All Adaptation Is Local

Attention to the political context of coastal communities will be necessary if the United States is to improve on its current storm-by-storm approach to climate adaptation.

Decades of climate science and years of public policy research came together last year on the losing side of a 4-1 vote approving a rural development along Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay shoreline. For anyone working on adaptation to rising sea level, that one decision crystallizes the issues involved.

A developer wanted to put a few hundred homes, a $40 million hotel, 34,000 square feet of retail, and a marina on a piece of soggy coastal land at the end of a peninsula. The land had been designated for conservation/open space use, and the developer needed the Board of Supervisors to change that zoning and allow him to build along the shoreline rather than on the adjacent upland parcel that lacked waterfront views and access.

The developer claimed that the planned community would, “…create significant employment, provide significant economic stimulus and tax base, honor the Maritime Heritage of Northumberland County, honor local architecture, promote tourism for all of Northumberland County, provide educational programs to school children and all residents, provide services to the retirement population and other residents of the county, and provide waste water capacity to some neighbors.” These hyperbolic claims have been made for decades by people seeking to build on coastal land, and now we’ve ended up with pretty ordinary coastal developments.

For decades, developers and shoreline communities alike have seen these coastal projects as cash cows, producing the highest-value homes and generating the highest real estate taxes. Now, however, sea level rise threatens to turn these developments into money pits for localities, because future flooding mitigation costs will exceed property tax revenues.

Our group, Wetlands Watch, argued against this development proposal, saying that even at historical rates of sea level rise (measured as 1.5 feet per century since monitoring began in 1927), the project would be increasingly subject to flooding from above by storm surges as well as flooding from below as the perched water table rose into the development. Projected sea level rise at more than twice current rates would hasten this outcome. Given that a house will last 100 years or more with proper maintenance, we argued that the board of supervisors should take these centennial rates into account and calculate the taxpayer liability for adaptation measures required by this subdivision in the future. We argued that the Board of Supervisors needed to conduct a “life-cycle” cost assessment before proceeding.

We argued, using all the facts available from the body of work on sea level rise effects, and captured a solitary vote, losing the decision to the alignment of interests that have fueled coastal development unabated since World War II.

I am sure the county supervisors read the letter from the developer promising that utopian future emerging from this subdivision. I doubt that the supervisors had read the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Nor had they used any of the proliferation of adaptation “tool kits” being cranked out for coastal communities by academic institutions and government agencies, participated in the numerous Webinars dealing with sea level rise adaptation, attended the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) workshop on coastal resilience, or read the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s Synthesis and Assessment Project 4.1 Report, Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-Level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region.

These are regular people, with full-time jobs outside of government, whose main task on the Board of Supervisors is keeping their municipal government running through the end of the fiscal year. Their time and ability to seek out the growing body of work on sea level rise adaptation are limited. Unfortunately, the ability or interest of those producing this body of work to bring it down to local-level decisionmaking seems just as limited.

Many of those involved in the science and public policy of climate change envision a decision process in which research results carry the day and drive action, and national-scale data underlie uniform national policy. Between that dream and the reality of development decisions such as this one, democracy rears its ugly head. Local elected officials trend less toward Nobel laureate climate scientists and more toward your Uncle Bobby with his 2 years of community college and 15 years of running a wholesale plumbing business. Oh, and by the way, Uncle Bobby and his colleagues on the county board also happen to be in charge of adaptation decisions regarding climate change effects such as sea level rise, a condition of reality that the Nobelists haven’t managed to integrate into their climate models.

Local governments control private land-use decisions, issue business permits and occupancy permits, fund and build secondary roads, build and run schools, operate fire and emergency services—in short, control most of the factors that allow people to live and work on the land. Frustratingly for those who seek uniform adaptation policy, few federal regulatory statutes currently reach through to a local government’s land-use decisions. Only federally mandated floodplain plans, emergency management plans, wetlands permitting, and a handful of other statutes affect those decisions. Even more frustrating to those of us seeking restrictions on coastal development, local governments have wide discretion in implementing and allocating funds from an array of federal and state programs dealing with economic development, transportation, health and welfare, and the like. Without precautionary restrictions on implementation, localities can spend program funds without regard for future climate effects that are all but inevitable.

