The Pacific Ocean off the California coast could rise more than six feet by the end of this century, according to some estimates.
“We have a lot of time before some of these big changes. I mean, you could say 2100, you know, I’m not even going to be alive in 2100,” Charles Lester, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Center in the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara, says.
“But the changes that we should be thinking about in order to be resilient then … needs to start now.”
That rising water is forcing the state and its coastal communities to completely rethink their viability, resilience, and even their resistance to change.
“What does it mean to actually protect the coast in the face of sea level rise? Is protecting the coast, truly holding the line, and maintaining the world as we know it,” Rosanna Xia, environmental reporter for the LA Times, says.
“Is maintaining the status quo what we actually want? Have we actually stopped to think about that?”
Today, On Point: Lessons from California on what must change for everyone in a world of rising water.
Rosanna Xia, environmental reporter for the LA Times. Author of “California Against the Sea: Visions for our Vanishing Coastline.”
A.R. Siders, director of the Climate Change Hub and professor on climate change adaptation at the University of Delaware.
Serge Dedina, former mayor of Imperial Beach, California and Co-Founder and Executive Director of Wildcoast.
Charles Lester, director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Center in the Marine Science Institute at UC Santa Barbara.
Angela Mooney D’Arcy, founder and executive director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Imperial Beach is the Southernmost beach town on the California coast – it’s right up against the Mexican border. Former mayor Serge Dedina describes it this way:
SERGE DEDINA: It’s the last really blue collar, funky beach town left in Southern California. We’re a majority minority community. It’s 4 square miles surrounded by water really on all 4 sides.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s not exactly an island. But Imperial Beach was developed in the early 1900s. And it’s built on filled-in mud flats, and it’s surrounded to the south by the Tijuana Estuary and to the north by the wetlands of South San Diego Bay. And of course, to the west, there’s the Pacific Ocean.
Dedina has seen some very high tides surge on Imperial Beach over the years, but it was one day in the winter of 2018 that sticks most in his mind. Forecasters had predicted king tides – those super high tides that coincide with a new or full moon.
DEDINA: So the surf was very short interval, 8 to 10 foot. I saw something I hadn’t really seen in a long time, or something I’d seen during hurricane swells in the tropics. The ocean was angry.
And with my lifelong friend, Robert Stabenow, who was the lifeguard chief, we’ve been spent the last 45 years surfing these waves, lifeguarding together. And then we saw this wall of water coming at us, just like this wall of water that I was actually filming and then just got enveloped in it.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s the sound that Dedina recorded of that wall of water. He was at the south end of the beach where the streets and developments end. And he watched the seawater come up over the dunes, flood a parking lot, and flow into the neighboring estuary.
DEDINA: A lot of guys were like, “You should block it up.” And one guy started trying to shovel sand into it. But I’ve seen California state parks. They get bulldozers, and they bulldoze up the berms to stop flooding and this year we had some big surf and it just wiped it all out overnight.
CHAKRABARTI: Dedina says Imperial Beach is lucky to have these natural estuaries that can absorb some of the flooding. However, some estimates show the Pacific Ocean rising more than six feet by the next century. Dedina says Imperial Beach could see 1/3 of the town disappear in the coming decades.
Now those king tides and coastal flooding that Serge Dedina experienced as mayor forced him to switch his focus from town improvements — like fixing the library and putting in sidewalks — to investing in cleaning up and preparing for future king tides.
Similar, sudden rethinking is happening up and down California’s 1,200 miles of coastline. If you turned California on its side and stretched out those 1,200 miles of coastline, it would reach from New York City all the way to Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s that long, and that varied. Which is why, there are lessons from California’s changing relationship with its coast for everyone who lives near rising water anywhere.
Rosanna Xi is an environmental reporter for the LA Times where she focuses on the coast. She was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for her work covering rising sea levels.
She won the 2020 Pulitzer prize for explanatory reporting for her work covering rising sea levels. And she has a new book out now. It’s called “California Against the Sea: Visions for our Vanishing Coastline.”
And Rosanna joins us from LA. Welcome to On Point.
ROSANNA XI: Hi, Megnha.
CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, let’s take a little virtual journey from the tip of the Southern California coast all the way to the Northern California coast where it borders with the state of Oregon. So that first, I don’t know, couple of hundred miles from, let’s say, the Mexican border to a little bit of north of Los Angeles.
What is the coastline like there?
XI: Yeah, and I, oh my goodness, really appreciated hearing Serge Dedina’s reflections just now out of Imperial Beach. And just, I think, talking about Southern California alone I think of that from Santa Barbara all the way to Imperial Beach, and that’s some of the most iconic coastline in California, right?
Like we think of Santa Monica, we think of Malibu, and we’ve got these images of wide, flat, sandy beaches, some cliffs if you go down along San Diego, lots of estuaries and river plains, but it’s almost like we are blind to this looming disaster of sea level rise. Because so much of it is sunshine filled and the way we’ve altered our environments make us think that, “Hey, the beach is going to be here forever.”
CHAKRABARTI: So we have those iconic sandy beaches in Southern California. What does it change into as you move further north?
XI: Yeah, more cliffs. I think most folks can conjure an image of Big Sur, the Monterey Bay, and then as you go further north, San Francisco, folks in San Francisco think they’re in Northern California, but there’s like another six, seven hours of driving north of San Francisco.
The Sonoma coast, I call it Malibu North, also, amazing cliffs that like plummet straight into the ocean, cobbled beaches, really cool rock formations, and then, further north you have Mendocino, Humboldt, Del Norte County, and that’s where it gets really similar to the landscapes of the Oregon coast.
CHAKRABARTI: Meaning more cliffs, different kinds of forests, things like that.
XI: Yes, the redwoods. Thank you for reminding me. I feel like when you hit Santa Cruz, you’re like, Oh my God, there are forests right by the ocean.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, it gets pretty rocky also up there. And I just want to note for everyone that as you move North, the water, the Pacific, gets much colder, so there isn’t year-round swimming. (LAUGHS)
XI: I mean it’s pretty cold, not like the Atlantic.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. The reason why I wanted to ask that is because the geology and ecology of the California coastline is quite varied, which means that even though everyone is having to face a future of much higher ocean, the ways they might have to deal with it are different.
So can you then describe to me, we talked about the natural features of the coastline, what about the human features, the communities, like how would you describe what they’re like in various places on the coast?
XI: Yeah, and there are so many interesting communities up and down the coast. You were saying it’s 1,200 miles long.
And each of these places have their like own landscapes and histories and problems and social histories in the way we developed. And I’m thinking about Imperial Beach. It’s, as you said, surrounded on three sides by water. By the Bay, the Tijuana River and the ocean. So that’s a unique situation for that community.
And, yeah, it’s just, it’s interesting because as I was thinking about, just through the course of my reporting how to tell the story of the California coast, on the one hand, all these communities are so different and have their own kind of sets of concerns and values and priorities and what they’re afraid of.
On the other hand, the ocean knows no bounds, right? Just because you build a seawall in one town doesn’t mean that at the end of that town boundary the ocean just stops. And so thinking about how to piece together and think about this broader landscape while also attending to the communities, for example, along the San Francisco Bay shoreline.
And communities that are placed on top of former toxic waste sites, versus Laguna Beach, some of the most expensive real estate in the country where, someone might own two-multimillion-dollar homes next to each other so that no one ever blocks their ocean view. The range is truly incredible in California.
And I think really just figuring out how all these people belong into one conversation about the future of this very varied and dynamic landscape has been truly interesting. So help me understand something though. I guess if this is not unique to California at all, but I’m wondering if there’s a story behind why so much, or so many coastal communities in California are built basically right up to the waterline or as close as they can get. And they’ve been, they’ve been there for decades upon decades. Is there a particular reason for that?
XI: Yeah. I think A) our human condition seems to, throughout history, we’ve just been drawn to the water.
There’s something about living at the edge, of just the edge between where land meets the most massive body of water on the planet. There’s something really magical about that. And I think, anywhere you look, there are coastal communities. It’s where we build our harbors. It’s where, historically, our trade centers are.
And in California, one of the most fascinating fun facts I learned in the course of my reporting is that our like peak development in the post-World War II era coincided with this blip in the cycle called the Pacific decadal oscillation where basically sea level rise got suppressed for a couple decades, because of like the way the ocean and atmosphere interacts.
