Tourists take pictures of an iceberg with their phones.

We Broke the Planet. Now What?

We’ve grown accustomed to viewing climate change as an enemy we must urgently defeat. But is that the right metaphor for the greatest existential problem of our time? This week, we consider how to reframe the way we think about life on a changing planet.

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Additional Resources:


Adapting to Sea Level Rise: Insights from a New Evaluation Framework of Physical Design Projects,” Daniella Hirscheld, Kristina Hill, Ellen Plane. Coastal Management. 2021. 

The Tipping Points and Early Warning Indicators for Pine Island Glacier, West Antarctica,” Sebastian H.R. Rosier et al. The Cryosphere. 2021.

Adapting Coastal Cities to Rising Groundwater,” Kristina Hill. Conference: GSA 2020 Connects Online. 2020. 

How Close is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to a ‘Tipping Point’?” Christina Hulbe. Carbon Brief. 2020.

Climate Change: Implications for the Assumptions, Goals and Methods of Urban Environmental Planning,” Kristina Hill. Urban Planning. 2016.

Grab Bag:

Read Sarah Miller’s funny and interesting article on sea level rise, “Heaven or High Water.”

Learn more about Hassan Maniku’s NGO, Invena.

Watch this video presentation by Kristina Hill on sea level rise.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Seemingly every other month, we hear about the latest example of a thousand year flood, a hundred year hurricane, the once in a lifetime forest fire.

Various voices (news announcers etc): Oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God, Oh, my God! The road is on fire.

New Speaker: Fire in Oregon just one of 70 wildfires raging across 12 states.

New Speaker: Portland 116 degrees, that is a new all time record. I mean, we've never seen anything like this in the Pacific Northwest.

New Speaker: Historic and catastrophic flooding in Western Europe, with at least 199 people killed and hundreds more still missing. After violent-

New Speaker: Experts have attributed the extreme weather to climate change.

New Speaker: The impact of climate change.

New Speaker: No one is immune from climate change.

Shankar Vedantam: Whenever a climate related disaster strikes, policymakers and environmentalists issue a call to arms. Here's activist, Greta Thunberg.

Greta Thunburg: Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up and change is coming whether you like it or not.

Shankar Vedantam: And here is former vice president, Al Gore.

Al Gore: This is our generation's life or death battle. Think back through the histories of the cities represented here and the nations they are found in. Times in the past where heroism made the difference in a crucial battle that defined history. The whole world is facing just those circumstances right now.

Shankar Vedantam: By now, we have grown accustomed to thinking of climate change as the enemy we must urgently defeat. Year after year, policymakers tell us it is our last and final chance to overcome the crisis.

Joe Biden: In my view, we've already waited too long to deal with this climate crisis and we can't wait any longer.

Shankar Vedantam: The implication here is that while it is late, it is not too late to head off catastrophe. But in many parts of the world, this is no longer true.

Kristina Hill: Sea level rise is a reality that's not going to be avoided by eliminating CO2 or methane emissions.

Shankar Vedantam: This week on Hidden Brain, how to fight the inevitable.

Shankar Vedantam: When we talk about climate change, we often talk about it as a battle. If we win this battle, we get to avoid catastrophe. If we lose the battle, we are finished. Now some battles are like that, but others are not. Today we start with an account of two actual battles which illustrate two strategies for how we might respond to the huge challenge posed by climate change. Both battles represented crucial moments during the second World War, but they could not be more different in terms of strategy, tactics and philosophy. On June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 allied troops approached the coast of Normandy, a region in the North of France. Some 13,000 paratroopers flying in a thousand planes, landed behind enemy lines. The arial and amphibious assault was the result of months of planning and involved one of the most complex operations in military history. The risks were enormous. The Normandy invasion came with massive costs, 10,000 soldiers were killed in the battle. But the reason for the sacrifice was clear, this was the way to defeat the Third Reich, to destroy Adolf Hitler. "D Day, as the Normandy landing came to be called, became the turning point in the war. And it's a powerful metaphor for one kind of battle. In the face of an existential threat, the allies mustered the will and the courage to overcome the powerful German war machine. Today, D Day is still celebrated as one of the greatest military achievements in history. But consider another battle fought four years earlier. The date was May 26, 1940 and the location was farther North on the French coast at a small seaport called Dunkirk. German forces had overrun France and cut off allied escape routes. Some 390,000 French and British troops were pinned against the sea. Their supplies were dwindling, they were facing aerial bombardments from Nazi war planes and German troops were just outside Dunkirk. The situation was desperate.

