NARRAGANSETT – The Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting kicked off its annual, week-long public lecture series on Monday with a focus on global water issues.
Journalist and author Jeff Goodell spoke to crowds about his most recent book, “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World.” Goodell, who’s spent the past two decades reporting the issue of climate change, said he never set out to be a climate journalist but has been captivated ever since covering the comeback of coal burning in West Virginia for the New York Times in 2001.
“I realized, for me, climate change is the big story of our time,” Goodell said. “It’s the thing I wanted to spend all of my time as a journalist writing about.”
His coverage of sea level rise in Miami made him wonder what kind of trouble the rest of the world is in, prompting him to dive into research for his latest book. His research took him to places like Legos, the Marshalls Islands, Venice and Alaska where climate change is most adversely affecting the environment.
While in Alaska, Goodell had the chance to speak with former President Barack Obama over the course of three days about climate change and sea level rise.
“It’s very surreal thinking about that conversation now, about spending three days with the president of the United States talking about climate change,” Goodell said. “But it’s not as surreal as thinking about what that conversation would be like with the current president.”
The question the people need to face now isn’t what we can do to stop sea level rise, “but how high and how fast” it will be coming, Goodell said. “No matter what we do, we’re still going to see a significant amount of sea level rise.”
Although conversations about how to mitigate the effects of climate change, like pursuing renewable energy resources, are still important to have, it’s not something people can fix by “suddenly getting our act together.”
Climate scientists are unsure of how high and how fast waters are coming, but seven feet of sea level rise would put most of Miami under water. Interestingly, models have found that most of the flooding will actually be coming from the Everglades in the west, not from the ocean.
As part of his PowerPoint presentation, Goodell also put together a similar module to show what southern Narragansett Bay would look like with the same amounts of sea level rise. Low lying areas throughout the bay would be affected first, he said, but after six feet of sea level rise, Newport would be in serious trouble.
“You don’t have to wait for there to be sharks swimming through the lobby of the Hilton Hotel before there’s a problem,” Goodell said. “Trouble begins long before a city becomes Atlantis.”
While many people are quick to realize the immediate risk of sea level rise for coastal communities like Rhode Island, climate change is also impacting communities far from the coast. While on a book tour, Goodell remembers being shocked by hundreds of people who’d come out to hear him speak in a small mountain community of North Carolina, where climate change is adversely affecting the community.
Billions of dollars have already been spent in an attempt to update infrastructure, building out levee and dike systems that will most likely be obsolete in a few decades, he said, and sea level will have wreaked havoc on real estate markets in that time. Lots of landmarks, places filled with cultural and sentimental significance, will be lost.
Goodell fielded questions from members of the audience about how quickly the real estate market would be affected by sea level rise, or how to best report of issues of climate change in a way that people can understand or care about it, but he was also asked about why he didn’t take any time to address climate change deniers.
“I don’t want to talk to you about why the Earth isn’t flat,” Goodell said. He said he’d rather spend his time talking to “people who understand that climate change is real but don’t understand the implications of it.”
Too few politicians are willing to throw their support behind the issue, often because it’s unpopular, but also because of its long-term nature that has no easy fix.
“Climate change is really an issue of democracy, not technology or science,” he said.
The lecture series will continue through the week and feature several other global water crisis experts.