We talked a lot about El Nino, La Nina in California. So that’s a climate cycle that folks are familiar with, but there’s also the Pacific decadal oscillation. And basically, during the quote-unquote quiet periods of the cycle, the winds pull essentially the warmer water offshore and then the cold water inhabits the areas closest to the shoreline.
And, if you think about it, warm water expands, cold water takes up less space. So we have the sea level rise suppression just at the point when we were building the California coast, as we know it today, settling the shoreline and our population boom.
It’s fascinating because I think of it today and we built right to the water’s edge, but the water’s edge was so much farther. And now the water is trying to move in.
CHAKRABARTI: That is really interesting. We’ve just got about a minute till our first break. Do you know if there was a sort of an adequate understanding of that particular oscillation of sea level at the time the surge in development happened?
Or were people just, “Wow, the water is great. It’s perfect. It has been for a couple of years, so let’s build.”
XI: I think we were pretty blinded to the forces of the ocean back then, and I would say we still are today. This idea that we can fix, quote-unquote line in the sand through hardened infrastructure through our coastal highway through sea walls, through entire neighborhoods and cities.
That idea totally is in conflict with the fact that our coastline is essentially meant to move. If you go out to the beach, the tideline is never the same twice. And just not recognizing that and building our development in a way that is counter to this natural dynamic process along our shoreline is what got us into the situation in the first place.
CHAKRABARTI: So Rosanna, let’s pick up on that vanishing coastline part. Can you describe some of the changes in some of the communities that you’ve reported on that have occurred in the past, even just couple of years, regarding where the water is, the shape of the coastline, the integrity of the homes right on the coast, that kind of thing.
XI: Yeah. And we were just talking about fixed lines in the sand that we have drawn between ocean and what we want to call land. And, you said this at the beginning, but the numbers are pretty stark. We’re looking at as much as six, maybe seven feet of sea level rise by the end of the century.
And the consensus at the moment, among state agencies in California, is to prepare all our communities and infrastructure for three and a half feet of sea level rise by 2050. Three and a half feet by 2050 is not that far into the future. And, to put things into perspective, when I first started looking into this, I was like, what does one foot of sea level rise look like?
And so I find it helpful to imagine that generally speaking, for every one foot of sea level rise, the ocean actually moves about 300 feet inland, so that’s like an entire football field. So think about that and like the coastline that you know it today and what 300 feet inland would look like per foot of sea level rise.
And in terms of communities, like I’m thinking about Capitola in Santa Cruz, or just outside of Santa Cruz, and it’s this funky, really cool little beach town with their colorful, iconic apartment buildings, condos right on the sand, literally right on the sand, and it’s buttressed by the seawall that’s barely ankle high. And it was built in the ’20s. I think it was one of the first condos actually to be built along the coast in California, and they go for, millions and millions of dollars and I see it on Instagram all the time.
These again like iconic places in California, and back in early 2020, I was walking this stretch of coast with a renowned coastal geologist in Santa Cruz, Gary Griggs, and we were both looking at this town and kind of the homes right on the beach and we were both thinking this will probably go underwater one day. And I don’t think either of us thought that one day would be less than three years later.
With the storms that happened earlier this year was like back-to-back swells and rain and flooding from the river at the creek as it was going towards the ocean. But the ocean was pushing in, and the creek had nowhere to go. And yeah, it became the poster child earlier this year for sea level rise in California, for flooding in California.
And it’s just, it’s truly stunning. Because we think this is an issue that is years or decades from now. And I hear the term slow moving disaster so much in the sea level rise space, but this is an issue that’s happening now. Seven feet, by six or seven feet by the end of century.
Yeah, that sounds apocalyptic and so far off in the future that feels like sci fi. But it’s just, we’re at this threshold where just a little bit of something else as we compound all these factors, add an El Nino year, a big winter swell and just a higher-than-normal tide. And we really do get this flooding in communities today, but we are not prepared for that.
CHAKRABARTI: So just to be clear, those condos that you were looking at are gone now. No, so the flooding was pretty bad, but just the ocean just swept through it. And if go back through kind of the archives on Instagram, online video, it’s just the waves just swept right through.
