, we have to land there, we have to land there. So we brought the helicopter down, and we jumped out and, you know, he shouted out new climate land. You know, this is - this patch of Earth has never been - you know, no human has stood here before and it hasn't been seen - you know, it hasn't been uncovered in tens of thousands of years. It was very profound because standing there and being on that bare patch of ground and seeing these enormous glaciers all around me, I had just been in Miami Beach, I mean, a few weeks before.

And you really connected, you know, I really connected in a visceral way, you know, what was happening in this faraway, distant place on this bare piece of ground that was being uncovered where I could actually see the ice going away fast with the rising waters in Miami Beach that I had seen and been wading through, you know, a few weeks earlier. And so this sort of connectedness of these places, which is so hard for most of us, including myself, to really grasp, I really felt in a very powerful way at that moment.

GROSS: I've seen film images of some of the ice and snow - I guess it's mostly ice - in the Arctic darkened by soot. Like, why is there soot there?

GOODELL: That's an interesting question. That's one of the things that I was up there to look at with the scientist who I traveled up there with, Jason Box, is, you know, we talked about wildfires earlier. As the wildfires in California and other - in Russia and in China and other places burn, that soot gets picked up and carried up into the circulatory patterns in the atmosphere and gets dropped places. And one of the places a lot of it gets dropped is in Greenland and in the Arctic. And it's really remarkable that even a small amount of darkening of snow has a big impact on how fast it will melt. It's the same reason why you wear a light-colored shirt on a hot day and you feel a lot hotter if you're wearing a black shirt. It absorbs the heat.

And in Greenland, where you have these vast ice sheets, if you get even a modest amount of soot on those ice sheets, both from wildfires or from industrial pollution like coal plants, it can really speed up the melting. And one of the things that's happening as scientists think harder and harder about what's happening on the ice sheets is they're understanding that there's a lot of new factors that they didn't consider before. Like, you know, 10 years ago, not very many scientists were really thinking about the impact that darker soot would have on the melt rate of the ice sheets in Greenland. But now they know that it's a significant factor.

And there's a lot of other factors that they think they have not considered very well that - including the friction on the bottom of the glaciers and the friction on the sides of the canyons as the glaciers move through them, the warming of the ocean on the bottom of the glaciers. There's just - it's a - you would think it's a very sort of simple idea of trying to calculate melt rate of ice, but it's in fact incredibly complex.

GROSS: Let's look at Alaska. Alaska's in a kind of interesting situation in that it's very dependent on fossil fuel. It raises a lot of money from fossil fuel. And at the same time, temperatures are rising in Alaska because of the whole phenomenon that we've been talking about - about how, you know, the Arctic is warming and ice is melting. So what are political leaders in Alaska saying about climate change and the impact it's having on the state and the connection of that to fossil fuels?

GOODELL: Well, they're not saying much. I'm actually just back from Alaska. I was just there for a few days. I just got back yesterday. So I've - and I talked to a number of politicians there, and, you know, the basic problem in Alaska is that, you know, their economy is dependent upon fossil fuels. Eighty percent or so of the revenues of the state come from oil and gas.

And so there's no real way that the state can continue to function by, you know, reducing the drilling and pumping of oil and gas. It's - they're just completely dependent upon it. So there is no conversation, basically, about, you know, reducing that. And in fact, they're talking about expanding it, looking into offshore drilling.

Right now, Congress is, you know, moving towards opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and nobody there that I talked to in the sort of political establishment is anything but, you know, sort of embracing that. What is beginning to happen, though, is they are beginning to realize that, you know, no matter what they do, they're going to be feeling impacts. They are feeling impacts.

When I was there with President Obama in 2015, we visited the villages on the - in the Arctic Circle that are already in trouble because of erosion from sea level rise. They're just going to have to relocate many coastal villages because of - they're just at risk now because the seas are higher and the storm surges are bigger.

