Thursday, March 08, 2018

Rising Seas, Sinking Cities

The title of the post is from the subtitle of a recent book by Jeff Goodell, The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilised World (Little, Brown and Co., 2017), which I’ve yet to read but is reviewed by Meehan Crist* in the London Review of Books: “Besides, I’ll be dead” (Vol. 40, No. 4 · 22 February 2018). Goodell’s book concentrates on one of the more disconcerting and eventually devastating effects of the rise of temperature causally tied to climate change (hence ‘global warming’): the imminent threat of sea level rise which, according to Elizabeth Kolbert, is explained “with characteristic rigor and intelligence. The result is at once deeply persuasive and deeply unsettling.” And, as Crist helpfully and succinctly reminds us in her review,

“Global sea level rise is hard for scientists to predict, but the trend is clear. Massive ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic have begun to collapse, in a phenomenon known as ‘marine ice-sheet instability,’ which previous models of global sea level rise didn’t take into account. When the Paris Agreement was drafted just over two years ago, it was based on reports that ice sheets would remain stable and on the assumption that sea levels could rise by up to three feet two inches by the end of the century. In 2015, NASA estimated a minimum of three feet. In 2017, a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the pre-eminent climate science agency in the United States, revised estimates up dramatically, stating that by 2100 sea levels could rise by more than eight feet. Last year, a study estimated that if carbon emissions continue at present levels, by 2100 sea levels will have risen by as much as 11 feet. Higher sea levels mean higher storm surges, like the nine-foot surge that inundated Lower Manhattan and severely affected neighbourhoods in Long Island and New Jersey, but also that low-lying coastal areas, from Bangladesh to Amsterdam, will be underwater in less than a hundred years. It’s worth remembering that two-thirds of the world’s cities sit on coastlines. In a high-emissions scenario, average high tides in New York could be higher than the levels seen during Sandy. A rise in global sea levels of 11 feet would fully submerge cities like Mumbai and a large part of Bangladesh. The question is no longer if – but how high, and how fast.”

I want to highlight the section of Crist’s review which raises a number of psychological questions and topics surrounding the well-attested and apparently recalcitrant phenomenon of “climate change denial:”

“Sea level rise is a problem humans are particularly ill-equipped to handle. We’re not good at thinking on geological timescales and ‘we are not wired to make decisions about barely perceptible threats that gradually accelerate over time.’ [I happen not to like the metaphor here, and don’t believe constitutional myopia is simply an ineliminable part of human nature.] To help explain inaction in the face of rising seas, Goodell invokes, as others have, the five stages of grief outlined by the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, [and] acceptance. He suggests that in Miami at least, denial is giving way to anger and bargaining, with overtones of fear. But classical grief paradigms, in which the object of attachment has gone and must be mourned, don’t map neatly onto the experience of living in a city that may soon be submerged. Reading this, it seemed to me that there is another psychological paradigm, less often invoked in discussions of climate grief that might be more apt. In the 1970s Pauline Boss, studying families of soldiers who had gone missing in action, coined the term ‘ambiguous loss’ to describe the arrested mourning that follows a loss without closure or understanding.

Boss describes two types of ambiguous loss: when the object is physically absent but psychologically present (as with soldiers missing in action), and when the object is physically present but psychologically absent (as with Alzheimer’s disease). The first helps illuminate the arrested mourning often experienced by climate refugees. How do you mourn a home that is sinking into a faraway sea, but remains psychologically present? The second type of ambiguous loss is appropriate to the experience of living in an area threatened by a rise in sea levels. The object of attachment is there but not there – still present, but slowly disappearing. How do you mourn the loss of someone whose hand you can still hold? How do you mourn a home increasingly prone to flooding, but not submerged, yet? The parallels aren’t perfect, but even the disjunctures reveal how wickedly hard the problem of climate grief can be. When a beloved person is slowly disappearing into the fog of senescence, the endpoint is known. With rising seas, the endpoint remains unknown. Three feet? Eight feet? Grief is stalled by uncertainty. For what eventuality should you and your community prepare? Of what do you need to let go in order to move forward? The incentive to wait and see is powerful. But hoping for a rise in sea levels of just one or two feet by 2100 is starting to look a lot like self-delusion, and for those who have the luxury of choice, clinging to life at the waterline is increasingly an exercise in self-defeat. For politicians and the rich, who prosper from maintenance of the status quo, it is increasingly unconscionable.”

There’s much food for thought here, and you can select from the menu for yourself, but I want to note that there appears to be, in addition, a number of (related) cognitive and so-called social biases, as well as sundry irrational cognitive mechanisms and informal fallacies of reasoning and argumentation that might account for the persistence of climate change denial and the corresponding failure to acknowledge the motley possible and probable harms identified with climate change as direct and by-product effects of modern (hyper-) industrialized societies to properly comport themselves with the ecological systems and processes that sustain all forms of life on our planet (some of the effects may turn out to be beneficent, but these are considerably outweighed by the growing list of environmental harms): cognitive dissonance, the confirmation bias, conservatism with regard to belief revision, hyperbolic time-discounting, neglect of probability, normalcy bias, wishful thinking, denial, status quo bias and system justification, in-group bias, undue reliance on the availability heuristic, argumentum ad ignorantiam, fallacy of composition, and fallacy of prejudice come quickest to mind.

I urge you to read both Goodell’s book and Crist’s review, well aware that the diet of news on the home front as well as news from abroad (e.g., the ongoing war in Syria, the bombing of Yemen, the worldwide refugee crisis, acts of genocide against the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar, terrorist bombings, reactionary and often fascist political parties and movements, and so forth and so on) can be rather depressing. But our religious traditions and philosophical worldviews have cultivated an abundant supply of spiritual exercises or therapeutic regimens and time-tested means for cultivating mindfulness and a proper sense of perspective that should keep us from sliding into despair and depression, prevent us from feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed, and steel us for the ongoing struggles for a saner and more just world, one which further contributes to the historical progress made thus far in the quest for general human emancipation, progress that has been at times episodic and uneven (and it not of course assured) yet the general direction remains constant and encouraging.

We’ll bring things to a close with the conclusion from our review:

“What will happen in the next eighty years remains far from certain. There is a tipping point after which ice sheets will fully collapse – Greenland holds enough water to raise sea levels by roughly 22 feet – but researchers don’t know where that point lies. In January, NOAA released a major report on sea level rise that factors in current ice-sheet collapse and more than doubles the median rise in global sea levels predicted at the time of the Paris Agreement, from 2.3 feet to 4.9 feet. Goodell’s conclusion is crystal clear: ‘If we want to minimise the impact of sea level rise in the next century, here’s how we do it: stop burning fossil fuels and move to higher ground.’ If humans stopped using fossil fuels entirely by 2050, we might face two to three feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. Instead of 4.9 feet. Or 11 feet. But the water will come. The future depends on how humans rise to meet it.” 

* Meehan Crist is a writer in residence in biological sciences at Columbia University. She hosts a podcast called “Convergence.”


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