It was like the tide, the ocean just went right through it. And it carried debris and sand and the homes got pretty battered in the ocean again, like moved many hundreds of feet inland, it looked like. And President Biden and Gavin Newsom did their press conference there earlier this year.
It was like the backdrop to, again, like all of the disaster that happened this past winter in California storms.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s interesting. It’s almost as if California and its coastal communities, like you said, because of the time in which they were really built up in that that other oceanic cycle where there was actually a suppressed sea level rise.
Have had it really lucky until recently. And maybe that luck has until now lulled communities into thinking that what was beautiful in the past will be beautiful forever. That is quite different than, I’m thinking of the Gulf coast of the United States or a lot of the Eastern seaboard that gets hit with hurricanes a lot every year, right?
XI: For so long, I would say we don’t get hurricanes and we’re not Florida, but I live in Los Angeles and we just had our first hurricane in the century a couple weeks ago. Hurricane Hilary. That’s also a reality that’s happening more and more so today.
CHAKRABARTI: But I wonder if that means that California is suddenly waking up and having to catch up with the kind of change in mindset that’s been, not exactly a fact of life because people on the Gulf Coast and the East can be very stubborn, too.
But a reality that disturbance and disaster is going to be a new critical part of the way of living there.
XI: Yeah, and I think it’s interesting because, look, let’s take Louisiana. Or Miami. These are places that are in the news so often when it comes to sea level rise and flooding and disasters.
Houston got hit so hard with flooding a couple years ago. And what’s fascinating to me in those places is, okay, so now we see what it looks like when a community gets hit by disaster and we didn’t plan ahead. But then the rebuilding process, this idea of What resilience actually is and this idea that, “Okay, we just got hammered by nature and we shall rebuild stronger. But exactly the way we had it before.” That is something that I’m also hoping to expand our way of thinking about, and that’s happening in California, too. Okay. If the ocean moves in, if we just got hit by water, is the response to just build a higher wall? Is the response to rebuild the communities that got washed away?
In the same place that we now know water is trying to move back into, and so I think those conversations are happening in other communities along other coastlines, but again, it’s are we being imaginative enough? Are we being forward thinking enough? And also like for the folks who did lose their home, how are they getting taken care of?
The chaos that has ensued after a disaster is such a glimpse into the future for so many other communities. And I think in California right now, we’re looking at what’s happening in all these other places. We’re starting to feel it, like in Capitola. But again, we can do so much to prepare ahead of time, if only we started that conversation now. But that starting that conversation now is scary. What happened in Imperial Beach and translating that space between, okay, we know that we don’t need to necessarily change tomorrow, but if we started tomorrow or today, we could save off a lot of just pain and disaster.
Before the disaster actually hit.
CHAKRABARTI: So in your book, you’re hitting on something very important and that is the way we talk about this word resilience, right? Because the way it’s defined, that helps guide the kind of policies where we are going to build around or create around coping with climate change and sea level rise.
But as you suggest, maybe we ought to think a little differently about how we conceive of resilience. So on that point, Rosanna, we reached out to Charles Lester. He’s director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I’m sure you know him very well. And he’s spent the last 30 years working on and thinking about the California coast.
And he talks about the notion of resilience. And he told us it really starts with the idea of systems.
CHARLES LESTER: It’s very much rooted in a scientific framework where people are analyzing a system, a chemical or physical or some kind of engineered system. And there’s a disruption to it. And the question becomes, “Okay, how resilient is that system to that disruption?” Would call a system resilient if it could recover and get back to its functioning of what it was doing, right?
Without a collapse or a failure of some sort.
CHAKRABARTI: So a system that can be perturbed but returned to its previously functioning state. Now, of course, we also try to describe people as resilient if they can manage hardship, life challenges, and bounce back to what they once were. But, when faced with climate change, Lester suggests that we need to shift away from the goal of bouncing back.
LESTER: When the system itself is changing, so when you’ve got this complex system that has environmental forces and social forces, and they’re interacting, and that’s what we’re talking about along a dynamic shoreline, right? People doing things along an environment that’s inherently dynamic, but now you’ve got this change happening that is really causing a phase shift in that system.
