As sea levels rise, U.S. communities have several strategies to cope with the effects of climate change, the president of the National Academy of Sciences said yesterday.
There’s triage for high-dollar assets, like airports and military installations and even the Statue of Liberty, Marcia McNutt said. But more and more, she added, “organized retreat” is a part of the conversation.
That strategy, once politically unpalatable, has emerged from the shadows in recent months as scientists, community leaders and governments try to figure out how to move people out of the way of coastal flooding and other hazards.
Such a strategy could start with building codes, McNutt told an audience gathered yesterday at the National Press Club for an event organized by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. The event, which focused on adaptation to climate change, is part of a series highlighting the environmental and energy challenges and risks that the Trump administration must confront in the coming years, including adaptation to climate change.
Communities could require that people in hurricane zones rebuild their homes higher, for example, and with sustainable materials. Over time, that would change the economics of building in vulnerable zones. It would become unaffordable to live in dangerous areas, McNutt said.
Adapting to climate change is “very well-aligned with building a better world,” said fellow panelist Katharine Mach, a senior research scientist at Stanford and a visiting investigator at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
“Climate change adaptation means making investments in our transportation and communications infrastructure, our water infrastructure, our energy infrastructure,” Mach said.
But there are consequences to planned or organized retreat, McNutt and others warned. Millions of people live near U.S. coastlines, and many of them are wealthy. Even organized retreat could have consequences in a society with vast income disparities, McNutt said.
“I think it’s high time that we look at the economics of all of this. As the very wealthy who live on the coast displace those inlands, and they displace those a little more inland, we will have a whole group of people who have no place to go, and that’s going to be a major issue of social justice.”
The panelists called for considering resilient, adaptive measures as soon as possible, regardless of climate change. Such an approach will help the country mange the “full set of things nature throws us,” said Chris Field, director of the Woods Institute.
More investment in adaptation provides access to “win-win” solutions from non-climatic stressors to communities, such as terrorist attacks or hazards like earthquakes, volcanic explosions or other unpredictable events, he said.
And adapting early will also help people with changes people already are experiencing and that scientists know are coming, he said. Because of the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, sea levels will rise and climates will change even if the U.S. and other countries meet global emission targets — a big “if.”
“Many of the smartest steps for building robust economies and strong communities going forward are also going to be the steps that prepare us best to deal with the changing climate,” he said.
Parts of California’s water storage and distribution system, for example, are a century old, and it was designed and built for an old climate that no longer exists, said panelist Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. As parts of the system are rebuilt, though, there’s an opportunity to build a water system that’s more climate resilient to drought and new snowpack patterns, he said.
Sea-level rise is manageable compared to drought, McNutt said.
“The predictions for the American Southwest are particularly dire,” she said.
“If you think organized retreat from sea-level rise is an issue, where people are only moving a mile inland,” McNutt said, “how do people move out of entire ecozones?”
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