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2020 Topical Reporting, Climate Change finalist

California Against the Sea

About the Project

In California, the debate isn’t about whether climate change is real. It’s about how much time we have, and how much we are willing to give up.

When reporter Rosanna Xia started covering the coast, she saw the threat of sea level rise looming over every community she visited. But solutions demanded urgency and sacrifice, leaving cities paralyzed by the scope of the problem.

There are only so many choices against the rising sea. None is perfect. Over and over, Xia sat through heated city planning meetings and watched this issue tear apart close-knit communities as they fought over the trade-offs and the future of their towns.

She discovered that this problem – like many climate change issues across the world – is grounded in science, but overwhelmed by emotion. In a rapidly changing world, people must confront their attachments to place and the human need to protect what we know. The reporting showed that no matter how long California waits for a magic fix to materialize, no solution will satisfy everyone. She realized that the story had to explain how every decision, including inaction, comes at a cost.

Xia spent time in numerous coastal communities, sitting through council meetings, walking with homeowners on their favorite beaches and touring areas devastated by nature. Over months of interviews with scientists and planning experts, Xia put together the pieces. She realized that as varied as their circumstances may seem, communities have only three choices: One is to defend the coastline. Another is to add sand. The third is to surrender to the water and relocate inland. Each has its consequences and a cascading impact elsewhere.

Many communities don’t understand this interplay and have spiraled into false arguments. To help explain the stakes and trade-offs, Xia and a team of graphic journalists came up with the idea of creating a video game. They mapped out a turn-based decision tree and figured out a way to simplify the message and get to the heart of the issue. The end result puts readers in charge of a coastal town’s fate, forcing them to see why sea level rise adaptation has proven to be so complex – and inaction so prevalent.

What do we want the California coast to look like in the future? What do we care about saving, and what are we willing to let go? By connecting the dots across the state’s 1,200-mile shoreline, the story forces readers to consider the fate of a landscape so core to the California identity.