So the sea level is going up now at a higher rate than it did before. What does that mean for the functioning of the system? And might it be the case that to be resilient isn’t a question of trying to recover what we used to have in that system before, but what could we have in the system that will be?
Because there’s so much change happening in components of that system, it doesn’t make sense to say resilience means building back to the condition of before and surviving and continuing to function. Because the other changes in the system are so great that you’re not going to be able to do that.
CHAKRABARTI: So as I hear it, what he’s describing there is we can no longer live in a world where we presume our current steady state is the thing we’re going to bounce back to, especially given the rapidity with which climate change is accelerating. But, Rosanna, I don’t think I’m seeing much evidence yet of that kind of shift in thinking happening when it comes to the first lines of defenses that we see coastal communities turning to when the oceans reach ever closer to homes every year, right?
You’ve written about seawalls. Sand replacement. Are any of these things truly effective for the long run?
XI: Yeah, what you just named like sea walls and sand replenishment are hard and softer approaches of kind of the same mindset of just trying to maintain the world as we know it.
And just building off what Charles just said, I mean with resilience it’s like when we try to protect and bounce back to what we had, that’s implying that we think that what we have today is what we actually want. But have we actually taken a step back to examine, okay, is the world as we know it today actually the best that we could do?
And as I talked to so many of these different communities, up and down the coast, there are communities that have been overburdened with kind of our industrial pollution, our industrial infrastructure, there are just so many disparities and inequities and pain in our social systems today.
And again, if we are just trying to bounce back to the status quo, I just feel like that is such a, yeah, it’s just this question is this actually what we want to protect and maintain and rebuild? Or can we take, you know, rather than taking these disasters and these looming disasters as a threat to our systems, can we actually take this as an opportunity to reexamine what’s not working?
And how do we redo this? How do we reset? How do we expand upon this world that has a lot of room for improvement and change.
CHAKRABARTI: It seems to me, though, that for many of the communities, and I’m thinking of the wealthiest people in those communities on any coastline, including California, the answer to your question, “Is this what we want to protect?”
Do we want to protect the status quo? The answer is yes. And so therefore those folks often have quite a bit of influence, especially local decision making. Have you seen that in in communities you’ve reported on?
XI: Yeah, and I would say that the coastal real estate in California is some of the most valuable real estate in the world, right?
And I think for folks who are wealthy, they hold disproportionate power, and they are louder in many of these conversations along our coast, but you know the question is, not to get too radical here. Like again we’ve been talking about this idea that we have fixed lines in the sand.
The coastline is inherently meant to change. And it’s this dynamic space that we have made un-dynamic, and we have tried and tried to hold the line. And what are we trying to protect? For a lot of these places, and in a lot of these conversations, it’s property lines. And the very notion of property lines and boundaries is inherently a very Western notion.
And I think that it, again, there’s such a disconnect with the reality that the ocean is moving in, that the coastline is moving with the ocean, and we’re supposed to move with it.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Can you hold that thought, Rosanna? Because I want to come back to that in a second. But I’d also like to just use more of your first-person reporter’s experience here.
Can you tell us about a specific community that’s dealing with this right now? There’s several that you’ve written about in the book. I’m just picking one here at random. How about Pacifica?
XI: Yeah, and Pacifica gets it pretty hard sometimes, being in the news every time there’s a big storm. And especially with how dramatic the waves hit the bluffs and yeah, the other thing that’s so different in California versus the East Coast is that we have homes and communities on cliffside, on top of cliffs and bluffs that used to have a lot of sand buffering the cliffs.
But now it’s just waves carving right, the waves carving right at the cliffs and just like entire collapses when there’s just too much water and it’s just Pacifica is a great landscape.
Great is not the right word. Pacifica is just such a sobering window into what so much of the rest of California will experience in greater frequency and I think it’s interesting cause like, the word manage retreat hasn’t come up at all yet and that’s one of the most fraught talking points.
Notions again, and manager essentially is just acknowledge that the ocean is moving in and that we’re going to have to make room for the ocean at some point. But what does that mean for our existing infrastructure and properties that are currently in the way of the ocean that will, at some point, need to be relocated for safety and just for reality’s sake.