News Announcer: They're worn out and foot sore, they're hungry. For weeks, they have been shelled and bombed from three sides. They had to stagger back to the sea to survive. They were betrayed-

Shankar Vedantam: At stake at Dunkirk, was more than just the outcome of a single battle. If the Germans captured this enormous fighting force, it could make the war unwinnable for the allies. What followed over the next couple of weeks was as remarkable a story as the allied invasion of Normandy four years later. English naval vessels, backed by an extraordinary flotilla of fisherman's boats sailed to the French coast to rescue the marooned troops.

News Announcer: ....scenes of the beaches of Dunkirk you have one of the dramatic pictures of the war. Men wading out to a vessel beached at low tide, its crew waiting to haul them aboard.

Shankar Vedantam: As the Nazis closed in, the boats began ferrying the trapped soldiers across the English Channel to safety.

News Announcer: Sailing with one of the relieving vessels, we passed ship after ship packed with men whom the long arm of the Royal Navy has brought off the beaches of Dunkirk. Every kind of small craft; destroyers, battle steamers, yachts, motorboats, have sped here to the burning ruins of Dunkirk to bring off the gallant British and French troops betrayed-

Shankar Vedantam: The Belgian fishing fleet evacuated more than 4,000 troops. A paddle steamer, one of those cruise boats with a rotating wheel on one end, made seven round trips and saved 7,000 men. The smallest fishing boat to help with the operation was the Tamzine, it was less than 15 feet long.

News Announcer: The story of that epic withdrawal will live in history, both as a glorious example of discipline and as a monument to sea power.

Shankar Vedantam: In the end, hundreds of thousands of men trapped at Dunkirk were saved. They would go on to form the backbone of the allied war effort against Hitler. Dunkirk could hardly be called a victory, though. It was a strategic retreat, one that would eventually pave the path to the Normandy invasion. I want you to keep the stories of Dunkirk and Normandy in mind as you listen to the rest of this story. In strategy and philosophy, these battles are metaphors for two very different ways we might confront climate change. One version of the climate change story says if we marshal all of our effort and resources and fight with unity and determination, we can overcome a terrible foe and win. This story says we are at Normandy. Many activists like the rousing language of Normandy because stories of victory and defeat exhort people to action. But another version of the climate change story says we are not at Normandy, we are at Dunkirk. If we want to survive, we need to be realistic about what we are up against and consider what is feasible. Defeating the Nazis at Dunkirk was not feasible. The only option was to figure out how to retreat and save as many lives as possible. In the struggle against climate change, which metaphor is more fitting? Is victory around the corner if we just try hard enough? Or should we accept a conditional defeat in the service of long term survival? When I ask myself these questions, I know what I want to hear. I want to hear that victory is possible, that if we work hard enough we can head off catastrophe.

Kristina Hill: My name is Kristina Hill and I'm a professor at University of California at Berkeley and I teach in environmental planning and urban design.

Shankar Vedantam: Kristina specializes in one of the most visible aspects of climate change and the topic we'll be mostly focusing on today; sea level rise. She says the oceans are predicted to go up at least three feet over the next 80 years.

Kristina Hill: But when we look at the possible extremes in different parts of the world, for example, the state of Rhode Island has adopted an expectation for 2100 of about 10 feet, the state of California has adopted a 10' 2" planning expectation as a worst case scenario for 2100. There's a lot of discussion about that, but the extreme scenario is about 10 feet and then the mid range is more like between four and six.

Shankar Vedantam: At four feet, much of the Miami, Ft. Lauderdale area is under water. At six feet, parts of lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Newark are submerged. At 10 feet, big swathes of San Diego, Seattle and Boston are toast. How likely is that extreme scenario? It can be hard to predict, but estimates range from one in 50 to one in 200. Let's say the correct answer is one in 100. That is much less remote than most of us imagine. Kristina says she sometimes has trouble explaining to her students exactly what such a risk entails.

Kristina Hill: I feel like I am always working with this bias we have, looking at probability as a folk or everyday version of probability theory where people take a 1% number or a 5% number and they make that zero in their minds. What that means, there's an example I usually use when I'm talking to the public or my students, if you've ever met a woman in the United States who's 5' 10", that has 1% odds.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow!

