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Should We Abandon Our Shorelines?

We missed our chance to avoid rising sea levels. Now we must turn and run.
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(Photo: jsome1/Flickr)

(Photo: jsome1/Flickr)

Retreat is seldom popular, but some fights cannot be won.

New Obama administration rules that will crack down on power plants' global warming pollution are being lauded as a positive step from a nation that has long shirked its obligations to protect the climate. But they will not stop the climate from changing. We missed our chance to avoid climate change by allowing our leaders to ignore more than 50 years of warnings from scientists. Carbon dioxide concentrations will rise so long as fossil fuels are burned, and the climate will change for centuries as our pollution lingers.

So now we must adapt.

Coral and oyster reefs and mangrove forests can be protected or seeded to buffer the effects of worsening hurricanes, heavier downpours, and rising seas. Seawalls can be built, although they often push flood problems to neighboring areas. We cannot defend every inch of America's shorelines.

"Storm events can be windows of opportunity for change because they create a forced turnover in capital stock and a chance to rebuild differently."

One of the most difficult adaptive measures that we face is figuring out how to retreat in an orderly fashion from select shorelines as they are inundated by rising tides and ferocious storms. That means sacrificing previously valuable waterfront property and infrastructure—an unappealing measure for virtually any landowner or community.

An essay published in Climatic Change argues that one of the best ways of bracing for flooding disasters wrought by global warming is to be ready to take advantage of those very disastersby heeding pre-drawn blueprints for exodus. The paper suggests restricting shoreline development and rebuilding waterfront roads and other infrastructure further away from shorelines.

"Storm events can be windows of opportunity for change because they create a forced turnover in capital stock and a chance to rebuild differently," writes Carolyn Kousky, a research fellow at Resources for the Future, a non-profit that primarily studies environmental issues. "Decisions about such changes, however, should not be taken in the immediate aftermath, when lengthy negotiations could leave disaster victims in an unacceptable limbo. Pre-disaster planning can also lock in socially beneficial decisions that are unlikely to be adopted in the hasty and contentious environment after a storm. Local governments should begin such discussions now, with extensive community input, so that policies and contracts are in place before the next storm."

To help manage such retreats, Kousky suggests linking federal disaster aid with incentives to discourage rebuilding in flood-prone zones. Buying out properties following floods using combined funding sources could help, but Kousky points out that the benefits would only be truly realized if entire neighborhoods were removed. And, even if the private sector insists on rebuilding in dangerous areas, she urges the public sector to resist such temptations—including when it comes to building infrastructure that's relied upon by property owners.

"Retreat could be left to the market," Kousky writes. However, "the market is unlikely to lead to optimal levels or types of retreat in all locations."

If we're to successfully flee the waterlogged ravages of our own dastardly doing, the government may need to force our hands.