Discover more from Code Red and Me: Rethinking Everything
Adaptation to Sea Level Rise
What Happens After We Know It's Real
I’ve spent my working life deciphering emotional tone. Thousands and thousands of hours spent watching the squint of an eye, the position of a jaw, the slope of shoulder, the wiggle of foot. I listen to vocal tonality, to word choice. I tell you this to establish my credibility in what I am about to say.
By the time I arrive a good crowd is already gathered in the large, high windowed room of the Freeport Community Center. It’s Monday night and over the weekend the temperature rose from a whopping -17 to 50, making the presentation, “Impacts of Sea Level Rise and Weather Events on Freeport” by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, GMRI, Climate Center Team, more than timely.
While the Climate Team, two women and one man, fuss with microphones and connectivity between their computer and the big screen on the wall, I take my seat at the end of the row beside the refreshment table and eye the donut slices piled like little pyramids of confection. Who eats donuts at 6:30 at night I wonder? I look up at the front of the room and examine the presenters more closely. They are so young, this Climate Team. Unlike myself, or anyone at any time before in history, young people like these three have grown up with the knowledge that all life on the planet is imperiled—which makes me wonder, how do they cope, how are their minds shaped by this terrible reality in ways mine was not?
The last time I was in this room to hear a lecture on sea level rise was exactly five years ago. It was late February and there was a foot of snow on the ground, and it had not warmed 67 degrees in 24 hours. The Freeport Conservation Trust hosted this event for the same reason last Monday’s event was held: to educate us about the impact of climate change on the salt marshes and coastal land in Freeport.
What I heard and saw that night five years ago changed the trajectory of my life, catapulted me from my snug seat in languid old age into the wild fray of climate activism. Here’s an excerpt from an essay, “Managed Retreat”, which I wrote in 2018 shortly after the lecture and published in the book I edited which this lecture spawned: “A Dangerous New World, Maine Voices on the Climate Crisis:”
A color-coded NOAA map of coastal flooding is projected on the giant screen. The young, bearded, rugged-looking land planner from Maine Coast Heritage Trust, a land conservation group, speaks carefully, regret layered in his voice. “It’s hard to talk about, but we have to begin. The good news is you don’t have to worry much about it here where the coastline is so high above the sea, but south of here,” he pauses, takes a long breath in, goes on, “it will be a different story. Managed retreat will be necessary.”
I feel something crawl under my skin, a small red beetle of fear.
Even if we do nothing in the next forty years the floods will come. Three feet is inevitable. Six feet is more likely. Nine is possible. I scan the map with ferocious, unabashed self-interest, looking for the spot where my new house stands. We are too far up the Little River to have to worry about flooding, even with nine feet. We will not have to endure a “managed retreat.” But the salt marsh I lived beside for forty years will disappear. The sandy beach where on hot summer days we took our children and grandchildren to swim and build sandcastles will be gone. They will not take their children to Winslow Park in the summer.
At 6:30 last Monday, one of the women on the GMRI Climate Team begins the program with a slide show about the science of sea level rise and reminds us of what, by now, most everyone in the room knows: that the Gulf of Maine is warming 3X’s faster than any other body of water and 99% faster than all oceans. She uses a different graphic to display the sea level rise from the interactive NOAA map the Maine Coast Heritage Trust speaker used. Her graphic is static with different colors to indicate different levels of rise, all of which are indecipherable to me.
I feel bored and restless as the lecture goes on but I am not sure why. The presenters are well prepared and earnest. But something is off. I eye the donuts and make a quick dash to the table and choose a toasted coconut covered one and sit down and slowly eat my quarter slice. Mmm. Donuts are good at this hour!
Conservative estimates of 1.5 feet in 2050 and 4 feet in 2100 are highlighted as if scientists hadn’t weighed in about how incredibly unlikely those low numbers are. We are told how lucky we are that the Cousin’s River saltmarsh has been preserved by our local conservation organization so that when the waters come, all that saltmarsh life can pack up their bags, wave goodbye and wiggle and fly and swim inland to safe ground. The next speaker rises to talk about adaptation and when she gets to retreat, I feel none of the rush I felt five years ago. The last speaker, a man, presents his work with what he calls blue businesses but the work is new and little of real substance is happening yet. The words climate activism aren’t spoken once.
Aside from a few questions at the end about who would pay for erosion on their waterfront land, the emotional tone of the audience, from my point of view, registers flat and mildly dissociated.
I realize after I leave the lecture and have a little time to process the evening that there was at no time any sense of urgency, that three people stood before us talking about the most critical, life threatening moment in history with an emotional tone that, to my ear, in no way matched the gravity of the moment — instead it all sounded, well, normal.
Now a small red beetle of fear crawls under my skin for a whole different reason. Without urgency, what will become of us?
For too long scientists intentionally played down the impact of carbon buildup on life on the planet on the assumption that if people knew how bad it was, they would be so terrified they would go into denial. They did this for thirty years, all during the time when the data was clear that we needed to do something immediately to stop carbon buildup. Perhaps this is the culture of GMRI, an organization that aims to bridge the gap between fishermen and scientists: don’t scare the people.
Or perhaps it’s much more than that. Perhaps it answers my question about how these young people have adapted. Though much of the presentation was about the adaptation and resilience of infrastructure and nature to climate change, perhaps what I saw on Monday night was the mental adaptation that this generation has, oh so unconsciously, had to adapt in order to live in this altered reality. This thought makes me ever so sad.
I muse about all this and wonder if I’ve misjudged Monday’s experience, wonder if I’ve gone so over the top with my activism that I lack patience for people whose hair isn’t on fire. Then, an Opinion piece in The New York Times by David Wallace-Wells, the author of the book, “An Uninhabitable Earth”, catches my attention. The piece is a recent interview Wallace-Wells did with Greta Thunberg.
I scan it not expecting to find help with my confusion about the mismatch between the message and the emotional tone. But then, there it is! Though Thunberg is clear that the debate about whether climate change is real or not— is over, she has this to say:
...it strikes me every time that people are really living in denial. There’s still no sense of urgency whatsoever, anywhere.
Urgency!! That’s the same word I’ve been fiddling with, taking in and out of my pocket, checking for life. No urgency, whatsoever, anywhere.
Wallace-Wells responds to this idea about lack of urgency in this way:
We’ve gone through a period of awakening, of climate alarm, and the era of climate denial is effectively over. And it seems like we’ve entered a new phase, dominated by normalization, where even people who know about what’s coming have baked it into their expectations of the future, and by false hope, as you’ve often talked about. How do we get past that?
And Greta responds:
I mean, we don’t know. Because we’ve never faced anything like this before. All we can do is try to navigate within this very new landscape of existential crisis that we are very, very rapidly approaching and many of us are already living in. So we are trying difficult methods to try to avoid getting stuck in those traps, like false hope. But how we’re going to do that — I don’t think anyone knows. If anyone did, then everything would be much simpler.
What will I do with this small red beetle of fear I feel after listening to this lecture on sea level rise and feeling that the urgency I felt in the room five years ago has seeped away, replaced by an eerie feeling of normalcy? Five years ago when this beetle crawled I vowed to do whatever I could to wake people to the reality of climate change. Now the question is: how do we live a life, day in and day out, go to work, visit family, get kids to school, clean the house and at the same time hold the urgency of the moment? Maybe we can’t.
But we have to try.
*Thanks to my illustrator, Colin Sullivan-Stevens, for the illustrations in the last two blogs. Having an artist at hand in the family is a great gift to the writer-mother.
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