True, some of those state and federal laws and regulations have explicit prohibitions and restrictions about using the programmatic authority or funding in high-risk areas. For example, federal programs require many precautions and analysis of alternatives if a proposed project is in a 100-year floodplain. However, no federal law or regulation requires localities to anticipate future conditions in these precautions. Estimates of risk (i.e., the area of the 100-year floodplain, the intensity of storms, the recession rate of shorelines, and so on) are retrospective and based on a record of past occurrences. The only mention of future climate change risk in any operational federal program is an engineering guidance by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that requires that agency to use a prospective sea level rise formula when constructing military buildings along the tidal coast.

So when those county supervisors were considering the proposal to develop that parcel of soggy coastal land, only a citizens’ group and a few environmentalists were saying “No.” All the state and federal agencies involved in that development saw no problem with the proposal and were blind to any danger from sea level rise.

The Veterans Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development will guarantee any mortgage in the subdivision, regardless of the home’s elevation. The county’s Community Development Block Grant funds from the U.S. Department of Commerce can be used to pay for infrastructure in the community. The U.S. Department of Transportation will pay for any transportation segments eligible for federal cost-share payments. The Environmental Protection Agency will permit the sewage plant, lacking any authority to deny a permit based solely on future flooding risk. Even the National Flood Insurance Program run by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency will offer flood insurance to every homeowner in this development based on current, not projected, measures of mean sea level to define floodplains and compute risk and premiums.

On and on, every federal and state government program aligns with coastal development interests, as if nothing has changed, to continue the status quo. Every federal and state agency program that touched this development proposal on soggy coastal land gave it a green light.

For some agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Commerce, this situation is especially puzzling. On one side of Commerce, in NOAA, much time and effort is spent in educating coastal communities about the need to adapt to sea level rise and other climate effects. On the other side of Commerce, the Economic Development Administration (EDA) keeps doling out development dollars to coastal communities without any mention of sea level rise, no requirement for evaluating future climate change impacts, and no restrictions on the use of these funds based on those future impacts.

When the county board considers a development proposal, Uncle Bobby can either take a position based on a range of climate-model projections from one part of the Department of Commerce, or he can take a position based on the willingness of another part of the Department of Commerce to provide unrestricted funding for the proposal. He can upset the developer and perhaps anger his neighbor who owns the land in question, because of a climate tool kit coming out of NOAA. Or Uncle Bobby can avoid acrimony and agree with the EDA that this development is an idea worthy of federal taxpayer investment.

In current efforts to slow coastal development, it is folly to expect localities to go against the developer’s promise of jobs, a higher tax base, and more tourism when these positions are supported and underwritten by the state and federal governments. It is folly for anyone to expect an outcome different from the 4-1 decision made by the county board on the development we were opposing.

A thought experiment

Imagine for a moment that the county Board of Supervisors was directly exposed to the body of work on sea level rise. Imagine a metaphorical conversation between the Nobel laureates at the IPCC and your Uncle Bobby, county supervisor. What if Bobby agreed with the Nobelists and with NOAA and all the agencies issuing warnings, and felt that climate change was real and needed to be accommodated in local government policy?

Bobby would be presented with a range of projections, reflecting a range of possible responses to climate change by global-scale natural systems and a range of actions to be taken by the global community in reducing greenhouse gases. Should he look at the latest Summary for Policymakers report from the IPCC, he could clearly see for himself what to expect:

“Global mean sea level rise for 2081-2100 relative to 1986–2005 will likely be in the ranges of 0.26 to 0.55 m for RCP2.6, 0.32 to 0.63 m for RCP4.5, 0.33 to 0.63 m for RCP6.0, and 0.45 to 0.82 m for RCP8.5 (medium confidence). For RCP8.5, the rise by the year 2100 is 0.52 to 0.98 m, with a rate during 2081–2100 of 8 to 16 mm yr (medium confidence). These ranges are derived from CMIP5 climate projections in combination with process-based models and literature assessment of glacier and ice sheet contributions (see Figure SPM.9, Table SPM.2).”

Recognizing that Uncle Bobby and his peers are unlikely to act on the basis of that language (or even make any sense of it), a communications expert from NOAA will tell him to expect between one and three feet of sea level rise globally by this century’s end. However, the expert will also tell him that this parcel is located at a specific point on the globe and that the rate and range of sea level rise there, on that property, involves a range of other factors.

Virginia is experiencing the highest measured rate of relative sea level rise on the Atlantic coast, with land subsidence contributing as much to the gradual inundation as the actual rising seas. Also at issue is the apparent slowing of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, known to Uncle Bobby as the Gulf Stream. All of this taken together leaves the soggy parcel with between 4 and 6 feet of relative sea level rise expected by the end of this century.