So they're facing hundreds of millions of dollars in helping people adapt there. So they're beginning to have this, like, OK-so-how-are-we-going-to-adapt conversation. What are we going to do about this? And they're beginning to think more about the future in diversifying their economy and trying to encourage kind of what they call this, you know, sort of transition from an oil economy to a salmon economy. That's a big issue. But basically, it - they're in a really tough spot because they are really, you know, dependent upon the very fossil fuels that're doing them in. And it's a very vicious circle to be caught in.

GROSS: Do you think political leaders are acknowledging, OK, we're dependent on fossil fuels, but we acknowledge, at the same time, that fossil fuels are helping to lead to climate change, which is having an altering effect on the geography, the landscape, the life of Alaska?

GOODELL: Yeah. I mean, I don't think that they're - the political leaders that I've talked to up there - it's very hard to be a denier there in the sort of classic way of say, you know, Florida Governor Rick Scott or EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt because it's just all around. And the permafrost is melting. It's just, you know, obvious there.

But the question is, what can you do about it? And it's a really - for - if you're, you know, the governor or a senator from Alaska - and I'm not giving them a get-out-of-jail-free card, but, you know, for any politician, you know, keeping the economy going is the No. 1 job. And in Alaska, keeping the economy going for the moment means, you know, oil and gas drilling. And that's just the fact, and that's the way it's going to be in the near term.

The question is, how quickly can they diversify away from that? How quickly can they begin to build another, a new kind of economy based on clean energy? I mean, there's a lot of engineering ability in Alaska. I mean, look at the pipelines they've built. I mean, this is the headquarters of sort of big, you know, brilliant engineering.

And the idea of beginning to, you know, apply some of that to adaptation, to diversifying, to building new kinds of clean energy, you know, is really appealing. And I was, you know, trying to make the pitch to them up there that they can be a real leader in showing how to adapt to these massive changes that're coming and how to change from a fossil-fuel-dependent economy to something else. I mean, West Virginia's a classic example of a state that never did make that turn and has been sort of beholden to coal for, you know, 150 years, and it's just been, you know, devastating for the economy of that state.

GROSS: My guest is Jeff Goodell. His new book is called "The Water Will Come." After we take a short break, he'll describe how climate change is affecting the military, and we'll talk about climate deniers in the Trump administration, including the head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEFON HARRIS AND BLACKOUT'S "UNTIL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jeff Goodell, the author of a new book about cities around the world that are being threatened by extreme weather caused by climate change. It's called "The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, And The Remaking Of The Civilized World." He's a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and has covered climate change for 15 years.

Although your book is largely about how climate change is affecting cities, you also write about how it's affecting the military because there's a lot of military bases at risk because of flooding. You want to describe that a little bit?

GOODELL: Oh, there certainly are. I mean, the military is really an interesting piece of this whole conversation. I spent a - I made several visits to the naval station in Norfolk, which is the largest naval station in the world, home to six aircraft carriers, played a central role in, you know, the military operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. And about 75,000 sailors and civilians work there. It's just this giant complex.

And, you know, I was there at high tide and, you know, it was flooding. I mean, the military barracks, the roads on the base were flooding. The - you know, downtown Norfolk had several feet under water. I mean, it's a huge problem for a base like Norfolk, which is - you know, the idea of relocating it - besides the fact that it's, you know, politically kind of toxic to even have that discussion and would be economically devastating for the region, it's just - the logistics of it are mind-boggling.

But what's really striking is that the military - you know, not everyone - but, by and large, the military gets it because as one commander said to me, you know, our job is to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. So they get sea level rise. They get climate change. They understand this. But, you know, because of the way our political structure works and because of Congress, they can't really talk about it openly.

So at Norfolk, for example, they had built several new - these enormous piers that cost millions of dollars. And they, you know, built them, you know, 4, 5, 6 feet higher than the old piers. And I said to the commander, well, did you do this for sea level rise? And he basically said, yes, but we didn't say that because if we would have said that, then we wouldn't have got funding from Congress. They would have zeroed it out because they, you know, don't want to talk about climate change in any way.

