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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 rise.

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.If 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.

This Weekend's News


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