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What was true before COVID is even truer now: When we try to think and talk about climate change, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. In fact, there's a growing movement of psychologists who identify those feelings as unprocessed grief. This is a series about the physical and emotional impacts of climate change.

Life On The Edge Of Climate Change (Ep. 1)

Angela Johnston
A sign warns of large waves along the Pacifica waterfront. Sea-level rise is only making these incidents worse.

2020 has been a historically tense year. We’ve got a pandemic that won’t end, the biggest mass protests in American history, a divisive presidential election coming, and, by the way, global temperature rise is rapidly approaching the point of no return. It’s a frightening thought. What was true before COVID-19 is even truer now: When we try to think and talk about climate change, it’s normal to become overwhelmed. This week, we're bringing you a series about the emotional and physical impacts of climate change. And we begin with a story about sea-level rise.

Maybe when we tell you that we’re going to be talking about climate change all week, maybe there’s a voice in your head saying, "Oh, I can't even take it. I don't want to know — not another documentary, or film or news item, or scientific report, or class or lecture, radio piece, or podcast." 

Dr. Renee Lertzman is an author, researcher, and climate engagement specialist. She wrote a book and about the psychological toll of the climate crisis and she's part of a growing movement of psychologists who identify those overwhelming feelings as unprocessed grief. Dr. Lertzman’s term for it, and the title of her book, is "Environmental Melancholia."

She says, "Melancholia refers to what happens when we have experienced loss of some kind, but it's not really being processed."

Lertzman says that can explain why, with a crisis of this magnitude, it’s sometimes surprisingly easy to forget it’s happening. Some people think and talk about it all the time, but not everybody. "There isn't the kind action or engagement that you would anticipate. And that is because when we're in this kind of melancholic place, it's not a place of being able to even imagine a way of engaging, or a way of creatively working with what it is. It shows up as a sort of turning inward and resignation."

So how do we begin to move out of this avoidant, overwhelmed place? Dr. Lertzman says there’s a crucial first step: "To name it, to acknowledge it, to normalize it, to say, 'This may, this might be overwhelming.' The act of naming does something to our neurochemistry. It actually allows us to relax a bit more because we have a sense of, 'Okay, I'm being oriented. I know what's coming. I know what to expect."

So, yes, we’re talking about climate change and about how devastating it will be. How much the world will be transformed and how much we will lose. We’ll hear from people around the Bay Area whose lives are being affected right now, and about how they’re dealing with the emotional toll of this upheaval. If you’re feeling the urge to avoid this topic, if it feels like too much to handle on top of everything else, well, you’re not alone. We’ve all got some grief to process, and talking to people around you can help.

And that brings us to our first story. 

One day in early February, a small group of people gathered at Linda Mar beach in Pacifica to mark the king tide, one of the highest tides of the year. In Pacifica, this is often a spectacular event, with powerful waves surging over seawalls, and even smashing beach-front restaurant windows. But when KALW’s Angela Johnston joined this particular gathering, the people at the beach were not watching the giant waves. Instead, they were huddled together, talking about words.

'Help Hazard'

When I get to the beach, a spot where I like to surf and usually have trouble finding parking, it's windy. The sand is blowing off the beach and whirling around, and today it's empty except for a handful of people, stationed just down the beach from that famous Taco Bell, built on top of the sand. 

When I walk over to the group, Jim Kremer is shielding Alicia Escott from the wind with a bright red jacket. Alicia's lips are blue, and she's shivering. Together they're discussing a word that they had just made up.

"It's kind of a scarlet 'H'," Escott says. "Which we're calling help-hazard. So a lot of people in Pacifica fear that if their home is marked in a hazard zone, it's going to be. It's going to affect their real estate values."

Jim Kremer chimes in, "But at the same time, it's the only way you're ever gonna get any help." 

A Tale Of Two Words

This strange discussion is part of this climate change art project called the Bureau of Linguistical Reality. Escott is the co-founder. She shows me her notebook full of words from the day and explains what they do.

"We work with the public to identify the feelings and experiences that we're all having as the climate is changing, that we don't have the words to talk about."

The Bureau's come up with terms like 'gwilt' and 'slowpocoylpse' and other ones that are too difficult to pronounce. Today, 'help hazard.' 

The fact that this discussion of made-up words is taking place in Pacifica of all spots is very appropriate. Because here in Pacifica, there are two real words that have emerged into the public dialogue recently — words that are so contentious, they've divided the community and helped oust a mayor. These two words are taboo not just in Pacifica, but in cities all along the California coast. They're 'managed retreat.' 

"M-R, managed retreat, is a no-no word," says UC Santa Cruz distinguished earth sciences professor Gary Griggs. When I ask him about the term, he tells me a funny story.