Kristina Hill: So it's not that unusual. Most of us have met tall women.

Shankar Vedantam: Let's think for a moment like Kristina's students and tell ourselves that a 1% risk is the same as zero, that the extreme scenario of 10 feet of sea level rise will not come to pass within the next few decades. How likely is a four to six foot rise in sea levels?

Kristina Hill: I think that the mid range is more like 60% probability. Between 50% and 60%, I believe.

Shankar Vedantam: I see.

Kristina Hill: That's a little better than a flip of a coin, but it's not really that much better.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. What would three to four feet of sea level rise mean for nations around the world?

Kristina Hill: Well, it's huge. You don't have to get to 10 feet to have huge impacts. There are hundreds of millions of people who live in that zone, who live in places that are flat enough to be within the reach of that tide.

Shankar Vedantam: Let me repeat that, hundreds of millions of people, and that's actually a conservative estimate. About 600 million people worldwide live on the coast, but 2.4 billion people, about a third of the planet's population, live within 60 miles of a coast. If a rising sea washes out roads and bridges, if it cuts off access to hospitals, airports and schools, the fact that water hasn't yet reached your doorstep will not be much comfort.

Kristina Hill: That doesn't include the cities that are on tidal rivers, like Hamburg in German or Washington, DC, or other cities where the tide comes up a river.

Shankar Vedantam: Throughout history, humans have built cities next to bodies of water to fish, to trade, to transport goods and services and people. But rising rivers could imperil tens of millions of people in places as diverse as Buenos Aires, Calcutta and Shanghai.

Kristina Hill: If you can't access your property by roads, and your sewer lines may not work, so you can't flush the toilet, people are going to feel the impacts of that. That's a very immediate impact, but we're talking about factories in flat areas near the coast being flooded, supply chains being disrupted. In a way, economically and in terms of transportation, everyone's going to feel the impact of this coastal change.

Shankar Vedantam: I'd like to say that at least as far as flooding goes, that's about as bad as it gets. Unfortunately, the story gets worse. Sea level rise doesn't just mean flooding as the oceans swallow up the the land. It also leads to a less visible, but deadly threat; rising ground water from below.

Kristina Hill: You'll actually see the profile or elevation of the ground water table change and the amount of water in rivers change because the groundwater will flow out more towards the river, flow out towards the ocean, and in some places, actually come up higher in the soil. In most places, actually.

Shankar Vedantam: And you're saying we're already seeing evidence of this in the United States?

Kristina Hill: That's right. At high tides in Norfolk, Virginia, Miami Beach, the Florida Keys, here in the San Francisco Bay, New York City, people are seeing water come up through storm drains that were designed to take water away, but are now letting water literally bubble up like in a fountain.

Shankar Vedantam: I mean, it sounds like science fiction almost. Or the monster coming up through the sewers, feels like it's a Hollywood trope here.

Kristina Hill: It should be called, It Came From Below.

Shankar Vedantam: Flooding, to state the obvious, is only one of the consequences of climate change. In recent months we've seen other effects. Hurricanes, forest fires, extreme swings in weather. In many ways it's not surprising that many people have come to think of climate change in a way similar to how the allies thought of Adolf Hitler; as an existential threat that must be conquered. And it's not surprising that this leads many leaders to evoke the language of war, to imply that if we only fight hard enough, we can win this battle.

Al Gore: Life or death battle.

Jacinda Ardern: This is our nuclear moment.

Shankar Vedantam: In the language of climate science, this approach is known as mitigation. Do everything you can to head off climate change. But the most disturbing part of my conversation with Kristina was not her account of what could happen if we fail to act, it was her account of what would happen even if we acted.

Kristina Hill: Sea level rise, for example, is now projected to happen even if we stopped every molecule of CO2 from leaving human activities and livestock today. So sea level rise is now the horse that left the barn. It's going to happen anyway.

Shankar Vedantam: Why is that, Kristina? Why would mitigation not head off the problem? I mean, there's the old proverb, the first thing to do when you're in a hole is stop digging. The analogy with climate change would be the first thing to do is to not make the problem any worse than it is right now. So why is it that stopping the emissions of greenhouse gases, why would it not head off even the moderate scenarios of sea level rise?

