One of the most imminent effects of climate change is sea level rise – especially in low-lying coastal areas like the San Francisco Bay. To documentarian Claire Schoen, this story isn’t about the science of what’s going to happen. That part is settled. She says the question is how we’re going to adapt.
KALW’s Ben Trefny sat down with Schoen to discuss her latest documentary about climate change, RISE.
BEN TREFNY: What inspired you to make this documentary?
CLAIRE SCHOEN: I’ve been producing media first in film, then radio, and also now multimedia for a lot of years. I’ve produced stories on probably every subject out there. But, my real interest and passion is environmental education using media to educate people about the environment. Over the last 10 years or so I’ve come to feel that there is no topic that is more important than climate change. If we don’t figure this one out, the rest won’t matter. So that’s where I was coming from with this piece.
I took a look at my neighborhood – the San Francisco Bay Area, to tell personal stories of a national and international issue, which is how we’re going to adapt to the flooding that is coming to communities that live by the water because of climate change.
TREFNY: The San Francisco Bay is the perfect place to locate that. Obviously San Francisco itself is bordered on three sides by water and so many other cities touch it. What did you learn in researching this documentary about sea level rise as a result of climate change? How will it be affecting different cities and will be affecting us further?
SCHOEN: What I learned is that we are sitting on what is called a 100-year flood plain. This is the area that is supposed to flood every 100 years. What climate scientists are saying is that within the next 40-50 years we’re going to be seeing that 100-year flood plain turn into a 50-year flood plain, 10-year flood plain, one-year flood plain – every high tide we may have floods.
So, a lot of us are in trouble. In fact, all of us are in trouble. Because, even if you don’t live within that plain – and by the way that plain includes the San Francisco Financial District, most of the towns of Silicon Valley, a lot of the East Bay towns, or at least the edges of them all, San Jose – and a lot of that land was built on landfill. Forty percent of the bay has been filled in, turned into real estate. So that land which was built up to sea level, today’s sea level, is going to be below sea level pretty soon.
TREFNY: One of the ways in which you explored these coastal communities was to talk with Paul McHugh, a longtime writer. Tell me a little bit about Paul McHugh.
SCHOEN: Paul has been a Bay Area journalist for over 30 years and he writes about the environment because he’s a great outdoorsman.
TREFNY: He’s got a really romantic way of seeing things. Tell me what kind of observations Paul made to you and for the documentary about sea level rise and how it’s going to affect the San Francisco Bay.
SCHOEN: We sent him out on four trips by himself with binaural microphones – those are two little mic’s that are attached to his hat right next to his ears – so wherever he turns his head, if you are wearing headphones, you hear what he heard. He talked about what he saw, both the beauty of the bay, little otters popping up here and there, and the birds overhead, but he’s also seeing the bay from eye level perspective and what could be happening.
He’s seeing it from the perspective of sea level. So, as he’s passing by levees which are hopefully protecting the Financial District, Foster City, a lot of these urban areas that we go to in the stories, he sees just how low those levees are compared to where he’s sitting and what damage storms together with sea level rise could be causing.
TREFNY: One of the places that you talk about in “Rise” is the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta. You talked to scientist Jeff Mount about how the delta is created and to show what’s going to happen with that delta with sea level rise. But also, you put him next to a farmer who lives and works within the delta, and they both have very different perspectives on what climate change and sea level rise can do to that area. Talk to me about that difference in perspective.
SCHOEN: Well that farmer is Steve Mello, a third generation farmer in the San Francisco Bay delta, and he’s grooming his son Gary to be the fourth generation in his family. He really sees himself as building a legacy within this land and this community. The problem is that there are these pockets of land, as Jeff Mount described, they call them islands, although they are sunk as much as 20 and 30 feet below sea level and surrounded by these fingers of water that are coming down from the Sierras off of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and into San Francisco Bay.
The only thing keeping that sunken land and the fingers of water apart are these levees. The levees are old, they are made of mud and a lot of other stuff and can only be built so high, and they have broken before. But what Jeff Mount argues, and the scientific community understands, is that they will not hold with sea level rise and extreme weather. It’s just one step too far and Jeff Mount predicts that within 50 years, half of those islands are going to be flooded. And that whatever Steve Mello may want, he can’t stay there.
TREFNY: So in the course of your three-hour documentary, the three parts that you talk about, all different parts about how sea level rise in extreme weather is affecting the world, you come to some solutions. You hear about some. I’d like to hear what some of the possible solutions to this there are. Obviously, if people use less fossil fuel, if they are more conscious perhaps about how they are treating the environment, but specifically in the San Francisco Bay where we are so surrounded by water, where it’s a factor of life, and where there are so many low-lying areas, what are some of the solutions that people came up with that you heard about?
SCHOEN: It’s this issue of mitigation and adaptation again. What you were saying is how are we going to mitigate, how are we going to slow climate change. But to the extent we can’t slow it anymore, that we can’t halt these impacts, how are we going to adapt to them?
There are two traditional solutions. Here in the Bay Area we are going to commit to levees to protect our airports, the Financial District, some of these really economically valuable pieces of land. There are real problems with levees. You can only build so high; it cuts off the land from the water, it destroys wildlife habitat. Levees always fail – it’s just a matter of when they’re going to fail. It’s hugely expensive to maintain them, but we are going to have to do some of that.
The other traditional solution is wetlands. Wetlands are a great solution where you can do them but you have to have the land to do it. We can’t eliminate Foster City and put a wetland back in there. What we need to do is get creative. We need to figure out what else we can do.
You can listen to the three-part radio documentary or view the multimedia webstories at the official RISE website. This interview originally aired on December 15, 2011.