So the military's in this - stuck in this position of, like, having to deal with this thing called climate change - which is, you know, changing sea level rises, you know, destabilizing populations, doing - having all kinds of impacts on their operations with water supplies and stuff - but not being able to talk about it because Congress won't - you know, won't fund anything that has to do with that.

GROSS: So the military is not only concerned about direct damage to military bases caused by climate change. It's also worried about the possible national security consequences of climate change. What are some of the consequences the military is envisioning in terms of national security?

GOODELL: What the military is really concerned about is, you know, the sort of increasing political destabilization of volatile places in the world. Secretary Kerry a few years ago called climate change a weapon of mass destruction. And by that he meant that, you know, increasing hurricanes like we're seeing, droughts which caused political instability in places like Syria, which we've already seen. And the National Academy of Sciences did a study on the causes of the uprising in Syria, and they determined that the drought there had a catalytic effect on that.

So in the biggest sense, what they're concerned about is just the increasing destabilization of the world. And as we know right now, we can see the problems of refugees, of people moving around, all of the political problems that that is causing.

And when you add climate change to that, when you add droughts and floods and destruction of places like Puerto Rico and where those millions of people who live there are going to go - are they going to rebuild their lives there? Or are they going to move to Florida or somewhere else? And if they do, what will the impacts of that be? That's in the broadest sense what they're concerned about. They're concerned about what is essentially the operating system of the planet kind of going a little haywire and what the implications of that will be.

GROSS: You've - in writing about climate change, you've also been investigating climate deniers, the climate denial movement. There are a lot of people who deny that climate change is a reality who are in the Trump administration now. Would you just do a roll call of some of the climate deniers in the administration?

GOODELL: We could just do a roll call of the entire administration. I'm not sure there's anyone in the administration that I'm aware of who would acknowledge climate change. I mean, you know, it starts with the president himself, who famously called climate change a kind of Chinese hoax and has done nothing to kind of dispel that kind of absurd characterization despite being given many opportunities to.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who was essentially brought in to run the EPA explicitly to roll back some of the plans like the Clean Power Plan and other initiatives that the Obama administration did to help reduce emissions and kind of meet the Paris climate deal goals - you know, virtually the head of every agency, especially, you know, in the Interior, Department of Energy. I mean, it's just a kind of empire of climate denial that is now running Washington, D.C.

GROSS: What do you attribute that to?

GOODELL: Money. You know, I think it's pretty clear that, you know, the debate in America politically is skewered by enormous contributions from oil and gas industry, from, you know, the Koch Industries - the Koch brothers. You know, they've done a very good job of planting doubt about this and making it clear that, you know, this for them is a kind of cultural - a kind of litmus test. If you want our support, you know, you need to get on board with this.

And one of the hard things about the climate change sort of debate in America now is that it's become this kind of cultural litmus test. It's like abortion or something like that. It's like - it's very difficult to have a kind of reasoned discussion about it anymore because it's one of those things that you're sort of either for or against. And it's very disheartening.

GROSS: What are some of the things you fear will be undone? Trump is - President Trump is pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord. What are some of the other climate change policies and regulations that you see being undone?

GOODELL: Well, part of it is the, you know, rollback of the Clean Power Plan and things like that that were designed to sort of accelerate the advancement of clean energy. And that's really important. But, you know, I also think that there's a lot of investment in clean energy right now. And a lot of states, like California and Washington and New York and others, are really pushing forward on this.

And it's very clear to everyone around the world - except, you know, the climate deniers in the center of the Trump administration, and I don't even think they actually believe it - that the economic future not only of the United States, but of the kind of global economy is in this clean energy revolution. We're not going back to coal. We're not going back to oil and gas. We may use them for a little bit longer. But the future is in solar and wind and other renewables. So there's the slowing down of that - is one issue.

But, you know, and then there's another issue of the sort of lack of funding and thinking about any kind of adaptation for this. We need to think about things like sea level rise. I mean, no matter how fast we cut carbon emissions - even if everybody sells their SUVs and rides skateboards to work tomorrow, we're still going to have a lot of sea level rise. And places need to start thinking about that. We need to start thinking in a kind of bigger picture about this - not just about building sea walls, but about moving people who are in high-risk areas out of those areas and doing things like relocating major infrastructure like airports and things like that. I mean, this is - those kinds of things take a long time to plan and think about. And we need to start doing that now.