Kristina Hill: Well, the oceans have absorbed most of the CO2 that we've emitted so far over the last 200 to 300 years. So we're seeing change just based on our 300 years of making this mistake and we're also seeing tipping points in melting that can't be arrested just by stopping our CO2 emissions because there already is so much CO2.

Shankar Vedantam: This really speaks to the inertia of the system, does it not?

Kristina Hill: That's right. I mean, we're trying to catch up, we've learned about what our mistake was over the last 300 years, but it's already had consequences. We have to recognize that these systems have already changed.

Shankar Vedantam: It seems a little scary in some ways when you think that there's still debates, ongoing debates about whether climate change is real. You're basically saying at this point many of the effects of climate change are almost inevitable.

Kristina Hill: Yeah, baked in on our new planet that we already live on.

Shankar Vedantam: This kind of talk runs against so much of what we hear when it comes to fighting climate change. We're usually told we are at Normandy, that there is a way to defeat Hitler. Kristina is saying no, we're at Dunkirk. We may not like the reality we confront, but we have to be realistic about it. We have to prepare for that reality, what's known as adaptation. Now, it's worth noting that this type of thinking can be dispiriting. If we accept that some aspects of climate change are here to stay, will that make some people throw up their hands and give up? Will governments back peddle on even the meager promises they have made to rein in carbon emissions? And will climate change denialists and the fossil fuel industry say, "You know what, it's too late to do anything, so why bother?" Those concerns are real and worrisome. But in many parts of the world, the focus is already moving from mitigation to adaptation. That's because in these places climate change isn't just a theoretical risk in the future, it's an existential threat in the here and now.

Mohamed Nasheed: If things go business as usual, we will not live, we will die. Our country will not exist.

Shankar Vedantam: You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When we think about the effects of climate change, it can be hard to anticipate all the risks we may face in the coming decades, but as the author, William Gibson once said, "The future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed." I'm standing in the future right now. Shallow water laps at my feet. I'm in the Maldives, a group of nearly 1,200 coral islands in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sri Lanka. The scene is breathtaking. Palm trees sway on white sand beaches, the water is turquoise, couples tan themselves on lounge chairs. The Maldives are a magnet for celebrities. Some resorts have underwater bedrooms where you can watch multicolored fish through glass walls as you slip off to sleep. It all looks idyllic, but it's actually a scene from a horror movie. Hassan Maniku has watched that movie unfold over many years.

Hassan Maniku: We've seen erosion basically, that's the biggest thing. Big area, chunks of beach just washing away into the sea.

Shankar Vedantam: The Maldives, like every nation on earth, is grappling with the effects of climate change. But the challenges here are different. The islands are in the middle of the ocean, they are vulnerable to harsh weather patterns that have intensified with climate change. After one recent El Nino season, the water temperature rose four whole degrees Fahrenheit. More than 70% of the coral in the Maldives got bleached, turning it into an ugly off white color.

Hassan Maniku: In terms of coral, from when I was younger to what it is now, it's nothing compared to what it was even 10 years ago. I mean, it was so colorful. It's sad to see it now because it's pretty much when you go snorkeling now, you see dead coral and dead coral washed up. Bleached, dead coral. It's significantly different from when I was younger, maybe 10, 15 years ago.

Shankar Vedantam: Dying coral and eroded beaches are sad, but you might say, "They mainly affect tourists." That's not true in the Maldives though. The ocean is threatening the very existence of the entire country.

Hassan Maniku: I think Maldives will be one of the first islands, whole island nations to go underwater if sea level does rise significantly.

Shankar Vedantam: According to some estimates, the Maldives could soon be submerged by rising sea levels. Eighty percent of the Maldivian Islands lie less than one meter, or three feet, above sea level. As we heard earlier, sea levels are expected to rise by at least that amount by the end of the century. So what's a nation like the Maldives to do? In 2008, the president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, started to explore a radical solution: buying land in India, Sri Lanka or Australia and transplanting his entire nation elsewhere. That bears repeating. He began to look into what it would take to move his country somewhere else. "We do not want to leave the Maldives," Mohamed Nasheed told The Guardian, "but we also do not want to be climate refugees, living in tents for decades." In 2009, he spoke at the UN.

Mohamed Nasheed: Please ladies and gentlemen, we did not do any of these things, but if things go business as usual, we will not live, we will die. Our country will not exist.

