Tag Archives: climate change

We Should Be Talking About the Effect of Climate Change on Cities

The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Photo: Getty Images.

Ashley Dawson | Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change | Verso | October 2017 | 17 minutes (4,461 words) 

This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

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An utter transformation of human habitation across the globe within one generation.

Milestones on the road toward climate chaos are all too frequent these days: in 2015, the Manua Loa Observatory in Hawaii reported that the daily mean concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere had surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time; each year Arctic sea ice levels grow lower and lower; permafrost in areas like Siberia and Alaska is melting, releasing dangerous quantities of methane into the atmosphere; and each year brings more violent storms and more severe droughts to different parts of the world. Indeed, news of apocalyptic climate-related events is so manifold that it can feel overwhelming, producing a kind of disaster fatigue. One recent announcement merits particular attention, however: in the summer of 2014, a team of NASA scientists announced conclusive evidence that the retreat of ice in the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica had become unstoppable. This melting alone, they concluded, will drive global sea levels up by over 1 meter (3 feet). As the Pine Island, Thwaites, and other glaciers of the Amundsen Sea sector collapse into the ocean, the effect is expected to be like a cork removed from a bottle of champagne: the ice the glaciers held back will rush rapidly into the sea, and the entire West Antarctic ice sheet will collapse. Sea levels will consequently rise 3 to 5 meters (10–16 feet). In addition, it was recently discovered that the same process that is driving this collapse, the intrusion of warmer ocean water beneath the glaciers in West Antarctica, is also eroding key glaciers in East Antarctica. The East Antarctic ice sheet contains even more ice than the western sheet: the Totten glacier alone would account for 7 meters (23 feet) of sea level rise. As if this weren’t bad enough news, a similar process of melting is also taking place in Greenland, where fjords that penetrate far inland are carrying warm water deep underneath the ice sheet.

These reports overturn long-held assumptions about the stability of Greenland’s glaciers: until recently, scientists had predicted that Greenland’s ice sheet would stabilize once the glaciers close to the warming ocean had melted. The discovery of ice-bound fjords reaching almost sixty-five miles inland has major implications since the glacier melt will be much more substantial than anticipated. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets combined contain over 99 percent of the Earth’s glacial ice. If they were to melt completely, they would raise global sea levels a virtually inconceivable 65 meters (200 feet). Although it remains unclear exactly how long the disintegration of these ice sheets will take, the implications of such melting for the world’s coastal cities are stark, and still almost totally unacknowledged by the general public. As Robert DeConto, co-author of a recent study that predicts significantly faster melt rates in the world’s largest glaciers, points out, we’re already struggling with 3 millimeters per year of sea level rise, but if the polar ice sheets collapse, “We’re talking about centimeters per year. That’s really tough. At that point your engineering can’t keep up; you’re down to demolition and rebuilding.”

Shockingly, few orthodox scientific predictions of sea level rise have taken the disintegration of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets into consideration. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, projects a high of three feet of sea level rise by 2100, but this prediction does not include a significant contribution from the West Antarctic ice sheet. Like the IPCC’s projection for Arctic sea ice collapse, which has moved up from 2100 to 2050 in the latest report, this prediction is clearly far too low. What explains such gross miscalculations? The protocols of scientific verifiability provide a partial explanation. The general public has urgently wanted to know, after city-wrecking hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy, whether the devastation was caused by climate change. But unfortunately scientists have until quite recently been unable to make direct links between particular extreme weather events and climate change in general. This, as environmental philosopher Dale Jamieson puts it in Reason in a Dark Time, would be like saying that a specific home run is “caused” by a baseball player’s batting average. If scientists are becoming less reticent to make these links, as the science of attribution grows more sophisticated and able to track the causes of weather extremes, the change is still occurring slowly.