"I gave a talk about six months ago to the Santa Cruz Coastal Property Owners Association, which I didn't even know existed." He says the president asked him to talk about sand and beaches and climate and sea level and the future. 

"And he said but there's only two words you can't mention. I said, 'Oh, what are those?' He said, 'Managed retreat.'"

Deny, Armor, Or Retreat

One of the reasons this term has garnered so much attention is that it lacks a clear definition. Griggs says at its core, managed retreat is about preparing communities for sea-level rise. 

By now, it's pretty indisputable that the sea will rise by at least a few feet in the next 50 to 100 years. Denying it isn't an option anymore. By the end of the century, California could have $150 billion of property at risk. We could fight back — armor the coast and build sea walls or pile lots of sand on beaches. This is what we've historically done.

"Statewide about 14% of the whole coast is now armored with some structure," Griggs says.

But it's an expensive short-term solution. The walls always seem to crumble, the waves wash the sand away. 

The other option is managed retreat. In Pacifica, that could mean moving homes away from eroding cliffs or voluntary buyouts — paying people to relocate elsewhere. It could mean putting homes on stilts or giving tax breaks to developers to not build near the ocean. There's a range of options but managed retreat says, even though the waves won't be at your doorstep tomorrow, we should probably start doing something about it soon.

"What are the triggers? Maybe when your house now is flooded or gets wet once a month, is it time to move? And then if you're on a sea cliff at Pacifica, it might be, how many feet till you get to the edge?" Griggs asks.

Life On The Edge

In 2016, a huge bluff in Pacifica crumbled into the ocean below, leaving a long apartment building teetering on the edge. The city had the apartments removed, but the image is now the symbol for sea-level rise and coastal erosion in Pacifica. Scientists say cliffs here have eroded at rates of around two feet a year.

Credit Angela Johnston
Cliffs in Pacifica are eroding at averages of two feet a year.

On that same windy king tide weekend in February, I stood with coastal engineer Bob Battalio on that cliff peering through a chain-linked fence where the apartments used to be. This is an example, he says, of un-managed retreat. 

Credit Angela Johnston
Engineer Bob Battalio stands next to a clear example of "unmanaged retreat" in Pacifica. An apartment complex used to sit behind him, until the cliffs started to erode.

"It looked to me like if you tripped on your sliding glass door threshold, you would end up falling 80 feet down and onto the rocks that were placed down below. I mean, it was that dangerous."

Back in 2017, the City of Pacifica hired Battalio's engineering firm to map their risks of sea-level rise and to help them update something called a Local Coastal Program. A state agency called the California Coastal Commission said all coastal cities have to do it — adjust their old plans to account for sea-level rise. Basically, you're at risk, so tell us what you are gonna do about it. Cities now needed to consider managed retreat strategies in their plan. And people freaked out. Battalio told me some residents were upset just with the map he made that shows where hazards zones are, others took issue with what it could mean. It's a problem of words and ideas.

"People don't like the idea of retreating. I think it's cultural. Retreat is a word that you use when you lose in a military conflict," he says.

I've heard it from nearly everyone I talked to: Retreat is as un-American as it gets. We can solve any problem, we can build a wall strong enough. Retreat seems like giving up, and that idea truly scares people. 

'Dooming A Community'

Suzanne Drake lives along Beach Boulevard in Pacifica. You can see the ocean from her dining room table — I even spotted a pod of dolphins during our interview. She has a great view of the Pacifica pier and the walking path along the seawall holding back the beach from her street. She says she worked so hard to buy this house, and she feels managed retreat is like slapping a big scarlet letter on it.

"I'm more concerned about my government than I am of sea-level rise," she says.

If the city decides that by a certain year she'll have to move, or if a map, like Bob's, says her house is in a red hazard zone, what does that do to her home in the short term?

"I think there is a direct threat of property values. Certainly, I'm disincentivized to pay my local property taxes, which is the true income of this city," Drake says.

Credit Angela Johnston
Suzanne Drake stands on her balcony in Pacifica. She doesn't want the city to pursue managed retreat policies.

When Suzanne first heard murmurings of managed retreat and the local coastal program, she started attending council meetings with other vocal neighbors. They made anti-managed retreat yard signs. They even helped to vote out a mayor who was pro-managed retreat. They argue the policy isn't just a threat to home values, it's a threat to all of Pacifica.

"It's a preemptive strike to label this community, considering we're looking at 70, 80 years down the road when we actually may need to contend with this," Drake says.

Why not keep strengthening the seawall, and wait until we have more exact dates, and more input, she says, from mortgage and insurance companies.

"Dooming a community I think is frankly ... is irresponsible." 

Dooming a community. Over the course of our interview, Drake keeps repeating this. I ask her to show me what she means, and she takes me to an empty lot the size of an entire city block, right down the street, across from the ocean.