Shankar Vedantam: The speech was part of a major diplomatic push to get the world to take climate change seriously. In a way, it was a Normandy style call to arms. But at the same time, he recognized the stark reality of his country's situation. It called for a Dunkirk style retreat. Of course, moving a country is not a simple thing. The Maldivian people have a long history on these islands and a nation is not just land, it's history, it's language, cuisine, customs. How can you just pick up and leave?

Hassan Maniku: I mean, psychologically, this would be devastating for them. These are things that need to be looked at as well when moving people. I mean, you can't just move people wherever you feel like moving them.

Shankar Vedantam: In the Maldives, as in many other parts of the world, it isn't feasible to literally follow the Dunkirk model and evacuate people. But perhaps we should look at the Dunkirk metaphor more broadly. At its essence what it teaches us is the importance of adapting to the realities we face. The fact that the allies couldn't defeat the Nazis at Dunkirk was a bitter pill for military leaders to swallow. But if they didn't come to terms with that fact and strategically retreat, they could have lost the entire war.

Shankar Vedantam: People in the Maldives know they cannot stop the ocean from rising, they have to adapt to that reality. And over the last several years, that is exactly what they have started to do. Just describe where we are right now, Hassan. Just describe what we're seeing around us and where we are.

Hassan Maniku: We're on an island which is in the midst of being reclaimed right now.

Shankar Vedantam: Hassan and I are standing on a small oval spit of land. All around are huge, hulking ships with heavy machinery aboard. We visited the island on a holiday so the machines were silent. But Hassan explained what they were here to do.

Hassan Maniku: We've got excavators, dredges. We've got a lot of rock boulders, which will eventually create shore protection for the island. This particular island used to be a sand bank, which we have enhanced through dredging.

Shankar Vedantam: The machine that I'm seeing over there, that's a dredger?

Hassan Maniku: That's a dredger. That's a dredger with the dredger is on top, on the front of the vehicle. You put that down and it churns the sand and dredges sand plus water through those pipes onto the island.

Shankar Vedantam: What's the idea, dredging up the sand and pulling in the water? What's the goal here? What are you trying to do?

Hassan Maniku: We're trying to create an island eventually-

Shankar Vedantam: We're trying to create an island. Hassan is literally extracting land from the sea.

Hassan Maniku: This is not a natural island, very clear. I mean, in an area where naturally it may have taken hundreds of years for an island to form. But we're trying to do it within four or five months. It's either we live on floating structures in the ocean, or we dredge and we create land above the sea level. That's what's happening right now.

Shankar Vedantam: We're walking around now to about the middle of the island and I'm guessing we're probably about maybe three feet above sea water or sea level?

Hassan Maniku: We're at two meters.

Shankar Vedantam: Oh, it's actually two meters?

Hassan Maniku: Yeah, two meters above sea level.

Shankar Vedantam: Okay, but the whole thing right now is sand.

Hassan Maniku: Whole thing right now is sand, yeah. The whole thing is built on sand. The sand is strong enough to have buildings on it.

Shankar Vedantam: This island doesn't look like paradise right now, but it will eventually house a tourist resort with about 80 guestrooms and an environmental science center to study the effects of climate change. Hassan is a developer and also one of the leaders of an environmental NGO. Now again, the idea of building islands for tourists isn't very high minded, but what's happening on this island is only an extension of what is being considered for the entire country. A new version of the capital city of Male, is rising on land reclaimed from the sea. It's being called the City of Hope.

Hassan Maniku: Now phase one is almost done already with apartments, schools, there's a state-of-the-art hospital there now. Basically, a new city and phase two is also coming up with sports stadiums and all that kind of stuff. So it's bringing in the infrastructure in now. Eventually there'll be a network of about four or five islands connected to each other, which will consist of the capital city or the capital area of Maldives.

Shankar Vedantam: It's not just the resorts that are basically here creating the islands, the government of Maldives is also saying, "For us to basically survive, the options are to either move everybody off, or we actually have to move to higher ground." There is no higher ground to move to, so you actually have to create higher ground.

Hassan Maniku: Exactly, exactly. That's what's happening right now. We are creating higher ground. I mean, if you speak scientifically, we are getting about 150, say years more, 100 years more by going up a meter. That's essentially the idea that they went with, yeah.