And so the term manager tree and I feel like there is a very, these words need a rebrand because retreat in itself feels like we’re failing. It’s again, a very American notion to not retreat, but that has been hugely controversial in this town and the mayor back pre-2018 actually tried to get ahead of this issue. And ended up getting completely booted from the city council and it’s been really fraught like ever since.
CHAKRABARTI: Rosanna, as I mentioned, I want to be sure to take the lessons from California and see how coastal communities everywhere might be able to apply them.
So I want to bring A.R. Siders into the conversation. She’s director of the climate change hub and professor on climate change adaptation at the university of Delaware. Professor Siders, welcome to you.
A.R. SIDERS: Hello.
CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, compare a little bit between what you’ve heard from Rosanna about how California’s coastal communities are beginning to have to change.
Rather rapidly to the kinds of changes that you already see taking place, where you are in the Northeast.
SIDERS: Yeah. Climate adaptation is known for being very local because there’s always local changes and the hazards you’re facing and the particular context and history and the goals that people want, which Rosanna mentioned. What do we want to build?
What do we want to preserve? But on another level, the conversations are very much the same, right? They’re very hard to think about what change looks like, right? It’s very hard for us to envision a future that is different from the past, right? To acknowledge that the future that’s coming isn’t going to look like it has been, and that we need to do something different to react to that.
And then of course you have the sort of the same economic, the same power dynamics playing out across the country and around the world, really. So a lot of the things that are happening in California at that sort of high level are the same conversations that are happening elsewhere. In a sense, it’s hard to actually blame human beings and I’ll limit our analysis to humans in the United States for that narrow window of perspective, right?
Because the population boom in this country that, for example, that Rosanna described, has happened in a very minute window of time in comparison to the kinds of timescales that we might be able to measure really broad-based dynamic shifts in coastal environments.
And I want to say that because it helps, to me, understand why we have a really hard time of imagining what the future could be. Because we’ve got such a narrow window of perspective in the recent past about what the present of a coastline could be. So how do we change our mindset to cope with that uncertain literal physicality of a coastline in the future when deciding what to do to be resilient?
SIDERS: Yeah it’s a great point. So humans are, we’re not very good at thinking about risk. Yeah, and we can see this everywhere, right? People, we overestimate big risks, and we underestimate the small risks that are more certain. So we’re not good at thinking about risk. And we’re also not good about thinking about how our actions today lead up to big risks in the future.
I constantly make jokes comparing, but it’s this idea of, “I need to eat my broccoli today in order to avoid that heart attack 50 years from now.” That’s hard for people to put those together. And it’s the same way. that we need to take action today in order to avoid catastrophic flooding or wildfires or other issues in the future.
And it’s very hard to make those hard choices today for a future payoff. And yeah, like we’re, we struggle with that as humans to try to do that. And it’s not about blaming people for that very human response to it. It’s about trying to create structures and incentives that help people make better choices.
So it’s about putting planning processes in place that make people think on longer time scales. It’s about requiring people to think about their values, explicitly so that they can see where there’s a disconnect between their current actions in the future. It’s about basically all the same psychological tricks that people use to try to diet and make themselves make better choices on a daily basis to get that future health outcome.
We can use some of those same tricks when we’re thinking about how do we get people to think about how today adds up to that long term future. And so it’s, yeah, it’s not about blaming people for having that issue. It’s about putting those systems in place.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So thank you for that clarification because the specific things that you just mentioned on how to build those systems are very useful.
Those potent ideas, though, are facing kind of the hurdle of money, the demand for instantaneous solutions, because I keep thinking about seawalls, right? The first time when people start thinking, “Oh, we got to do something because we’re getting flooded now every single year.” Almost always the first idea is, let’s build higher seawalls.
So let’s, can we take that specific example and lay out a process or a future for me that makes seawalls not the first and sometimes only solution that communities turn to?
SIDERS: Absolutely. And this is a very difficult one because seawalls are something that are known. And they appeal to people because they can understand them, right?