Nevertheless, the IPCC’s failure to account for the destruction of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets can only add to skepticism toward their predictions, especially after they were widely attacked for their 2007 calculations about the speed of Himalayan glacial melting. Further fueled by the climate change denial industry, the IPCC’s own excessively rosy predictions for the future will only increase skepticism. In their 2000 report, for example, the body assumes that nearly 60 percent of hoped-for emissions reductions will occur independently of explicit mitigation measures. As the urban theorist Mike Davis has pointed out, the IPCC’s mitigation targets assume that profits from fossil capitalism will be recycled into green technology rather than penthouse suites in soaring skyscrapers. The IPCC projects a market-driven evolution toward a post-carbon economy, a set of assumptions that, as spiraling levels of greenhouse gas emissions since 2000 demonstrate all too clearly, are dead wrong. These projections concerning sea level rise and the vulnerability of coastal cities will have to be radically revised, especially after spectacular urban disasters hammer home the inadequacy of current projections. But these world-changing transformations will not take place in the distant future. Citing evidence drawn from the last major ice melt during the Eemian period, an interglacial phase about 120,000 years ago that was less than 1ºC warmer than it is today, climatologist James Hansen predicts that, absent a sharp and enduring reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, global sea levels are “likely to increase several meters over a timescale of 50 to 150 years.” Should they prove accurate, Hansen’s forecasts spell an utter transformation of human habitation across the globe within one generation. Read more…

28 Voices From the Storm

ORANGE, TX - SEPTEMBER 05: Matt Murray, a volunteer with an animal rescue organization, pets a small dog he found abandoned beside a flooded home on September 5, 2017 in Orange, Texas.Thousands of pets and livestock have either run away or been left to fend for themselves after Hurricane Harvey ravaged parts of the state of Texas. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The staff of Texas Monthly interviewed 28 Texans who together, tell the chronological story of Hurricane Harvey. They recount its birth as the blip on the radar that became the Atlantic hurricane season’s eighth tropical cyclone, to how it grew “into the strongest hurricane to hit Texas since Carla, in 1961, churning over the state for five agonizing days, releasing more rain than any storm ever in the continental United States, and [will] likely become the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.”

BILL ROGERS, 61, self-employed mechanic, Port Aransas. We started watching it when it started to develop, back when it was in the Caribbean. When you live like this, come hurricane season, your ears perk up and you start watching things. When I first moved here [25 years ago], I listened to the old shrimpers, what to do and what not to do. And I always heard, you leave when the birds leave—they know more than we do. But this caught everybody off guard, ’cause there’s dead birds all around my house.

ZACHARY DEARING: About two hours into being in [J.J.’s friend’s] house, the walls started breathing. If you were to put your hand on the walls in the house, it felt like if you were to put your hand on the chest of a horse.

WANDA WRIGHT: My sister came over on Friday. Probably two o’clock. We were fine. We sat here and played Yahtzee until we lost power, and then it started getting ugly. My mother took her hearing aid out and went to bed. She wasn’t scared. She didn’t hear a thing. The wind was blowing, and those windows are the slide-open kind and we were holding them. They were bowing out, even with plywood on them. The sound was like screaming—woooo! It sounded to me like forty hoarse old ladies in our trees were screaming. I can’t even make that noise. This went on for, like, three hours, then the eye came over, then dead silence for an hour and forty-five. Crickets. You could hear the frogs. I’ve been in an eye before, and the eye lasts thirty minutes. This one was almost two hours. And then it came back again. Then it was a different sound. Like a groaning. I mean, it’s a mystery. It sounded like there were forty salty banshees up in this tree.

LISA EICHER: In the middle of the night before, my husband had taken my Suburban and driven it to higher ground. The firemen dropped us off at a Valero just a couple miles away from there, and my husband had a neighbor come get him and take him to our car. So we waited at the Valero for a while, the kids and I, the pig and the dog. My little boy was only in his underwear. My daughter had no pants on. We had no shoes, and we were dripping wet. It was definitely a bit of a spectacle. The gas station attendant came out and gave us food and drinks. A homeless couple came up and gave us blankets because the kids were freezing cold, and they stayed with us. They didn’t want anything in return. They just wanted us to be okay, and the kids to be warm. We have the blankets in the car still, and I told my husband, “We are never getting rid of those.” It’s a good reminder of the goodness of people.