Shankar Vedantam: You see the same thing in other parts of the world on the front lines of climate change. People in these places are not focused on defeating climate change or preventing it. They know that battle has already been lost. Instead of mitigation, they are talking adaptation. In New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed the city in 2005, federal and local governments invested billions of dollars. The money wasn't aimed at transitioning New Orleans to renewable energy sources. It went into building some 350 miles of levees, pumps and gates encircling the city, based on the assumption it would be only a matter of time before the city was struck by another devastating hurricane. When Hurricane Ida struck Louisiana 16 years later in August 2021, there was still major problems including weeks without power, but there were vastly fewer deaths and significantly less destruction compared to Katrina. The money spent on adaptation likely saved New Orleans.

New Speaker: In the Maldives, Hassan Maniku predicted that what his country was doing today, the rest of the world would be doing tomorrow.

Hassan Maniku: And it wouldn't be just the Maldives going underwater, it'll be half of Manhattan, it'll be shorelines of all the other countries, as well. It's a global problem.

Shankar Vedantam: The terrible irony of course, is that efforts in places like New Orleans and the Maldives to adapt to climate change might actually make climate change worse in the long run. Dredging requires enormous amounts of fossil fuels and pumps greenhouse gases into the air and the process damages biodiversity. Hassan sees the paradox.

Hassan Maniku: What happens is when you are dredging, there's a lot of silt in sand which disposes obviously, with the current and things. The sand settles on top of the reef, damaging the corals and basically stopping photosynthesis from happening. Dredging is not environmentally friendly at all, I would say. We are disrupting the lagoon, we're disrupting the ecosystem around here and it takes a long time for the reefs to recover after such a huge development.

Shankar Vedantam: Hassan's NGO is working with scientists at MIT to try to use natural processes to more quickly build up new islands like this one. He hopes his nation's plight will attract scientists from around the world to come and study what works and what doesn't. The one thing that Hassan knows, is that here in the Maldives, there are no pain free solutions, no final victories. They are at Dunkirk, they need to be realistic to stay one step ahead of the sea.

New Speaker: As I heard Hassan's story, there was a part of me that said, "Okay, you can outrun the ocean for a year or a decade, but can you outrun it forever?" That's when we come back. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In places like the Maldives, people have recognized they are not at Normandy. Defeating climate change is no longer on the table. In regions where wildfires, hurricanes and crippling droughts are increasingly regular occurrences, a similar shift is unfolding. In some places, people have been forced to pull up stakes and leave, Dunkirk style. Others have been forced to come up with creative ways to adapt. Establishing cooling centers in cities during heatwaves, maintaining healthy and resilient forests to minimize wildfires, growing crops differently in periods of drought or flooding.

New Speaker: Ironically, Normandy, that monumental symbol of fighting back, is itself in Dunkirk mode these days. It's suffering from coastal erosion due to rising sea levels. And in response, the local government is adapting; building up natural barriers to the sea, relocating vulnerable houses and farms, and implementing what they call a strategic withdrawal in the face of an advancing sea.

New Speaker: From Normandy to the Maldives, many places are just getting started on this journey. But there is one nation that has a long headstart on the rest of the world. Here, the problems posed by rising seas are not just the future, they are the present and also the past. That nation is the Netherlands. More than a quarter of the Netherlands is below sea level. Kristina Hill, the UC Berkeley scientist we heard from earlier, says that for many hundreds of years, the Dutch have been building long, tall walls to keep out the sea.

Kristina Hill: First they built dikes around individual villages and then as regions became realities through political power, they would connect those individual village or city dikes and make them into regional dikes.

Shankar Vedantam: Keeping out the sea water is only the first step though. Remember earlier how we talked about the monster that came from below? The Dutch came up with a solution for that too.

Kristina Hill: The Netherlands has an incredibly extensive system of pumps that controls the water level, the groundwater level. And if you don't have that extensive system of pumps, then even if you build a dike, the ground water comes up behind it.

Shankar Vedantam: This system of pumps and dikes help to keep both the sea and the ground water from perpetually flooding their land. The pumps would pipe the water out from the ground and redistribute it, while the tall dike walls prevented water from flooding in the first place. These were the solutions that the Dutch needed before climate change started to lead to sea level rise. Now, they're working overtime on new techniques.