My home is flooding. Put a wall between me and the water. That is something they can understand. And any politician can point to and say, “Look, I did that, right? I built that wall. I’m keeping you safer.” And so they appeal to a lot of things we want. In terms of getting around that, though, I think this is where we have to have that explicit conversation about goals that we want.
When I talk to communities or even give presentations and conferences, I like to start with a couple of things. I jokingly, but not even jokingly, I ask people to write a haiku about the future that they want. So write a haiku or a limerick or the poem of your choice about the future that you want, but explicitly spend a few minutes thinking about what the future is that you might want.
And the reason I use poetry is because there’s some research on how that helps people deal with anxiety and it brings out their creativity side of things. But then also I show images of seawalls, right? And so I talk about the fact that on the East Coast, about 14% of the U.S. East Coast is already armored.
It already has seawalls, or riprap, or breakwaters, or something built up on it. And I show them these pictures of these big walls and I say, “Is this the future that you want?” And most people look at it and say, “No, that’s not the coast that I want.” And we’ll say, “All right, then if you don’t want a coast that has walls all over it, let’s stop building walls.”
And so actually physically visualizing it can be really important. And this is where we can use all kinds of tools. There’s 3D virtual reality viewers that can show you different options of what the coast can look like. There’s 3D models you can do on maps. There’s art, performance artists are doing a great job of thinking about the future and trying to visualize that.
So I think anything we can do to get people to visualize that and to put their goals into words and make them more explicit, is going to be really helpful. And then also thinking longer term. One of the planners from Virginia Beach talked about this where they do their coastal planning, and he says it was really important that they picked 2100 as their goal for their planning because then it’s not about you and me.
We’re not going to be here in 2100. So it’s not about us. It’s not about my property values. It’s not about where I’m going to live. It’s about what I’m leaving for the next generation. It’s about the community. I want to build for them. And suddenly, that opens up a very different space of conversation. So I think there’s a lot of tools that we can use here.
But it comes back to what you were saying about, it needs money, that needs time, that needs resources. And a lot of places, even politicians with the best will in the world, they’re thinking about things like, in the very beginning, right? The mayor’s thinking about schools and sidewalks and fire departments, and they have a long list of things they need to think about.
And climate change is just one of those. And so it’s trying to help them build the capacity to make this an issue they can spend time on, to have these hard conversations.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And perhaps that capacity is going to come de facto because the emergency because it’s getting ever larger, right? Every year.
But I really appreciate that, right? Because sometimes it’s hard for folks who aren’t immersed in this world to really envision what a different pathway would be to lead to different solutions regarding climate change. So thank you for that. I can see more clearly ahead of us now. Also, by the way, just I got to get this out of my system.
Those seawalls, sometimes they have the incidental effect of blocking sand transport down a coastline, which then causes all sorts of problems, as well. Speaking of the dynamic coast that we have, but that’s for another day. Rosanna, let me go back to you here. So in terms of this different way of thinking about planning, I’m sure there have to be communities in California that are engaging with that.
You mentioned managed retreat a minute or two ago. Are there more successful examples you have of communities that are thinking through managed retreat or other policies better than poor Pacifica that we beat up on a little bit earlier?
XI: Yeah, and just real quick on seawalls, someone once told me very to the point, seawalls kill beaches.
So if you want a beach at a location the seawall is, don’t build a seawall because that’s going to kill the beach that just totally clicked for me. And, in Southern California, more than a third, like almost 40% of our coastline is already armored with some form of pardon infrastructure. So this is definitely, someone once told me that seawalls are a coastal crisis in California, and yeah. So in terms of communities that are thinking about this transition that Siders was just talking about, and thinking of the community Marina, along Monterey Bay.
And they have always been pretty forward thinking about their development and never building too close to the edge and creating this incredible amount of space in the inner title zone. So there’s like towering beach dunes and wetlands in Marina that are still intact.
And, a lot of California, like more than 90% of our wetlands have been destroyed or altered for the sake of development. Like a lot of San Francisco is built on a former Marsh. I would say the same for Boston and a lot of other places on the East coast. And with Marina, so they have it relatively easier in the sense that they have less infrastructure to manage retreat in the future, but they aren’t afraid of it.
