The Water Will Come: Tackling Willful Blindness on Climate Change

cover of Goodell book and blog title is there willful blindness on sea level rise

Jeff Goodell’s book, The Water Will Come, was recently released as another addition to the sea level rise bookshelf. But the question the book really raises is one of willful blindness and whether we can overcome that willful blindness on sea level rise in particular, and on climate change in general.

In this post, I’ll begin to tackle those questions. If you wish, the Climate Web can help you further explore willful blindness and how to overcome it.

The Water Will Come is certainly not the first popular telling of the story of sea level rise. There are dozens of technical and fictional books about sea level rise, and literally hundreds of reports. But more than many others, this book documents the problem of sea level rise willful blindness.

Willful blindness is a great metaphor for climate change, and Margaret Heffernan’s 2011 book, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, provides a sobering look at challenges in dealing with difficult problems — most of which are easier to deal with than climate change. It is an eye-opening read. With specific respect to climate change Heffernan notes:

“in failing to confront the greatest challenge of our age, climate change, all the forces of willful ignorance come together like synchronized swimmers in a spectacular water ballet.”

You can explore the key messages of Heffernan’s book in the Climate Web, as well as access the larger literature on the barriers to rational decision-making. We’ve got popular books on climate change as well as books that are not directly related to climate change but which can help you understand the challenges posed by a wicked problem like climate change.

Goodell’s book, The Water Will Come, covers a number of topics:

  • How high could water rise?
  • Who is at risk?
  • Does anyone “own” the risk?
  • Is coastal fortification the answer?
  • What about climate gentrification?
  • Why are we so willfully blind?
  • Is geoengineering an answer?

You can investigate any of these topics in depth, too, in the Climate Web.

A key topic in The Water Will Come is, of course, how far and how fast will that water come. How accurately can we answer those questions? One of the reasons willful blindness is so pervasive is that the answer is “not very accurately.” Rather, we face considerable uncertainty in answering these two questions.

We know how much the seas will rise if all the ice on Earth melts — about 250 feet. But we also know that would take a long time to happen even with global warming. It’s when we start asking about how much SLR will happen by 2050, or by 2100, that uncertainty rears its head. All we can do is talk about the probability of certain levels of SLR by a certain date.

But even that is challenging. Can we even be confident in the probability of something happening that humans have never seen happen before? This is a big question. As geologist Richard Alley notes in The Water Will Come:

“We just don’t know what the upper boundary is for how fast this can happen. We are dealing with an event that no human has ever witnessed before. We have no analogue for this.”

Scientists have been reluctant to assign probabilities to sea level rise given that there’s so much we don’t know about what exactly is happening to the ice in Greenland and Antarctica. In 2017, NOAA came out with its first sea level rise probability estimate (the report is in the Climate Web, of course!). Even though the media is full of reports about more than 6 feet of sea level rise by 2100, the NOAA report does not predict a six foot increase as a likely outcome.

But does the fact that NOAA suggests there is less than a 1% chance of 6 feet of sea level rise make that outcome less worthy of our attention? It’s all a matter of how we perceive risk. A less than 1% chance of 6 feet of sea level rise may seem like a small number. But think about air travel. Would you get on a plane if you thought there was a 1% chance of a crash? A 0.1% chance? A .01% chance? Think about it — even a 0.01% chance of a crash would mean 3 plane crashes in the US every day, so the risk is actually far lower. But when it comes to big risks, small numbers matter. And in that context 1% is anything but a small number.

A big problem here is that we’re just not very good at interpreting probabilities. It’s one reason we’re susceptible to willful blindness on the potential crisis of sea level rise. Is that changing? See this text from John Englander’s 2012 book, High Tide on Main Street:

“Currently there is still no sign that anyone in Florida is discounting the price of coastal real estate based on the slowly growing awareness that the shoreline will move significantly inland. At least for now, coastal property values continue to move with the larger real estate market.”

Five years and tons of scientific work later, has the situation changed at all? Goodell suggests that today there may be less “simple ignorance” about the risks of sea level rise, but it seems that willful blindness is taking up the slack. Goodell reports on his conversations with real estate professionals, including one exchange in which a major developer notes that “We don’t think about it on a daily basis,” and (even more disturbing):

“I believe that in twenty or thirty years, someone is  …. By that time, I’ll be dead, so what does it matter?”

This is, perhaps, the starkest example of willful blindness in the book, but certainly not the only one.

That said, it will get harder and harder to plead simple ignorance or willful blindness as time goes on. For $149, for example, the organization Coastal Risk Consulting will provide you with a report that details the frequency with which your house is likely to flood during the 30-year life of a mortgage, based on advanced sea level rise estimates in combination with the estimated likelihood of storms and storm surges.

Willful blindness to the crisis isn’t our only challenge. Another is the ability of key players to pass the risk to someone else — often homeowners. A real estate developer building a house in a vulnerable area faces little risk; the risk will be borne by whoever buys the house. But aren’t homeowners the least prepared to internalize and manage such risks? That’s why things like zoning and risk disclosure mandates are important to breaking through the willful blindness of sea level rise. Goodell argues that while everyone is beginning to recognize they are betting on what happens to property values as a result of sea level rise, people assume that they can win the bet by anticipating how others will bet, and beating them to the punch. That’s a risky strategy, since there’s no way everyone will beat everyone else to the punch.

What might trigger a sudden change in flood-prone property values? What if Hurricane Irma had slammed into Miami, as originally forecast, just a month before Goodell’s book came out? Would that have been a trigger for widespread property devaluation? One symptom of willful blindness is that when “it” happens, everyone will act shocked and surprised! Everyone will say they couldn’t have known — but they already do!

An interesting factoid:The Water Will Come describes how many people plan to use seawalls as a defense against rising seas. Is that itself a willful blindness of its own? Take a look at this interesting chart estimating how much cement and sand it would take simply to protect the world’s ports from foecasted sea level rise.  It’s the equivalent of 60-300 years of current production for those commodities. Where will the cement and sand come from to allow millions of homeowners to fortify their houses against sea level rise? Chances are, it won’t.

chart showing cement sand and gravel availability

Willful blindness is clearly a huge issue when it comes to sea level rise and the reaction of individuals, companies, and policymakers. Goodell’s objective is to overcome that blindness. Unfortunately, overcoming willful blindness is a huge psychological and communications challenge, whether for sea level rise or for climate change generally.  Can we actually help people facing the risks of sea level rise to get past their willful blindness?

It should be possible. But it’s not just a matter of presenting them with the facts about the likelihood of sea level rise or the potential impacts, no matter how alarming. It’s also a matter of helping people see the topic through their own “lenses.” For some, for example, fiction can help. One example we recommend is James Powell’s 2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming (99 cents on Amazon for the Kindle book!). Spoiler alert: you’ll find out the exact year that Rotterdam dies, and when New York City and Florida have to be abandoned! Another good example is Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl, which is a superb fictional account of a post-sea level rise world that can really get you thinking.

You can explore all of this in more depth (no pun intended) in the Climate Web. The Climate Web’s Sea Level Rise Deep Dive encompasses thousands of news reports, books, websites, videos, and more — almost anything you might want to find. But the Climate Web goes further, including the broader question of how to communicate climate change, how to communicate uncertainty generally, and how to communicate about climate change with specific audiences. There is a lot of excellent work going on in each of these areas, which needs to be better internalized into climate change conversations. It’s key to attacking the problem of willful blindness.

Watch our video of this blog post. If you are further interested in these issues, consider taking our course, Sea Level Rise and Real Estate: How Big a Risk?


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