HOLLY HARTMAN: I texted [a dispatcher] and said, “Do you know if anyone has gotten to the family in Orange whose two boys were electrocuted?” He said, “Yeah, we got to them an hour ago.” That was in the afternoon, and they had called me at 3 a.m. So I think for at least twelve hours, that family was in their house with these two bodies.

BOBBY SHERWOOD: There have been a lot of tears. Everyone is distraught. When people heard about my house, they just started showing up with food and water. I have more stuff than a grocery store right now. My son Matt set up a barbecue grill and started feeding people who had not eaten in days. This is our town, and the people of Port Aransas are resilient. We care about each other, and we care about taking care of each other. Texans are tough. The people of Port A are tougher.

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The Elephant in the Flood

Businesses in Humble, Texas, are surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

Flood insurance suffers from actuarial issues that health insurance doesn’t. Whereas health insurance (theoretically) depends on people who need less care subsidizing those who need more, everyone who buys flood insurance needs it — and when catastrophic flooding happens, insurance has to pay out thousands of people at once. Efforts to revamp flood insurance programs move in fits and starts, securing payouts can be a challenge, and no one’s really sure if raising rates or privatizing the insurance programs to make them more financially feasible will actually help. Kate Aronoff walks us through all the policy implications at The Intercept.

The even bigger policy question is whether higher and more competitive rates will actually incentivize fewer people to live along high-risk coastlines, or just leave the shore open only to those wealthy homeowners and developers who can afford higher rates and round after round of rebuilding. President Donald Trump also repealed an Obama-era mandate for flood-prone construction, so there’s no guarantee that new shorefront structures will be able to withstand future damage. The result of higher rates, Elliot predicts, “is the socioeconomic transformation along with the physical transformation of the coastlines.”

Of course, the elephant wading through the flood is the fact that there are now millions of people living in areas that shouldn’t be inhabited at all, no matter the cost. “There’s the uncertainty of living at risk,” Elliot says, “and there’s the uncertainty of what it means to stay in your community when in the near to medium term, it’s going to become more expensive for you to do so — and in the long term, physically impossible.”

All we do know: as climate change continues, there are only going to be more floods. And while the words “insurance actuarial tables” might make your eyes glaze over, the need to rebuild or relocate from flood zones is going to become an issue for more and more people.

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The Rising Seas Are Coming From Inside the House

At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Aaron Bady turns in another of his excellent “Game of Thrones” reviews. Watching the high fantasy finale as Houston disappears underwater, he wonders: Is Game of Thrones really a fable about climate change? If it is, it’s got one key flaw; the Night’s King is an external threat can actually be defeated, but we’ll be the engine of our own destruction at the hands of climate change.

If Arya or Jaime kills Cersei and Jon kills the Night’s King, then the monsters will be vanquished and the good Kings and Queens will be able to build a democracy in peace, forever. If we can just kill the bad guys then there will be no more winter, you see; we’re all just building a better world. It’s as dumb as it sounds, when you put it like that, which is why Game of Thrones doesn’t put it like that. Instead, we get a ragtag band of brothers who, together, will cancel the apocalypse. We get the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a monster that can be slain, and isn’t us; we get the high fantasy dream that we’re all queens and knights and related to each other, and that no one else exists. But it’s still raining in Houston.

Fair warning: there are spoilers. And don’t miss the accompanying review by Sarah Mesle, whose season-long dissatisfaction at the Arya/Sansa relationship is not mollified by Sunday night’s Shocking Twist and the viewer manipulation leading up to it.

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Despair All Ye Who Enter Into the Climate Change Fray

(jcrosemann / Getty)

A New York Magazine story on climate change is making the rounds on the internet, frequently being shared by people characterizing it as a “terrifying” “must-read.” “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells, who goes on to tell his readers that even the most anxious among them are unaware of the terrors that are possible “even within the lifetime of a teenager today.”

What many readers seem to be overlooking is how frequently words like “may” appear in the text of Wallace-Wells’ article. “May” is in there seven times; “suggest” six times, “possible” and its variants a few more. Wallace-Wells is, of course, referencing the positions of scientists, whom he says have become extra cautious due to “climate denialism,” steering the public away from “speculative warnings” that could be debunked by future scientific progress, weakening their own case and giving weight to their opponents.