So their city council started the process of identifying which properties and critical infrastructure along the coast might need to move or be relocated further inland in the coming decades as the ocean moves in. And rather than have this be just like a non-starter conversation. They’re broaching this conversation of, “Okay, we’ve identified this as a potential at-risk parcel in the future.
We’re not saying when, we’re not condemning you to do right now, but okay, let’s build in these triggered, phased checkpoints. 5 years from now, let’s touch base or if this critical parking lot for the beach starts the flood 25% of the year, let’s start to talk.”
And I think that’s interesting because, again we know that at some point in the future, change is going to happen.
We also know that that’s not necessarily the most tangible or desirable thing to do right now, and it’s not politically easy.
CHAKRABARTI: So can I just jump in here? Because both the things that you two just shared with us actually seem truly feasible, and so therefore, actionable.
But it’s giving me hope. I have to say, it’s giving me hope. But beneath this, something that you’ve mentioned a couple of times, Rosanna, and Professor Siders, I know you think about a lot too, is that we have to break out of this mindset of having these static communities in what is very fundamentally a dynamic environment.
Thinking of ourselves as part of a natural system that changes, versus apart from the natural system that changes. And to that there are groups of Americans that have actually been living in this way for hundreds, even thousands of years. And thinking about specifically beliefs and practices of indigenous people who wants to manage and steward the land we’re talking about.
So we spoke with someone who’s doing just that.
ANGELA MOONEY D’ARCY: I’m Angela Mooney D’Arcy. I’m a Acjachemen. Our ancestral territories are on the coast in what’s also known as Orange County, California.
CHAKRABARTI: Mooney D’Arcy is executive director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples. It’s an LA based organization that works to protect sacred Indigenous lands, waters, and cultures.
And she says people are generally surprised to hear that at one point, 180 different Native nations lived across what’s California today. And a third of those tribes lived on the coast.
D’ARCY: What I encounter a lot in climate adaptation and mitigation, sea level rise type spaces is a real disconnect or just total lack of understanding of the relationship between colonization and where we’re at today.
For all of California indigenous communities, but particularly those of us from coastal nations, the 1st moment of that climate crisis was hundreds of years ago when the Spanish soldiers, military and priests stepped foot on the shores indigenous peoples here had a very different relationship with place. It was one that was not extractive, but was in actual relationship.
CHAKRABARTI: Mooney D’Arcy says it’s imperative that Indigenous voices are included in decision making about climate change adaptation. Because she says Indigenous belief and practice offer a completely different way of how to think about the land and the ocean.
D’ARCY: If everyone looked at the ocean as a living entity, as a relative with whom we’re supposed to have a respectful and reciprocal relationship. I think that the decisions made for what happens in those waters would be quite different. I think we’d see a lot less environmentally damaging and extractive practices in these places.
I think we’d see a lot more care and attention to supporting native plant regeneration and restoring ecological balance in these places, because I’m not saying to say that there would be a separation or that these wouldn’t be places where people interact. I just think that we’d see a really different iteration with how people interact with these coastal spaces.
CHAKRABARTI: Angela Mooney D’Arcy, founder and director, executive director of Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples. Now, we’ve only got about a minute left in this conversation, unfortunately, but Professor Siders, Rosanna actually tipped us off about this earlier when she said we have to rethink our very relationship to the land and the ocean.
Is this not an opportunity, in a sense, to do just that?
SIDERS: Absolutely. Many of the issues we’re talking about are things that people have been thinking about for smart planning for urban growth, for architects have been thinking about this in creative ways of doing architectural design.
And climate change is really just one catalyst, right? To get people to think about how we should live differently, and it’s the reason that we can think about climate adaptation from a point of fear where we say, how are we going to avoid these harms?
And that can be motivating, but it’s also an opportunity to think about, we want to build something amazing and something better for ourselves for the next generation to leave to the land.
Let’s be creative and ambitious about what that could look like, rather than restricting ourselves to presuming that we have to maintain what we have right now.
CHAKRABARTI: Wow. So in a sense we could accomplish a lot if we change our perspective from being against the sea, which is for now what Rosanna had to title her book, to be “humanity with the sea,” I’d say. That would get us a long way. But I want to thank both of you for this really terrific conversation today.