What spoiled policymakers have come to expect from the science and technology (S&T) community is certainty, not a range of estimates. (The S&T community is complicit in these expectations, having sought over the years to broaden its involvement in and impact on public policy decisions by promising useful information in return for research support.) Should the county board ask the S&T community to help pick the right number within that 4- to 6-foot range, they would be told that it is a policy decision, not a scientific one. Further, the S&T community would say, where sea level rise eventually ends up within this range of estimates is complicated, since we are dealing with large global systems. Also, eventual effects will be determined by larger policy decisions such as whether greenhouse gas reduction actions will be taken by Beijing and . . . on and on into the nuanced body of work on climate change effects and mitigation.

For the local government officials, picking the “right” number is critical. Do they act on this development proposal or not? If they deny the development, can they defend their actions, possibly in court, since consideration of prospective sea level rise effects is not in any underlying legal authority? If they approve it, do they require additional freeboard (elevation of living space an additional increment above the minimum required by floodplain ordinances) on structures in this development? At what elevation do they set the freeboard? Do they need to amend their floodplain ordinances or building codes to incorporate these sea level rise projections? How do they design utilities and road segments in this development to address projected sea level rise? What engineering standards do they use for that work?

As this conversation drags on, we’ve again lost Uncle Bobby, who realizes that he will be long dead before anyone can narrow the uncertainty surrounding this development proposal. Each adaptation decision facing local government involves additional political effort and financial cost.

Although that additional cost may be a fraction of the costs avoided in the uncertain future, it is an utterly certain price paid by today’s taxpayers, all of whom vote in Bobby’s next election campaign.

A recent conversation with a storm water engineer in a coastal Virginia city illustrates these challenges to adaptation. The engineer was in charge of a $20 million contract for installing a storm water line. The low-lying city is challenged by sea level rise and the elevation of shallow groundwater tables. The engineer asked the contractor what it would cost to build the system to accommodate the current (1.5 feet per century) regional rate of sea level rise. The answer was an additional $5 million for pump stations and related hardware.

The engineer knew that it was not politically possible to ask for a 25% increase in the cost of the project, all borne by city taxpayers, based on projected effects that would occur decades hence, years after the current city council members had retired. Lacking any requirement for sea level rise adaptation by state or federal environmental agencies, any engineering guidance, or any additional cost-sharing for the adaptation actions, the project went in the ground as originally designed.

The challenge

In fairness, much of the challenge lies not with climate scientists narrowing the range of estimated effects, or even in communicating those risks more effectively. The challenge lies in getting policymakers adapted to living in the new reality of climate change, when they never even adapted to the old reality of gradual sea level rise. In this new reality, decisions must be made on the basis of estimated effects with wider ranges of variability or even using scenarios rather than quantifiable projections. The “spoiled policymakers” referenced above must now live with uncertainty, gradually moving toward more-precautionary strategies as they learn over time from the failures of early, smaller, incremental adaptation approaches. They must learn to live in a world in which the past is no longer prologue and retrospective views of past conditions no longer provide guidance for the future. They must extend their time horizons well beyond the next election.

These adjustments will be hard, especially hard given our lack of experience with climate change impacts such as sea level rise. For most of the past 5,000 years, we have enjoyed— on geologic time scales—atypically stable climate and sea levels. As a result, we have nothing in our literature, law, architecture, engineering, or any other discipline that addresses changes of the order that we will be experiencing in the future. In western Judeo-Christian culture we have two references to what we face: the tale of Noah’s Ark and a children’s story about a Dutch boy preventing the failure of a dike. Not much on which to base major social change. (Although to be fair, the Dutch do take the preservation of their dikes very seriously.)

This work will be made harder by the expense and disruption it will generate. The work we envision will be expensive: learning prudent precautionary levels of adaptation the hard way, storm by storm; buying out properties, even whole communities; paying full actuarial rates on insurance for the coastal risks we face; stacking up rock, sand, and concrete— millions of cubic yards of concrete—to block the waves; withdrawing public support for entire classes of coastal activities, stranding property owners along the shore; and enduring expensive lawsuits as we take these steps, struggling to shape law and policy to fit the new reality. All of this over coming decades will cost trillions of dollars. There will be big losers and, perhaps, a few winners as we unwind our existing relationship with the shore. Of course, doing nothing will cost even more and make everyone losers in the end.