As Jack El-Hai wrote for Longreads in April of this year, science editor Peter Gwynne is still dogged by an article he wrote for Newsweek more than 40 years ago, “The Cooling World,” which predicted — wrongly, as it turns out — another Ice Age. The prediction at the time was supported by evidence, he claimed, that was mounting so quickly, “meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” The evidence Gwynne relied on has since been disproved — a phenomenon not uncommon a field as relatively young as climate study. As El-Hai noted:

The study of the world’s climate was still primitive in the 1970s. Few meteorological scientists then knew how to interpret trending temperature information, and the cause of climate changes was mysterious. The information that climate researchers had collected was incomplete and easy to misread. The biosciences have advanced by huge leaps since then, and many more scientists now study the climate.

Gwynne’s article was used for decades as fodder by those who trade in what Wallace-Wells dubs “climate denialisms,” showing how those determined not to believe in a certain scientific finding can benefit from the natural trial-and-error of most scientific inquiry.

After Wallace-Wells’s piece was published, climate scientist Michael E. Mann took to Facebook to criticize his story. (He also claimed Wallace-Wells interviewed but didn’t quote or mention him). Mann is equally critical of “doomist framing” and “those who understate the risks” of climate change, and argues that Wallace-Wells’ article includes “extraordinary claims” without “extraordinary evidence” to back it up.

About the risk of catastrophic methane released by melting permafrost, for example, Mann says the science “is much more nuanced and doesn’t support the notion of a game-changing, planet-melting methane bomb. It is unclear that much of this frozen methane can be readily mobilized by projected warming.”

Mann also highlights Wallace-Wells’ referencing of “satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.”

“That’s just not true,” writes Mann. “The study in question simply showed that one particular satellite temperature dataset that had tended to show less warming that the other datasets, has now been brought in line with the other temperature data after some problems with that dataset were dealt with… The warming of the globe is pretty much progressing as models predicted… which is bad enough.”

Mann’s position is that the evidence supporting the notion that climate change is “a serious problem that we must contend with now” is overwhelming enough without a doomsday narrative that he fears has a “paralyzing” effect and makes people feel hopeless, potentially deterring efforts to mitigate the human-caused harm.

There’s an argument to be made in defense of Wallace-Wells’ meltdown-style writing, however. As Atlas Obscura staff writer Sarah Laskow noted on Twitter, the exploration on which he embarks is hardly novel — New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert won a Pulitzer this year for a book on the topic, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Yet, Wallace-Wells’ story got readers’ attention in a way that seemed to suggest it was news they’d never encountered before.

For scientists like Mann, it’s true that the evidence easily at our fingertips is compelling enough to warrant immediate mitigating efforts. But not everyone is a scientist like Mann. As El-Hai noted in his piece on Gwynne’s disproved Newsweek article, a U.S. Senator held up a snowball on the Senate floor in 2015 as part of an argument that global warming isn’t real. Today, Antarctica is poised to shed one of the largest icebergs ever recorded, while the Trump administration is abandoning international climate agreements, undoing dozens of environmental regulations dealing with everything from methane to grizzly bears to chemical spills and using the agency meant to protect the environment to launch a program challenging climate science. In light of all that, it’s just as easy to sympathize with Mann’s concern about making people feel so hopeless they believe there’s nothing left to be done, as it is hard to blame Wallace-Wells for despairing.

A Village Falls into the Sea

Scientists study ice on the Chukchi Sea
Scientists study ice on the Chukchi Sea via NASA
Scientists study ice on the Chukchi Sea

In the middle of the map, climate change can feel like an abstraction. Is a warmer, wetter summer an anomaly in the weather pattern, or part of a greater change? Is this an early heat wave just a seasonal spike?

At the edges of the map though, the impact is very real. Solid ground is literally disappearing. At Sierra, Rachel Rivera visits Shishmaref, an island village north of Nome, Alaska, and witnesses the effect that global warming — and the resulting rising sea level — has had on this remote Native Alaskan settlement.