Kristina Hill: Yeah, they are planning to expand their sandy coast, which has a dune line and that dune line is the effective barrier between them and the sea. There, they're trying to what they call build with nature, or imitate nature, by moving huge quantities of sand and dumping it in a spit shape on the shoreline. By using that natural approach, they can save a lot of money on what they'd normally do, which would be bulldozers and blowing machines that blow sand up on the dunes. It also provides them with recreational benefits because it provides a point break for surfing and all kinds of activities in the water. And it provides habitat because they're no longer driving heavy equipment over the beach every year. That's called a sand engine and that's one of their big innovations, which uses natural processes.

Shankar Vedantam: I mean, at some level the idea that you can hold the sea at bay, I mean, it's impressive that they've essentially done it for several hundred years. But it also does seem like something of a fool's errand at some point.

Kristina Hill: Yeah, they've done it for more than a thousand in an increasingly concrete and steel way. They're just now moving back to a big scale version of using sand and earth in new ways. Over time, what choice are they facing as a nation state? It would be to move to Germany and that's not politically on the table. So they have to keep working at it and their plan is to continue to innovate and to share what they learn with the rest of the world.

Shankar Vedantam: If you're thinking the rest of the world should start learning what the Dutch have to teach, there is a major catch. All this adaptation, it costs a lot of money. Few countries are spending anywhere close to what the Dutch are spending and that goes for the United States too. Some parts of the US are starting to wake up. In September 2021, California approved a $15 billion dollar package for climate change initiatives. That number was a record, but Kristina said even that level of spending may not be enough for the challenges facing her home state. I asked her to paint me a picture of what the coming decades hold for the San Francisco Bay area.

Kristina Hill: If sea level rises, let's say three feet, then a lot of the Bay area shoreline would be inundated. If it was just the horizontal movement of that saltwater, we would build dikes and prevent it from moving laterally. But unfortunately, it's also ground water, so we have to be able to drain storm water and we have to be able to accommodate higher ground water and we have to accept that saltwater will try to move inland and figure out what we're going to do about that. A lot of low places, the city of Alameda is an island, East Oakland, San Francisco, the Mission Bay area, if sea level rises above three feet, those areas will be flooded. And they may not be able to tolerate the high ground water that they'll face before that. There are places in the Bay area where there are radioactive dumping sites and as the sea level rises and the groundwater, those contaminates will move around potentially in the soil. That's more of an impact on communities of color because they live in lower places. It may be already happening in places around the Bay area. The Bay area could be, if we don't find the right way to adapt, a big toxic soup within a mile of the shore zone. It's going to be very difficult to live next to that and watch it creeping up all the roads and sewer pipes over time.

Shankar Vedantam: It's tempting when you hear about this unfolding catastrophe, to imagine there must be a way to prevent it from happening. But then, Kristina presented me with a simple thought experiment. More than anything else she told me, it brought home to me the futility of trying to push back the sea, to imagine we can win a war against climate change.

Kristina Hill: Imagine trying to take three feet off the surface of the ocean and store it somewhere, when the ocean is 75% plus of the planet's surface. That is not possible, nevermind the energy to pump it into some low place. So we're going to have to live with a huge ocean that's very powerful and inexorably continuing to rise over time. I think we really should think about living with it in ways that are productive and safe, instead of trying to keep it out.

Shankar Vedantam: This is fascinating, what you're saying, because in some ways you're saying the metaphor in some ways of believing that we can overcome this foe, that might be the wrong metaphor. That in some ways that battle might almost have been lost already.

Kristina Hill: That's right and the ocean has been rising for the last 22,000 years. We just have been in a slow period. We invented this whole city thing during the last 8,000 years when sea level rise has been very slow. It can go really quickly and we are concerned that in our new phase it may go faster than it ever has in the last 20,000 years. We could be at the steepest part of the curve. So the idea of fighting that as if it's a war and you're keeping the enemy out, the Dutch used to think of it that way and try to guarantee safety to their citizens by keeping all of the sea water out, protecting them from all storm floods. But even the Dutch have said, "Well, you know what? Maybe that's not realistic and we need to figure out how to live with water." That's become the slogan of the Dutch effort to adapt, is living with water. Doing more floating housing, more artificial ponds that make room for water and allow people to live around and even on the water.

