Elizabeth Rush is a journalist and author who was named a Pulitzer Finalist for her book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. Rising documents the people, communities and ecosystems impacted by sea level rise. Sea levels are rising at an increasing rate due to climate change warming our planet and melting glaciers and ice sheets. Communications manager, Cody Sullivan, spoke with Elizabeth about her book and how she sees the state of our shores.
Cody Sullivan: First off, congratulations on being named a Pulitzer Finalist!
Elizabeth Rush: It floored me to find out! We had guests in from out of town and were out at lunch, but when I got back to my apartment I had a message from my editor saying, “Congratulations, Pulitzer finalist!” It totally struck me by surprise.
Sullivan: That’s amazing. Now in your book, you mention that it has numerous beginnings. How did this book begin?
Rush: For a couple of years I would on and off write more traditional journalism about sea level rise. I felt like the more communities I visited and saw being impacted by sea level rise, the more important and pressing I knew the topic was. And yet I started to get really bored by the kind of language that I could use and had to use to fit a sea level rise story into a newspaper. But I got a really neat fellowship and essentially went to teach at Bates College for two years. That gave me the space and time to dive into the writing of Rising in a way I couldn’t in newspapers.
Sullivan: Your book is all about sea level rise, one of climate change’s big ocean impacts. But talking about climate change can be a challenge, how did you think through talking about climate change in particular and what type of language you would use?
Rush: Coming at this question from a place of hope is really key to telling climate change stories. The doom and gloom narratives are just super apocalyptic and shut down the sense of possibility. Some of the stories I’m most excited about in Rising—one, in particular, is the group of folks in Staten Island who after Hurricane Sandy decided to come together as a community and say, “We really don’t feel safe living here anymore.” They started this really amazing grassroots campaign and eventually went to Governor Cuomo who agreed to purchase and demolish homes along the eastern shore of Staten Island. Their story is one I really want to hold up as a possible pathway forward. You can choose to give up some of the things that define you while holding on to others. About 80% of the people stayed on Staten Island and as part of their community. When you zoom in on these local stories you can see that some of the things you fear the most aren’t actually happening.
Sullivan: The communities that will be most impacted by climate change and sea level rise are typically lower income and minority communities. How did you and how can we interact with and communicate about these communities in a respectful and not exploitative way?
Rush: I thought about that constantly while at work on this book. First things first, if you want to write about or interact with a community that is made vulnerable by preexisting structural problems to climate change, the first question that should enter into your mind is how can this be a reciprocal relationship? As I interacted with these communities I thought, “What do they need?” I would also act as a point of contact between communities for them to talk to each other about what was working and what wasn’t working for them. I didn’t want to bomb into a community and take a bunch of stories then leave. You want to make yourself vulnerable and from that shared vulnerability a collective, collaborative project can arise. The key is to not pretend like you have the answers but to go into an interaction wanting to listen.
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Sullivan: You spend a lot of time visiting wetlands in your book. We do a lot of work in the Gulf, especially after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and restoring wetlands is pillar number one down there. What value do you see in restoration and mitigation efforts today?
Rush: On a more fundamental level, if we don’t take seriously the need to keep our wetlands healthy and actively restore and maintain the wetlands we have, we will lose a tremendous percentage of our wetland-dependent species. One of the things that really shocked me in reporting Rising, and in a horrible way, is that 50% of our endangered species are wetland dependent. If we don’t do that work right now, when we think about the sixth extinction, a huge percentage of those animals will be those that needed wetlands to survive but didn’t get that opportunity to adapt and rise up. We do need to wrap our minds around retreat but we need to wrap our minds around retreat for everyone and everything. How can we get wetlands to rise up? They can’t rise up if they aren’t there in the first place.
Sullivan: It makes me think about how you mention that we’re all in this together and in the same tribe, both the human and natural world. And, personally, I think that it’s worth advocating for and restoring the environment just for the environment’s sake because we’re a part of it.
Rush: I completely agree. In my mind I think, of course, we don’t want to be a key part of the extinction of 50% of our wetland species. It’s just as a matter of character!
Sullivan: So for that not to happen, what will it take to really address the issue of climate change and sea level rise?
Rush: I think that we’re not that far away from the moment where we recognize that this vulnerability is something that we share. So many people are exposed to and live on the front lines of climate change. They may live on the front lines because of a history of redlining in a city, because they come from a long family of civil servants or because they’re part of a tribal community that was displaced and had to settle on the kind of land no one wanted. All of those communities might look different when you separate them into race or class boxes, but what they share is their vulnerability. And in the past few years, there’s been a huge dramatic shift where climate change is now part of the political discussion. I think it’s brought forward the idea of this vulnerability as something that we share and that together we can demand action.
Sullivan: In reporting Rising, did you see any adaptation or mitigation strategies that you thought were the best options?
Rush: What’s happening in the California Bay Area. While I wasn’t completely won over, I think that they’re trying really hard and trying to come up with and think through the problem in a way that points towards a recognition of social vulnerability. What I found hopeful was that they acknowledge we have to think at the system level.
Sullivan: If you wanted a reader to walk away with a call to action, what would you want your reader to walk away thinking, “This is what I can do.”?
Rush: If you’re a reader who is already deeply invested in the climate change conversation, my call to action is for you to think about the language you use when you talk about climate change. It can be perceived as violent in its own right and projecting a worldview and set of politics along with that language might be getting in the way of you communicating.
How can we make this conversation more democratic? How can we make space for more voices to be a part of it? How can we let go of this idea that it’s something we control, we know, we have the statistics around and we share information about?
Another call to action would be to have conversations around retreat. And also think of it as an opportunity to mend our relationship to each other and the land, instead of us just losing something.
Third, I think we’re at a moment where we are starting to see real political energy around climate change. Figure out what a hot button topic is in your community and think about how you can be politically active in your community around that issue. Right now is the time to act, let’s make this a definitive issue.