Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

The Apocalypse Creep

This American Life

Victoria Ines

After listening to the first part of the podcast “Apocalypse Creep,” I wanted to believe it was one of those dystopian, fictional narratives designed to emulate a low-drama real-life scenario. Don’t Look Up, for instance, was written to provide people with a faster-moving version of climate change. Part of me knew that it wasn’t, of course. But I found some of the stories described in the podcast so outlandishly terrifying that I simply wanted to believe that they weren’t real.

The podcast begins innocuously enough. A recording of a California fishing report plays, with the “This American Life” host Ira Glass interjecting every so often to provide an explanation or comment on the report. However, as time passes, the reports progressively get odder and more alarming. In one August report, the man in the recording, Dondo Darue, suggests that fishers keep a thermometer handy to check the temperature of the water before fishing. In another, he reports that all of the national forests in California have closed. Very few people were around to hear the latter announcement though, since nearby fires had forced people to evacuate the area.

Although his broadcast is always upbeat, Darue and his family are terrified. His son constantly asks if they have to evacuate, and they place yellow dots on anything they want to save in an evacuation. Although the danger is slow-moving, conditions have gotten worse. “It’s like apocalypse creep, the end of the world that we know oozing up around us, one hot day at a time.” For others, the threat is more imminent. In the California city of Pacifica, people face the loss of their houses. In the podcast, resident Jane Tollini describes her disturbing reality — in 1998, her backyard slid into the ocean, causing her bedroom to hang precariously over the cliff.

The podcast emphasizes the main issue of sea-level rise in Pacifica — for most people, “theory rarely translated into practice, so it [the danger] didn’t seem real.” Just two weeks before Jane lost her backyard, she and her neighbors had thrown a party, at which the hypothetical threat of the nearby storms was mocked. This appears to be true for most Pacifica residents, who seem unbothered by the occasional disappearance of a house or apartment. However, in 2018, the California Coastal Commission issued a document with suggested strategies to keep communities safe from sea-level rise.

One of these actions is something called “managed retreat,” which would mean relocation and construction restrictions in certain areas. Although the mayor of Pacifica, John Keener, sees no issue with the consideration, residents are horrified. In public meetings, participants express their concerns that “it’s all going to be taken away from me by something that may or may not happen in the future.” A real estate agency distributes documents telling people that their land would be taken with zero compensation. Resident Jeff Guillet first hears about managed retreat through the “inflammatory” brochure, which seemed to deliberately exclude some key information. For instance, instead of the government immediately seizing properties, as the document suggests, “it’s a very slow-moving and voluntary process that unfolds over decades.”

In this way, the Pacifica situation reflects the overall issue of climate change. Paying now for something that will happen in the future is typically negatively received. “The present owns our heart. The future, if it exists for us at all, lives only in our head.” In other words, people want action that helps them now, not in the future. Although understandable, this means that action will always be a late response. Residents such as Guillet, who campaigns against managed retreat, did so because they feared losing their properties. Guillet was terrified that he would lose everything due to managed retreat and worked tirelessly to persuade others to oppose the idea. Eventually, the opposition (led by local real estate associations) reverts to a smear campaign against Mayor Keener, which included nasty photoshopped images of the mayor.

The residents’ reaction is understandable. However, they assume that if they defeat managed retreat, they won’t lose their homes. This is far from reality. The Coastal Commission was clearly not taking managed retreat lightly and was considering it along with many other possibilities. They realize that without well-thought-out action, residents would eventually lose their homes to the sea rather than the government. Eventually, however, Mayor John Keener loses re-election to an anti-managed retreat candidate. Managed retreat is officially off the table for Pacifica.

While writing this article, I was tempted to include far more quotes than I did. There are countless important and thought-provoking comments in this podcast. Together, they form an incredibly powerful narrative that tells a story that reflects others all over the world. At the end of the podcast, climate reporter Mario Alejandro Ariza discusses the misconception that our resilience will save us, saying that, “the water is going to keep on rising, no matter how resilient we are.” We are all resilient. But, in the end, an apocalypse is coming, and we all need to learn from podcasts like these, so we can stop this “surreal horror movie in extremely slow motion.”

Victoria Ines is a senior at Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, NY. She is passionate about working to protect both the environment and endangered species. After high school, she will be attending college to study environmental engineering.

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