Elizabeth Rush
Elizabeth Rush, author of “Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore,” will speak at VCU on Oct. 13. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Rush)

Elizabeth Rush wants us to think about climate, sea level rise and our connections to nature

The author will discuss her book, “Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore,” VCU’s 2021 Common Book, on Oct. 13.

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Virginia Commonwealth University’s Common Book for 2021, “Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore,” provides a look at the impact of climate change and rising sea levels on coastal communities. The book by Elizabeth Rush was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction and was the winner of the National Outdoor Book Award. 

Sea level rise has become an urgent and relevant issue because of the flooding problems coastal areas have experienced in recent years, many as a result of hurricanes and tropical storms.

VCU’s Common Book Program is sponsored by University College and the Office of the Provost. It aims to welcome new students into the vibrant intellectual culture of VCU by providing an opportunity to explore complex social issues through an interdisciplinary lens. Rush will talk about “Rising” at a virtual event on Oct. 13 at 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Ahead of her talk, she spoke with VCU News about her book, climate change and sea level rise in America.

book cover for “Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore”
“Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore”

When and how did you become interested in sea rise?

I became interested in sea level rise in particular around 2010. I had to report on the India and Bangladesh border fence for Le Monde diplomatique, which is the French version of Harper’s. I spent a month in each country. Bangladesh, as many know, is ground zero for sea rise, but something that a lot of folks don’t know is that as the upland ecosystem changes due to river mismanagement, saline is entering the aquifer 100 miles inland and causing crops to die. Families were having to relocate. I figured if it is happening in Bangladesh, it’s happening here. So I went in search of places in the U.S.

Did you experience sea rise where you lived?

There are a number of communities that I write about that I lived or worked in. I had direct relationships with members of the community. For example, I taught at a college on Staten Island. A lot of students in the community were impacted by Hurricane Sandy. 

How did you identify the people you talk about in the book?

Once I figured out that I might want to spend time in a particular place, like the southern coast of Louisiana, I laced up my shoes and would spend days going door to door and asking people about their flood stories. The thing that most transformed me while working on this book was sitting in strangers’ living rooms listening to their recollections on different storms, the growing realization of how vulnerable they were, and also what they decided to do with that vulnerability.

What was one of the most emotional interviews you did for the book?

I think my conversations with Nicole Montalto, who lost her father during Sandy, were the most emotional for me. She and her neighbors chose to move away from their homes after Sandy. They all stayed on Staten Island, but they relocated out of the flood zone. I remember sitting in Nicole’s aunt’s living room and hearing Nicole speak for hours about searching for her father and discovering that not only was he not where he ought to be, he simply wasn’t anywhere anymore. I think that realization untethered her, really changed her idea of what home is or ought to be. 

How long did it take you to research and write the book?

It took a month to three years on the research for each chapter. From soup to nuts, the book took eight years. I remember one of the geologists that I worked with telling me how surprised he was to be seeing sea level rise in his lifetime. He told me that he would return to certain little islands in the Florida Keys year after year and they were washing away. I’m seeing it all around me. In writing this book, I learned to see climate change in the present tense.

What’s something interesting that you learned while doing your research?

Some people deny sea level rise because, I think, it affects their livelihood. For example, if you are a lobsterman or woman and you recognize that the number of fish keeps dropping, some part of your instinct might be to deny that climate change is impacting you because in denying it you are holding on to your idea of who you are. We don’t want to lose the fundamental idea of who we are. People feel very stuck and very scared. But what happens when you present that person with alternative ways for making a living that still keep them in a relationship with the ocean — like aquaculture — that same person might move to climate acceptance. I saw this a lot in front-line communities. Those who got to choose how they wanted to adapt were more willing to accept climate change as a driver. 

“I remember … hearing Nicole speak for hours about searching for her father and discovering that not only was he not where he ought to be, he simply wasn’t anywhere anymore.”

Elizabeth Rush

What do we know about sea level rise?

There is a lot of uncertainty around seal level rise. Scientists estimate a 2- to 9-foot sea level rise by the end of the century. The past 6,000 years have been really stable in terms of ice sheet dynamics. If you look back 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, you see an average sea level rise of 3 feet per century. So I think 2 to 9 feet is still [a] pretty conservative [estimate]. We are moving from a period of relative stability to a period of rapid change.

What areas in the U.S. are the most vulnerable?

If you are drawing a line in the U.S. from New Jersey down the coast around Florida to Texas, that line is pretty vulnerable. It has to do with how the last ice sheet withdrew and things we have done to the Mississippi River.

What are the takeaways from “Rising”?

There are two takeaways from the book. I want people to think about how all different kinds of people have a relationship to nature. In the U.S., people think nature and environmental concerns are for white, wealthy folks but it’s all kinds of people who have relationships with the more-than-human world. However, it’s the white ones who have largely controlled the story up until this point. We need to invite [more] voices into conversation with climate change and the environment. Another takeaway is that people will have to retreat from low-lying places and it is our job to make that as equalitarian an adaptation strategy as possible.

What cities in Virginia are vulnerable to sea level rise? 

In Virginia, Norfolk is very vulnerable, but they are doing some interesting, progressive responses to what sea level rise will look like.* They can help people who live in high-risk flooding areas move away from the most vulnerable land by linking upland development rights to the distinguishing of those rights in places where future habitation isn’t tenable.

*Editor’s note: The Climate Power Education Fund’s latest Climate Impact Report notes that Norfolk sees $26 million in costs a year from flooding as of August 2021. It is second to New Orleans among the largest cities in the U.S. at risk from sea level rise. Coastal Norfolk has seen water levels rise 14 inches since 1930 and is expected to see increases of up to 4.5 feet by 2100.