And then the final thing that concerns me about what's happening is just this whole debasement of science, just the whole question of, like - you know, that we don't make decisions about our future and about our future risk based on good science. And I think that is really what is the - when you get down to it the most disturbing and frankly frightening thing about what's happening in the Trump administration. It's just the - you know, the complete politicalization of science. And not just about climate change, but we're seeing it about, you know, air pollution, toxic chemicals, all kinds of things. And once you throw science out, that's a very scary world.

GROSS: Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA under President Trump, you said that he is, among other things, trying to destroy the legal foundation for greenhouse gas regulations of any kind. How is he trying to do that?

GOODELL: Well, I think - I mean, I don't think it's too much to say that that was why he was given the job. I mean, as the attorney general in Oklahoma, he, you know, led the assault on Obama's Clean Power Plan. And, you know, he - that is the state where he - a very big oil and gas state and they do not like this because it hurts the oil and gas industry, they believe. And so they want to get rid of that. So Pruitt is right now in the process of trying to rollback this - Obama's Clean Power Plan, which reduced emissions from coal plants, existing coal plants around the country.

But, you know, it's not clear that he's really going to be successful in the long term on this because, you know, there's a Supreme Court decision that basically found that, you know, CO2 is an endangerment to human welfare and that as a - and is a pollutant and that as a pollutant, the EPA is required to regulate it. So he's got to come up with some kind of a plan to replace the Clean Power Plan, and it's not clear exactly what that will be. But, you know, it will be some sort of pale shadow of what we have now.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeff Goodell. He's the author of the new book "The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, And The Remaking Of The Civilized World." He's been writing about climate change for 15 years. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO'S "HOW SOME JELLYFISH ARE BORN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jeff Goodell who has been reporting on climate change for 15 years. His new book is called "The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, And The Remaking Of The Civilized World."

Something funny in the book because on the whole it's not a very funny book.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But something I thought was kind of funny is when you're in the Arctic looking at melting ice there. You're staying at a hotel, and you say it's the hotel that Al Gore stays at when he's in the Arctic (laughter). I thought that was hilarious. Did - do you find yourself following some of the same, like, being in the same - some of the same places he's been in looking at climate change?

GOODELL: Certainly not knowingly, but, you know - and I have lots of respect for Al. It wouldn't bother me if I did, but that particular hotel in the Arctic is sort of, you know, there's - everyone goes to this one place to see this famous glacier called the Jakobshavn. And, you know, there's a lot of sort of, you know, climate change tourism that's happening now.

And when I first went to Greenland, I was struck by all the sort of middle-aged people in North Face jackets who were wandering around, and I was like, well, what are all these people doing here? And it's like they all come to see the ice sheets before they melt or to watch them melt. And this one hotel is particularly nice. It's, you know, there's not like - there's only, like, two hotels in the town, so it's not like there's a huge selection. But you have an incredible view of the bay and the icebergs going out, and you can drink - sit there and, you know, have your after-dinners whiskey and watch the icebergs and think about the end of the world.

GROSS: (Laughter) That sounds so pleasant (laughter).

GOODELL: It's really nice.

GROSS: A happy hour (laughter).

GOODELL: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: Or unhappy hour. So some of the people who are trying to plan for climate change are trying to build floating islands, and one of the people behind this is Peter Thiel, who was the founder of PayPal. He's - is or was on the board of Facebook, and I think now he's a venture capitalist. Am I right about that?

GOODELL: Mhmm (ph).

GROSS: So he's one of the people behind The Seasteading Institute, which I think they have two goals. One is to have, like, floating islands that will protect them against the rising ocean problem because they'll be rising with the ocean. But the other is to kind of get away from government regulations and be at a part in the ocean where they're not subjected to any kind of laws and restrictions pertaining to any particular government. So from what you know about the science of rising oceans, will these kind of floating islands be protected because they're floating?