Shankar Vedantam: Adaptation is going to be very difficult and very expensive. Many countries will not be able to afford what the Dutch have done. They are going to have to come up with their own solutions, their own adaptations. But starting sooner rather than later can reduce the harm and reduce the cost. Kristina says the challenge here is not just about economics or politics, it's also psychological. Adaptation involves accepting a certain measure of defeat.

Kristina Hill: American audiences respond very poorly to the word retreat. Americans don't retreat.

Shankar Vedantam: To American ears, retreat smacks of cowardice and capitulation. And at a deeper level, retreat calls on us to accept that there might be towns and cities we cannot save. Yes, there may be population centers we can protect with levies and pumps, there may be fortifications we can build to guard against storms, but adaptation might mean there are some areas that cannot be saved. Which politician is willing to tell her constituents, "It's time to pull up stakes and run?"

Kristina Hill: In the United States we don't really allow even grief, so how do you imagine the losses of land and places that our parents lived and that we've always imagined living in, we want our children to live in? There's a lot of grief in that and grief isn't really accepted in American culture.

Shankar Vedantam: Yet, if we fail to do that psychological work, if we fail to talk honestly about what can and cannot be done, if we fail to be realistic about our options, Kristina warns that natural disasters will not be the only things keeping us up at night.

Kristina Hill: Unless we come up with ways to adapt in place, in a way that gives us some stability for let's say 30 to 50 years at a time, then we create tens of millions of climate refugees, maybe hundreds of millions. That, I think, means international conflict, that means war. I think it's better to imagine adapting in place and reducing our CO2, than it is to imagine either the deaths or the migrations of tens of millions of people. That's unacceptable.

Shankar Vedantam: Rather than deny what is inevitable, seeing climate change realistically might allow us to harness ingenuity and innovation. Reframing the conversation from the language of pessimism and catastrophe, to the language of optimism and creativity might be a way to transform the challenges we face and get more people to realize they are not just part of the problem, but part of the solution.

Kristina Hill: It's really about thriving, not vanquishing a foe. How can we thrive? With what agreements, with what physical systems? How do we look forward to a culture where people can be creative and happy and enjoy living with water? Water is beautiful. It's really about believing that there's going to be a way where we can have compassion for each other and we can be resourceful. We can be more resourceful together than alone and we can be brave.

Shankar Vedantam: We've used the frames of Dunkirk and Normandy in the story to make a point. The world is not focused remotely enough on the challenge of adaptation. To the extent we focus on adaptation, we are usually reactive. We think about adaptation after the hurricane strikes, after the island is submerged, after forest fires have burned through half a state. Even then, we don't do remotely enough. People continue to flock to the coasts, to places that are going to be severely affected by climate change. Even those who believe that climate change is real, tell themselves, "It won't affect me. I'll sell my home near the sea before it's too late."

New Speaker: Normandy talk helps such denial. It allows us to imagine that if we all made just a few more sacrifices, there is a way to prevent catastrophe. Now, to be clear, there is a compelling scientific and moral case to be made for mitigation. The less carbon we emit, the more we can delay the harmful consequences of climate change. Ice will melt more slowly, seas will rise more gradually, storms and fires will be less frequent and less destructive. Some significant harms from climate change are already inevitable, but the things we do today can have an enormous impact on the lives of people 100, 200 or 500 years from now. The truth is, we shouldn't have to choose between adaptation and mitigation. They are both important. We must save millions of people around the world who will be displaced or affected by climate change in the near future. And we must limit the planetary harm we pass down to future generations.

New Speaker: As Kristina told me, we need to walk and chew gum at the same time. But across the world, governments are not doing remotely enough on either front, let alone both. Meanwhile, the storms and fires and floods keep coming. To paraphrase that warning on the side view mirrors of cars, the future is closer than you think.

New Speaker: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Ryan Katz, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor.

New Speaker: Our unsung hero today is Sarah Miller. She wrote a wonderful article some years ago. It was titled, Heaven or High Water. It's about our collective psychological denial of the realities of climate change. The article is funny and terribly scary at the same time, and I highly recommend you track it down and read it. Sarah's writing led me to Kristina Hill. Thank you, Sarah. Special thanks this week to researchers Peter Blumen and Christina Hulbe who helped us understand the science of climate change. If you liked this episode, please be sure to share it with a few friends. Maybe listen together and chat about what it means afterwards. I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you soon.


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