Can Coastal California Adapt to Climate Change?

AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

Climate change isn’t a future condition for many Californians. Right now, coastal residents sweep water from their garages. San Francisco tourists slosh through seawater at the Embarcadero. Condemned houses perch above crumbling cliffs in Pacifica, and a solitary sidewalk runs past the space where apartments once stood. So what will the most populous state in the U.S. do to protect the communities, train tracks, and roads that line its coast? For The Los Angeles Times, journalist Rosanna Xia goes deep into this enormous, developing crisis, mapping specific points from Del Mar to Pacifica to understand what’s at stake, and to listen to residents debate what to do. People talk about building bigger seawalls and building beaches with new sand, but each strategy has its limitations and undesirable consequences.

Then there’s what scientists and economists and number-crunching consultants call “managed retreat”: Move back, relocate, essentially cede the land to nature. These words alone have roiled the few cities bold enough to utter them. Mayors have been ousted, planning documents rewritten, campaigns waged over the very thought of turning prime real estate back into dunes and beaches.

Retreat is as un-American as it gets, neighborhood groups declared. To win, California must defend.

But at what cost? Should California become one long wall of concrete against the ocean? Will there still be sandy beaches or surf breaks to cherish in the future, oceanfront homes left to dream about? More than $150 billion in property could be at risk of flooding by 2100 — the economic damage far more devastating than the state’s worst earthquakes and wildfires. Salt marshes, home to shorebirds and endangered species, face extinction. In Southern California alone, two-thirds of beaches could vanish.

The state has both no time and too much time to act, spiraling into paralyzing battles over the why, who, when and how. It’s not too late for Californians to lead the way and plan ahead for sea level rise, experts say, if only there is the will to accept the bigger picture.

Returning after mudslides and wildfire. Rebuilding in flood zones. The human urge to outmatch nature is age-old. We scoff at the fabled frog that boiled to death in a pot of slowly warming water — but refuse to confront the reality of the sea as it pushes deeper into our cities.

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