Long accustomed to living under the most extreme weather conditions, Inupiaq communities on Alaska’s Arctic coast are facing their toughest challenge yet. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Average air temperatures are more than 6°F warmer than they were at the beginning of the 20th century, and the lack of reflective snow is causing both land and sea to absorb more solar heat. The sea ice, critical to the creatures that sustain human life here, is melting. Sea ice also serves as a natural buffer, shielding coastal communities from the direct impact of storms. Recently, Shishmaref has been subject to stronger storm surges and increased flooding. A storm in 2013 eroded 50 feet of the beach overnight—including part of the road next to the airstrip, the only way out if the village should have to evacuate.

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Rising Up Against Climate Change: A Reading List

People take part in the March for Science in Portland, OR on April 22, 2017. (Alex Milan Tracy/ Sipa USA via AP)

Last Friday, I had the once-in-a-gosh-darn-lifetime opportunity to see Bill Nye—yes, the Science Guy himself—in a darkened auditorium of 1,200 people fist-pumping to his theme song and cheering for facts. He spent a significant chunk of the evening discussing climate change denial, the connection between climate change and terrorism, Donald Trump’s plan to slash funding for scientific organizations and initiatives, and the viability of Solutions Project. 

“Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution makes reference to the progress of science and the useful arts,” Nye said. “It doesn’t say for the repression of science. It doesn’t say ignoring the facts discovered by the means of science.” He’s optimistic about our future and disturbed by what he call’s the United States’ “can’t-do attitude.” His number one piece of advice for advocating for climate change awareness? “Talk about it.” So that’s what I’m doing in this week’s reading list.

1. “The Most Important Thing We Can Do to Fight Climate Change is Try.” (Rebecca Solnit, The Nation, March 2015)

Author and activist Rebecca Solnit urges us to commit to love and hope, not despair, in spite of our terrifying present:

“You have to be willing to imagine a world in which we recognize that what we’re called upon to do is not necessarily to sacrifice; instead, it’s often to abandon what impoverishes and trivializes our lives: the frenzy to produce and consume in a landscape of insecurity about our individual and collective futures.”

2. “Is it O.K. to Tinker With the Environment to Fight Climate Change?” (Jon Gertner, The New York Times Magazine, April 2017)

Picture this:

Ten Gulfstream jets, outfitted with special engines that allow them to fly safely around the stratosphere at an altitude of 70,000 feet, take off from a runway near the Equator. Their cargo includes thousands of pounds of a chemical compound — liquid sulfur, let’s suppose—that can be sprayed as a gas from the aircraft. It is not a one-time event; the flights take place throughout the year, dispersing a load that amounts to 25,000 tons. If things go right, the gas converts to an aerosol of particles that remain aloft and scatter sunlight for two years. The payoff? A slowing of the earth’s warming—for as long as the Gulfstream flights continue.

Solar geoengineering used to be akin to fringe science, perceived as weird or dangerous. David Keith, head of Harvard University’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, remains cautiously optimistic about the potential of this fascinating field.

3. “A Reflection of the Current Crisis in California.” (David Goodrich, Climate Science & Policy Watch, September 2015)

David Goodrich, former Director of the United National Global Climate Observing System, is the author of A Hole in the Wind: A Climate Scientist’s Bicycle Journey Across the United States. This excerpt tracks Goodrich’s trek out West, observing increased wildfires, for which “climate change is the background music.”

4. “The Least Convenient Truth: Part I—Climate Change and White Supremacy.” (Bani Amor, Bitch, December 2016)

“Fuck inclusivity. If people who have had their land stolen from them and people who were stolen from their lands are not considered key in the economic management of their own environments, then solutions to their specific climate struggles will not be effective; they won’t address the problems at their roots. And when it comes to disaster preparedness for Black and brown people in coastal regions, staying alive is a matter of knowing their roots.”