GOODELL: Well, I think that floating islands are a really interesting idea. And in my - when I was reporting my book, I went to places like Lagos in Nigeria where I visited these water slums that are, you know, hundreds of thousands of people living in, you know, stilts, you know, essentially tents on stilts in the water. And yeah, you talk to them about sea level rise, and they're like, well, no problem. You know, we'll just put on stilts a little bit higher, and, you know, they're very adaptable.

And I think that, you know, for all the sort of darkness about sea level rise and what the impacts it will have on places like Miami, which are certainly real and it will cause huge amounts of economic devastation and, you know, put a lot of people at risk, there's also this sort of other side of it, which is this sort of creative new ways of living. And people love living by the water. I love being by the water, you know? And everybody does, and - you know? And so the idea of figuring out a way to live on a floating island, you know, I think is - might be quite wonderful. And it - and one way to think about this is - the sort of dawn of a kind of new age of living with water.

I mean, you go to a city like Venice, and you're there two seconds, and you realize, oh, my God, this is fabulous, you know? I mean, Venice has other problems. But this idea of, can we live with and - you know, in water - of course we can. We just haven't had a reason to do that until now.

GROSS: And a lot of what we do have might be destroyed along the way before we find an alternative.

GOODELL: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I mean, you know, there's - you know, the problem, basically, with sea level rise is the built infrastructure, that we've built billions of dollars' worth of real estate in roads, and airports, and railroad tracks and everything, you know, very close to the water with this notion in the kind of classic human way that, you know, what we see is the way it will always be. We never thought, oh, well, the Earth has changed a lot before, maybe the Earth will change again. Seas will come up, go down. You know, maybe this is not a fixed boundary.

And so all this stuff that's built on the fixed boundary is doomed. And - but that doesn't mean that, you know, we humans are doomed. It means that we may figure out really cool, new ways of thinking about this and being adaptable. I mean, primitive cultures were really good at living on the coast because they didn't have, you know, multibillion-dollar condos there - they - you know, buildings there. They had flexible infrastructure that could move around, and there's no reason we can't do that again.

GROSS: Is there an example of something you've seen in a city that's prone to flooding because of climate change that has come up with a good adaptation to deal with it?

GOODELL: Well, yeah, there's a lot of really interesting things happening. I mean, so - you know, simple things like in Rotterdam and other places in Europe - but the one I saw was in Rotterdam - are these sort of water squares. They're big sort of public squares that are - that if you look at them on a normal day, they just look like a kind of sunken concrete - you know, like a big pool, except sort of nicely done, with places to sit and everything.

But they're designed so that when there's big flooding, the water all goes in there, and it kind of drains the water from all the neighborhood nearby. It's all designed to run that way, and then it drains out. So it's a way of, like, dealing with the water in that way.

You know, in Lagos, I saw a floating kind of community center that was built very - in a very simple way by a Dutch architect, essentially using plastic oil drums, you know, lashed together, and then, you know, this kind of elegant structure on top of it - a two-story structure that was hugely popular and became the sort of center of this community - that was, you know, one example of it.

In the Netherlands, I went to a place where there was flooding problems with a river. And so instead of building sea walls or river walls along the river, they just moved an entire town next - that was having problems with flooding and allowed the river to sort of run out onto this plane where the town had been.

So they essentially relocated a bunch of people in order to give the river room to expand. And I think that that's the sort of trend that I'm seeing - is this idea that, you know, as one scientist said to me, you know, you never want to fight a war with water because water will always win. And people are beginning to get that and to stop trying to block it off and build walls but live with it in various ways.

GROSS: Well, Jeff Goodell, thank you so much for talking with us.

GOODELL: Thank you for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Jeff Goodell is the author of the new book "The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, And The Remaking Of The Civilized World." After we take a short break, self-identified feminist and Muslim comic Zahra Noorbakhsh will tell us how hate crimes against Muslims have affected her fear level. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "SOUL STOMP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.