Summary: Climate change narratives have predicted the disappearance of low-lying islands like the Maldives due to rising sea levels. But as the New York Times has recently noticed, many of these islands are actually expanding, thanks in large part to human ingenuity. This highlights the human capacity to adapt and thrive in the face of environmental challenges.

For decades, leaders, media, and the climate commentariat invoked the shrinking islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans as examples of the existential threat that humanity supposedly faces. Climate change comes for all of us, they said, but faster for these low-lying islands, which will literally cease to exist in the face of rising sea levels.

The visually stunning New York Times piece “The Vanishing Islands That Failed to Vanish” by climate reporter Raymond Zhong and photographer Jason Gulley explores the very obvious fact that the low-lying Maldives haven’t vanished.

Around the time of the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties climate summits, representatives for what are called “Small Island Developing States” usually make a lot of fuss and demand the rich world “do more” to combat climate change lest these states vanish.

To the readers and editors of the New York Times, the fact that these islands aren’t disappearing must have come as a surprise. For their standard narratives of certain climate death, the small islands story made some semblance of sense: low-lying island nations, lacking mountains or higher ground to retreat to, would literally go extinct if the waves crashed just a little bit higher. Since sea level rise is one of the most predictable outcomes of higher atmospheric carbon dioxide, thermal expansion, and melting polar ice, surely the islands must shortly disappear.

Writes Zhong, “These islands, which form atop coral reefs in clusters called atolls, were quickly identified as some of the first places climate change might ravage in their entirety. As the ice caps melted and the seas crept higher, these accidents of geologic history were bound to be corrected and the tiny islands returned to watery oblivion, probably in this century.” Cue the theatrics.

When we investigate this iron logic of low-lying islands and an endlessly rising sea level, we discover that, actually, most of these islands are rising rather than shrinking—especially if they’re inhabited by significant populations. Humans don’t go gentle into that good night, and neither, it seems, do the coral reefs and atolls on which the Maldives and countless other island nations around the world sit.

The creative, creating, and inventive humans who call these islands home are pretty reluctant to let the ocean waves slowly drag their shores under. When humans act faster than microscopic, gradual shifts in the climate, outcomes from a harsher nature don’t mean certain death.

Thanks to land reclamation, 93.5 percent of inhabited Maldivian islands expanded between 2004–2006 and 2014–2016, some 60 percent of which through human engineering efforts. While the journalists and doomsday-peddlers half a world away were worrying over the disappearing islands, the Maldivians were busy building a new capital city in Hulhumalé. During 20 years of sea level rises, they turned a strip of land barely usable as an airport into a full-fledged city with high-rises, harbors, and city centers.

What must be equally fascinating to readers of this story and members of the green-industrial complex alike, is the discovery that Earth itself assisted the struggling humans.

It started with the scientists Arthur Webb and Paul Kench, whom the New York Times team followed a decade and a half after the 2010 paper in Global and Planetary Change that first alerted many scientists to the nonissue of island shrinking. Comparing aerial photos of the Maldivian islands from midcentury until the early 2000s, it turned out that “the seas had risen an inch or so each decade, yet the waves had kept piling sediment on the islands’ shores, enough to mean that most of them hadn’t changed much in size.” Clearly, the mechanic story of oceans up, islands down was flawed.

In addition to those natural and dynamic geological processes, we have the Dutch story of humans taking fate into their own hands. The sea encroaching on your homes? Let’s shut it out, drain the swamps, make dykes and polders, and make the reclaimed land livable. Something like a third of the country, including the city of Amsterdam, is below mean sea level.

Humans, it turns out, don’t stand around haplessly waiting for a slowly eroding shoreline to make them homeless—be they rich nations like the Netherlands or poor, developing ones like the Maldives.

What’s facing the Maldives is a rough microcosm of the broader climate change questions—yes, things are changing in the natural world, and no, we aren’t powerless to how they affect us. There is a way to be concerned about the state of nature and how humans are changing it without devolving into terror, hyperbole, and anti-humanism.

If we can become and remain rich enough, and “if we keep our wits about us,” we’ll be all right.

In the grand saga of climate change, perhaps the media should spend a little less time crafting tales of woe and a bit more on highlighting the remarkable human capacity to adapt and thrive.