Climate Adaptation and Unintended Consequences

Radio documentary explores the social and economic impacts of adapting to climate change

Rising seas will irrevocably change life near the San Francisco Bay. That’s the premise of RISE: Climate Change and Coastal Communities, a three-part documentary by independent producer Claire Schoen. The final part, “Chuey’s Story,” airs this evening at 8 pm on KQED 88.5 FM.

By Claire Schoen

Jan Sturmann

Chuey Cazares works as a fisherman out of the South Bay town of Alviso. Adapting to climate change may save his town, but it's having unintended consequences for his livelihood.

There’s an old adage that goes something like this: “The human capacity to create technology exceeds our capacity to understand its impact.”

Lots of people have referred to this idea, Einstein perhaps most famously when he said, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Splitting the atom certainly brought us the promise of unlimited energy to run industry and military might to protect the world from Hitler. It also brought us a nuclear North Korea and Fukushima.

Climate change is the biggest unintended consequence of all. The Industrial Revolution was fueled by coal and oil, creating the foundation for modern society. What we did not know is that burning fossil fuels would alter the composition of the atmosphere and ocean so radically that it is now changing the climate of our planet.

Climate change has also created unintended consequences for our built environment. Most major cities the world sprouted near water, which provides transportation, irrigation, indeed sustenance for humans. To create these cities, forests have been clear cut, wetlands filled, waterways straightened – with the best of intentions.

But this past decade of record-breaking weather has brought unprecedented flooding to coastal towns. A single storm may be a chance occurrence, but this pattern of wild weather squares with climate change models. Along with sea level rise – linked to melting icecaps, linked to rising temperatures -– extreme wind and rain threaten coastal communities around the world.

This is the subject of “Chuey’s Story,” the third program in the RISE series. While we must adapt to climate change, it will not be easy. It will be a messy process. And some people will gain while others lose out.

To explore this idea, I turned to Alviso, a little town at the southern tip of the San Francisco Bay. Alviso is threatened by flooding from rivers that flow from above and from the Bay at its feet. Both flood risks will be made far worse by climate change. Government planners have solutions and are working to save Alviso. But for Chuey Cazares, whose Mexican-American family has lived in this town for generations, these solutions come with unintended consequences.

Today, the vast majority of climate scientists understand the dire threat of this unintended consequence.

Today, the vast majority of climate scientists understand the dire threat of this unintended consequence. Yet we are so dependent on fossil fuels and so beholden to the corporations that extract, sell and burn them that we are unable to take the steps necessary to turn the Titanic around.

What to do? Can more technology wean us from our addiction to fossil fuels? And what are the unintended consequences of these new solutions? Corn ethanol, which looked so promising a few decades ago, has a dark side. Growing corn for fuel may mean less land and water to grow food. And the fossil fuel needed to create corn ethanol greatly reduces its benefit. Carbon sequestration is held up as the next savior. Will leaking CO2 from underground reservoirs become an unintended consequence of this venture?

In any case, making the switch to green energy – while still vital – is no longer enough. There is an increasing realization that we are now past a tipping point. No matter what we do to slow our release of greenhouse gases, we can no longer stop climate change altogether. It’s time to get serious about adapting to the sea level rise and extreme weather that is coming our way.

Jan Sturmann

Chuey Cazares (right) and his cousin Jose Lujan have lived all their lives in Alviso, California. But climate change threatens their town, which sits several feet below sea level.

When Hurricane Katrina struck in the late summer of 2005, wetlands could have buffered New Orleans from a record 29-foot storm surge. But a million acres of wetlands had been wiped out as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged channels in the Mississippi River over the decades. In Alaska, houses in the Inuit village of Shishmaref are literally falling into the Chukchi Sea, as the permafrost melts beneath them and storms attack the coastline. The entire village is making plans to relocate. The Netherlands is struggling to figure out how to build their dikes higher and higher in the face of a rising tide.

Restoring wetlands and building more levees are proving both difficult and costly. And if we have learned nothing else, we must now recognize that adaptation itself comes with its own set of unintended consequences.

Part 3 of RISE, entitled “Chuey’s Story” airs on KQED 88.5 FM tonight. All three parts and additional multimedia are available on the RISE website.

  • Anonymous

    Move on
    folks because climate change isn’t progressive anymore, its just brutal fear
    mongering now and history is watching us condemn our children to the greenhouse
    gas ovens with childish glee. Now if we could just get the millions in the
    world of science to join the dozens of climate change protesters………….? Climate
    blame was a tragic exaggeration and a consultant’s wet dream and good news to
    real planet lovers. The train called “the climate blame mistake” is on a side
    rail and the former believer train has progressed out of the station. Let’s
    just admit our mistake, there’s  no other
    choice really. At least we can tell the Bush family that we made a false war too
    and we admit it. Pollution is real, death for all by SUV gas, no, thankfully.

  • Russell Steele

    It is hard to adapt to something that is not happening. No warming for 15 years and sea levels declining for the last two years.