Progress on adaptation will also be conditioned on the reaction of the private sector, a fragmented confederation of interests that is largely being left outside of adaptation conversations. Attempts have been made to include them at higher levels in the dialogue, with large corporations, global reinsurers, and the like expressing concern at national and international conferences. At Uncle Bobby’s level, with the local chamber of commerce or regional business association, there is little to no private-sector voice in support of caution.

As a result, when adaptation measures are discussed, the private-sector reaction at the local level is driven by those who are directly and immediately affected, a sector of businesses dominated by real estate sales, development, and contractor interests. Most of these companies have planning horizons that extend into the future precisely to the point of sale of a property. Any actions that affect the cost of construction of the property or lower the appeal and price of the property will be opposed. Falling into this category of action are most prudent sea level rise adaptation options such as additional floodplain restrictions, properly priced private and federal flood insurance coverage, and public identification or designation of future flooding areas. Actual restrictions on development or redevelopment in those future flooding areas will be strenuously opposed. This has been illustrated in negative reactions to initial attempts at sea level rise adaptation, from the Outer Banks in North Carolina to the San Francisco Bay region of California.

Acting against all of this seemingly insurmountable resistance is the inevitability of the changes we face along the coast. Gradually the private sector will shift its position as risk gets priced into coastal communities, actuarial reality overcomes inertia, and impacts pile up. Coastal communities will find themselves inundated with costs, complaints, and water—lots of water. The public’s relationship with the shoreline will shift from “live on the water,” to “live with the water,” to “move away from the water and come back for a visit from time to time.” Government programs at all levels will withdraw support for further coastal development. With each storm and recovery, low-lying communities built along beaches, strand roads, and at the end of peninsulas will be left on their own and slowly fade away. The life-cycle cost of our changed relationship with the shore will finally be calculated.

This is the messy reality we face, with Uncle Bobby and his peers in charge of adaptation decisions across hundreds of coastal communities. This is the outcome that looms behind the rationality of tool kits, Webinars, conferences, and expectations by Nobelists that facts alone can change behavior in time to avoid the worst.

Clark Williams-Derry of the nonprofit Sightline Institute lays out our challenge well:

“Convincing people that you’re right about an issue— say, the scientific consensus about the threat posed by global warming—can seem vitally important, but in the end may be somewhat beside the point. In the long run, you have to move the debate beyond beliefs, and into incentives: lining up the economic and social incentives such that the right choices are the easy, natural ones. To do that, we need smart and effective policies. Appeals to people’s reason may help, but rational belief alone won’t carry the day.”

We’re back to the decision on that soggy piece of coastal land in rural Virginia and our misalignment of policies and incentives that made that 4-1 decision the easy, natural, and even rational one. We need to look at these individual decisions, pick them apart, speak to local decisionmakers, develop those “smart and effective policies,” and then generate support for them in coastal communities, one by one.

For years, we have acted in ignorance, before we could clearly see the permanence of coastal change. Or if not ignorance, then denial, as we dumped sand on beaches and moved lighthouses and historical homes farther inland from the eroding coast. Today we seem to be acting out of indifference, believing in our ability to continue as we have for decades, hoping all of this is not true. Soon we will be acting out of inevitability, making different choices because there is no other option.

Yet each storm presents a teachable moment, an event that causes those who live on and make decisions about the local lands to rethink where their true interests lie, and gives ever-stronger voice to those who are advocating for adaptation. The gamble we have engaged is that our short-term interests will outweigh the long-term costs of failing to adapt. Storm by storm, the odds on this gamble will grow longer, but meanwhile how many more new coastal developments are going to be approved and how many old coastal developments are going to be drowned?

The trick is to move more rapidly toward the inevitability of action and minimize the greater expense and disruption that comes from having started too late. That will require many hours of conversation at the local diner’s corner booth between Uncle Bobby, the Nobelists, and government policymakers, in hundreds of municipalities along the nation’s coasts. It will also, unfortunately, involve far too many more storm and flooding events as conversation starters.

William “Skip” Stiles ()is executive director of Wetlands Watch, an environmental nonprofit that has been working statewide in Virginia for over six years to help localities adapt to sea level rise. Before this work, he spent 22 years in a number of staff positions in the U.S. House of Representatives, as chief of staff to the late Congressman George E. Brown Jr., and as legislative director for the House Science Committee.

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Cite this Article

Jr., William A. Stiles. “All Adaptation Is Local.” Issues in Science and Technology 30, no. 2 (Winter 2014).

Vol. XXX, No. 2, Winter 2014