June 27, 2011

This Weekend’s News: New Thinking on Adapting to Inexorable Sea-level Rise

Yesterday, The
Washington Post
reported that there
is new advice for vulnerable coastal communities on how to adapt to risings
seas: move away from the shore
.  The Post report explores the implications of
sea-level rise for the Hampton Roads area, home to Norfolk Naval Station,
cautioning that traditional methods of holding back the sea could fall short. “The
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published the first manual on how not to
hold [the sea] back, arguing that costly seawalls and dikes eventually fail
because sea-level rise is unstoppable
,” the report cited. “The federal
Global Change Research Program estimates that the sea level will rise 14 to 17
inches in the next century around Hampton Roads.”

Instead of investing in massive (expensive) infrastructure
projects to hold back the sea, the EPA hopes that its new report will encourage
coastal communities to enact new city ordinances and development laws that
prohibit new coastal construction, and devise incentives for already vulnerable
commercial businesses and residents to move away from the shore. “The
EPA report said governments have three options to deal with sea-level rise
the Post reported:

They can stay on the well-worn path
of building expensive protection and raising streets and buildings. They can
beat an organized retreat from the shore, perhaps by offering financial
incentives to people and organizations to move inland. Or
they can allow people to do whatever they want for their waterfront properties
but tell them in no uncertain terms that they are on their own when the waters

Many people are not too worried about the long-term
implications of sea-level rise, in part because of near-term challenges with
the economy and other pressing priorities. Yet experts are hoping to impart a
sense of urgency by educating people about the near- and long-term economic
implications of failing to act, especially given the current political climate
that demands policymakers to be better stewards of their constituents’ tax
dollars. “Most people aren’t taking the threat of sea-level rise decades from
now too seriously, but planners say it is worrisome when you consider what’s at
stake — public
roads, schools, bridges, tunnels, museums, police stations and housing developments
that are built to last well beyond the average 30-year home mortgage,

according to the Post. “It could
result in those things having a life span less than what we budgeted for,” John
Carlock, deputy executive director of the Hampton Roads Planning District
Commission, told The Washington Post. “That
part of it is trying to make wise use of taxpayer funds.

In the near term, too, the economic effects of sea-level
rise and more frequent storms are already being felt by many coastal
communities. “Increased
flooding was inevitable along the Atlantic coast because the number of
federally declared storms has increased
— up by 50 percent over 20 years,
for instance, in New England,” the Post reported,
citing a recent climate change report. “‘In
New Hampshire alone, the costs associated with declared storm damages have
increased nearly 15-fold and the state has suffered through four ‘100-year
floods’ in the last decade,’
” the report, Preparing for a Changing Climate: A Northeast-Focused Needs Assessment, warned. Even the
near-term costs of adapting to sea-level rise by holding back the sea with
dikes and walls, or literally elevating vulnerable neighborhoods, is quickly
becoming too costly. “A few years ago the city spent $1.5 million to
elevate some homes in the Larchmont area, knowing the water will probably crawl
to their doorsteps again,” according to the Post.
this keeps up, insurance rates will skyrocket as storms sweep the rising seas
onto roads and inside people’s homes and businesses.

In reading this report, one has to wonder how much this new thinking has
permeated the decision-making at the Department of Defense now that policymakers there are beginning to integrate climate change into their strategic planning. After all, Norfolk
Naval Station is not the only U.S. military base that will be vulnerable to an
encroaching sea. Across the world, other critical U.S. naval and air force
installations could be just as vulnerable, if not more. In assessing its bases
and their vulnerability to climate change, the Department of Defense will have
to ask the same critical questions that many coastal communities will being
asking, especially given the same budgetary concerns: how will sea-level rise
affect DOD’s coastal assets, and does it make sense to move back from the
water’s edge? 

This Week’s Events

Today at 10 AM, the Brookings Institution will host an event
on The
Future of Natural Gas

Tuesday at 12:30 PM, ICLEI USA, local governments for
sustainability, will explore sustainable development in their event, The Road to Rio+20.

Wednesday at 2 PM, CSIS will explore the Arctic Horizons.

Finally, on Thursday at 6:30 PM, head over to the Australian
Embassy for a discussion on China’s Role in
an Evolving Global Natural Gas Industry