It used to be a sewer plant, now there's idle construction equipment laying around. She says it could be affordable housing or a hotel, but it's been vacant for years and there are other empty properties nearby. Drake tells me the managed retreat label will scare many developers away. 

"Because of these kooky stipulations that we have ... potential stilts, that you can't have ground floor bedrooms. So those sorts of things, we're not attracting development."

She says Pacifica needs it — the city budget is small. Pacifica doesn't get the tax revenue from big box stores or hotels like nearby Daly City or Half Moon Bay. While dealing with the 2016 El Nino cost the city millions, Drake says there are more urgent problems.

"You know, I don't care about 100 years from now, some sort of managed retreat thing. We got to take care of the people that are here right now, today. And the only way to do that is to maintain our current tax base and to continue to grow it."

Pro-Managed Retreat

The pro-managed retreat groups think that sentiment is irresponsible. But many of the ones I talked to, live in parts of Pacifica away from the coast. They won't have to move or put their house on stilts, Like Jim Kremer, the guy who I met on the beach at the windy word gathering.

Kremer lives in an old house right above Highway One. His view looks down toward the beach and you may even be able to spot Suzanne Drake's roof from his living room. You'd know right away from walking in that he's an oceanographer. There are taxidermied penguins and pelican skulls next to a wood-burning stove. Kremer attended almost every city council meeting where the local coastal program was discussed because he was part of a community working group for the planning process.

"And it was quite contentious and took a long time."

But what frustrated him most, is that even when he felt the group had come up with a good plan that satisfied both, it got shot down at city council just because it had the essence of managed retreat in it.

"It's not saying your house is going to wash away. It says you're at higher risk than someone else and so you may want to consider that in your planning. It doesn't mean what it sounds like it might mean, and the professionals who use the term and coined the term and made it the word of choice don't think of it that way," Kremer says.

And he says choosing the alternative — armoring the shore — could end up costing the city even more money in the short term. While the sea may not be at Suzanne Drake's doorstep her lifetime, Kremer points to the dangerous combo of a king tide, a big storm, and sea-level rise. 

"Rising sea level doesn't always mean it's going to creep up slowly and slowly and slowly and eventually inundate your land. It affects the major storm events first."

He asks, "Who is going to repair the seawall if it breaks? Take down the condemned apartment buildings dangling off bluff?" The City of Pacifica can't pay for all this itself, so it has to rely on grants, but most funders now want to see a sea-level rise plan. 

"So sort of burying your head in the sand and refusing to plan means that you're going to have the least chance of getting the money you need to do these most expensive and least effective methods," Kremer says.

It's one of the reasons why Pacifica wanted to get their plan certified by the Coastal Commission so soon. To be one of the first to be eligible for grants, and not compete with the 70 or so other communities on the edge. This funding is one of the reasons Jim Kremer latched onto the term 'help hazard.'

"So it is the help itself which is at risk. So it's a help hazard. That just seems to me to be a nice little twist on what those words might have meant to you at first." 

The Power Of Language

When we talk about climate change, words have always been powerful. We armor the shore. We fight rising temperatures. We slash greenhouse gas emissions. And sometimes, we retreat. Jim and others at the Bureau of Linguistical Reality said changing the militaristic ways we talk about climate change could invite more discussion. 

In the parking lot near the Taco Bello at Pacifica's Linda Mar Beach, Alicia Escott asks the group of amateur wordsmiths, "Instead of retreat, why not use the word adaptation?"

She's preaching to the choir. For the most part, the people gathered on the beach support managed retreat. And scientists like Gary Griggs think re-naming it could be a good idea. But what's most important, he says, is to bring both sides together and have discussion groups or workshops before coming in and demanding some new policy. 

He argues coastal erosion and sea-level rise is happening, regardless of whether you label it or map it. Insurance companies and lenders will soon see for themselves if homes are in hazardous places along the coast, just as they did with the recent fires inland. 

As for Pacifica, after lots of back and forth with the Coastal Commission, the city council submitted a draft plan to address sea-level rise, but it still doesn't mention the words managed retreat.

This series, "Future Loss: Grieving a Changing Climate," was edited by Lisa Morehouse and engineered by Gabriel Grabin. Click here to listen to all the episodes.

ClimateCrosscurrents Podcast
Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Angela Johnston is the Senior Producer of Uncuffed and an editor in the KALW newsroom. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism and graduated from KALW’s Audio Academy program. She’s worked for KALW in numerous roles - from the deputy news director, to the health and environment reporter, and she's covered everything from lead poisoning to climate change. Her work has aired on KALW, KQED, Reveal, and The Pulse. She also freelances as a producer and editor for Cosmic Standard and AFAR Media. Outside of work, she loves to swim in the bay, surf small waves on her longboard, read, backpack, cook, and garden.