The sea is rising. Can you save your town?

By Thomas Gaulkin, July 23, 2019

LA Times

That headline is also your mission in The Ocean Game, the LA Times’ deceptively simple online simulation of city governance in the face of climate change. The game accompanies an in-depth look at how various California coastal communities are responding to the effects of rising seas caused by global warming.

California may not be the most vulnerable part of the world that will experience the effects of sea-level rise in the coming decades, but the problems it faces are not at all trivial. According to the Times, more than $150 billion in private and public property may be underwater by the end of the century, including two-thirds of Southern California’s beaches. Critical habitats for birds and endangered species could disappear forever.

Rosanna Xia’s full report is well worth reading. She focuses on the challenges facing individual cities like San Francisco—where “the cost of building levees, seawalls and other measures to withstand six and a half feet of sea-level rise and a 100-year storm could cost as much as $450 billion”—and Imperial Beach, which added 300,000 cubic yards of sand to replenish its beaches, but will eventually have to retreat inland.

If you don’t have time to read Xia’s whole piece just yet, you can still play through The Ocean Game (designed by Xia’s colleagues Swetha Kannan and Terry Castleman) in just a few minutes and get a good understanding of why these communities have no really good options, and how difficult it can still be to lead people to act in the face of climate change. Alongside a simple series of animations, it’s a mostly text-based municipal adventure that lets you play mayor and decide on the best policy to confront the rising seas—like building a seawall (which will block off the beach) or widening the beach with more sand (that will eventually be washed away anyway). You can try to buy out the risky properties, but with a limited budget that will only get you so far. With just eight turns to work out the best policy, raise and then spend tax funds, it’s no beach picnic trying to save your imaginary town from the ocean’s inevitable encroachment. I tried several rounds and failed them all, my stick figure constituents decrying me as the worst mayor ever, and fleeing inland as the sea swallowed their homes.

Officials dealing with rising seas on California’s shores would no doubt appreciate having a “start over” button (or at least the option of hitting “pause”). But the reality is time is running out, both for these coastal communities and for the planet as a whole.  

“We’ve all played by the shore and built castles in the sand, but seem to forget what happens next,” cautions Xia. “The ocean always wins.”


Publication Name: LA Times
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