Further reading:

The Conservative Movement to Get the GOP on Board With Global Warming

That’s not how all hunters approach climate change. Randy Newberg, a hunter and advocate for hunting on public lands, has no qualms about acknowledging the problem. “If you spend as much time in the hills as I do, I don’t know how you could deny that climate is changing,” he says. Deniers exist, “but honestly, I call them the flat-Earth society,” he adds. Many hunters see climate change as a serious threat to the wildlife and public lands they want to protect for future generations. That’s what’s been driving the conservation movement for decades in the US, and it should not be a liberal or a conservative issues, says Newberg, who identifies as an Independent. “Maybe I’m naive and too idealistic for today’s political world,” he says, “but I struggle to understand how is it that clean air and clean water and productive lands are a partisan issue. To me, they’re an American issue.”

For now, the White House hasn’t been very responsive, but it might be just too early to tell, says Bozmoski. Some proposals coming out of Washington — like the carbon tax and the climate change resolution — seem to bode well. “It really stokes our optimism on the Eco Right, that our family has gotten bigger and more powerful,” Bozmoski says. At the same time, he says, it will take time for Republicans to come together and put forward a climate change policy — they will need to get over the divisions within their own party and develop an actual policy. That’s what groups like republicEn are there for, Bozmoski says. And he has high hopes. “The prospects for a coalition of lawmakers moving forward with a solution is better now than it has been in any point since 2010,” Bozmoski says. “There’s no more pussyfooting around climate change out of fear.”

At The Verge, Alessandra Potenza describes conservatives, young and old, who are working to rally Republican voters around the issue of global warming in a way that gets GOP policy makers to finally listen. They’re doing this on multiple fronts, addressing fellow conservatives’ concern for national security, economics, hunting and fishing, and trying to get them on the right side of history.

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In 1975, Newsweek Predicted A New Ice Age. We’re Still Living with the Consequences.

Antarctica
Penguins stand on a rock near station Bernardo O'Higgins, Antarctica, 2015. Photo: AP
Antarctica

Jack El-Hai | Longreads | April 2017 | 6 minutes (1,500 words)

Last year was the hottest on record for the third consecutive pass of the calendar. Glaciers and polar ice melt, plant and animal species go extinct at a rapid rate, and sea levels rise. Clearly the consequences of climate change are immense.

Does anyone out there think we’re at the dawn of a new ice age?

If we had asked that question just 40 years ago, an astonishing number of people — including some climatologists — would have answered yes. On April 28, 1975, Newsweek published a provocative article, “The Cooling World,” in which writer and science editor Peter Gwynne described a significant chilling of the world’s climate, with evidence accumulating “so massively that meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” He raised the possibility of shorter growing seasons and poor crop yields, famine, and shipping lanes blocked by ice, perhaps to begin as soon as the mid-1980s. Meteorologists, he wrote, were “almost unanimous” in the opinion that our planet was getting colder. Over the years that followed, Gwynne’s article became one of the most-cited stories in Newsweek’s history. Read more…

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Cheerful Novel of Climate Change

Hachette

Kim Stanley Robinson is the rare sci-fi novelist that deals in utopias, rather than dystopias—government scientists are often the heroes of his novels, and their quick thinking and bureaucratic efficiency often save the day.

His latest book, New York 2140, takes place not at the moment of catastrophe—in the year 2100, sea levels rise and flood New York so that a majority of the city is 50 feet underwater—but 40 years later, as most city-dwellers do what they’ve always done, and simply gotten along with it. At New York Magazine, Robinson talks with Jake Swearingen about why he made a novel about climate change with a positive outlook.

I was expecting this very dystopian, grim novel. But it’s remarkably cheerful! It’s like one of Dickens’s happier novels, or Les Misérables where it’s this exploration of a city from the sewer system up, through all these different characters.

I thought of the book eventually as a comedy of coping, and to do that I picked a time, or perhaps 40 years after the disaster itself. If it was set in the midst of the catastrophic flood in 2100, the disaster would have dominated that work. It would not have been the comedy of coping — it would have been the disaster of refugee creation.

But I think, at some point, science fiction has to imagine the people who come after, when the situation will be natural, whatever it is. If that natural situation that they’re coping with is that new part of Manhattan that resembles Venice, there will be good parts to that as well as bad parts. There will be beautiful parts as well as moldy, horrible parts. So I wanted to convey that as part of the vibe of this novel.

Read the interview