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Across the country, communities are facing weather-related challenges such as stronger storms, more intense flooding, and harsher droughts and wildfires. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in November 2018, examines natural changes affecting the United States and what they could mean for the American way of life. The massive report concludes that community resilience, aging infrastructure, and economies that are dependent on stable natural systems—including agriculture, fishing, and tourism—will all be disrupted. Even electricity production might be affected as temperatures continue to rise.

According to the best science, these observations are not flukes: weather patterns are changing permanently. Storms like hurricanes Sandy and Maria, fires like the Camp fire and the Tubbs fire, and droughts like those that have affected California and the Great Plains are events that are here to stay.

Sea level rise (SLR) is one of the most robustly modeled—and worrisome—natural changes that scientists are tracking. Both real-world experience and scientific models strongly suggest that higher seas are associated with stronger coastal storms. On average, global sea levels have risen between 7 and 8 inches since 1900, with nearly half of that rise was in the last 25 years. By 2050, we can expect at least another 6 inches of SLR and up to 4 feet of SLR by the end of the 21st century—and the rate of increase is accelerating.

Not only are these patterns changing, but the potential investment losses are increasing. Rising seas threaten more than $1.4 trillion of coastal property, even as development of these areas continues. All development carries risk, but experiences following recent disaster events suggest that concentrated investment in high-risk areas multiplies the potential losses. For example, California’s 2017 Tubbs fire burned nearly the same area as the 1964 Hanley fire, but while the Hanley fire destroyed fewer than 100 structures, the Tubbs fire destroyed 5,600 structures—making it the most destructive fire in state history at the time.

Projected SLR could impact infrastructure too, with significant economic impacts:

  • U.S. shipping ports that are highly vulnerable to damage from SLR and increasingly extreme weather handle 99% of overseas trade;
  • Major refineries, which supply the nation with energy, are largely located along coasts and are subject to the same risks;
  • Over 60,000 miles of vulnerable roads and bridges that are built in floodplains have already required billions of dollars in repairs after intensifying storms. Indeed, damage to at least one major bridge has been conclusively tied to SLR (which is notable given the widespread hesitation of experts to attribute damage or storm events to causes like SLR).

In response, coastal communities worldwide are taking steps to implement mitigation and adaptation strategies; some are even relocating to areas with lower flood risk. Most communities, however, are investing in seawalls, reinforcing natural shorelines, and developing “floodable” structures and green spaces. A world leader in this approach is the Netherlands. With much of their land at or below sea level and with a long history of adaptation to water, the Dutch are beginning to export their strategies to the United States, encouraging Americans to creatively combine water management and urban planning so that cities can live with water more resiliently.

Right now, this adaptation is only happening on an ad hoc, city-by-city basis. Ninety-five percent of U.S. cities have reported “[experiencing] a change to at least one climate impact” in the last five years, leading 60% of those cities to expand their climate policies and resilience measures.

These changes cost money. Efforts to raise homes and construct protective beaches in Norfolk, VA, rely on several sources of federal funds, while Miami, FL—lacking access to such support for adaptation—is turning to municipal bond markets and creative financing mechanisms to ready its infrastructure. Smaller communities with more limited tax bases have fewer options for funding adaptation. The commitment of planners, city managers, and other local experts to prepare for (and fund) these strategies is encouraging and hopeful but can and should be taken much further.

The natural next step for policy makers looking to encourage resilience in their communities is to support a federal mandate that requires communities to prepare for the intensifying natural disasters that will result from SLR—and to back that mandate with a dedicated pool of funds to see the preparation to fruition.

Fortunately, the American national preparedness system has been remarkably responsive to visible preparedness gaps in the past:

  • Only 11 days after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Office of Homeland Security was established in the White House; and
  • Within a year and a half, the office was supported by legislation as a Cabinet-level department, bringing together all or part of 22 disparate federal departments and agencies.
  • Months after Hurricane Katrina tragically exposed shortfalls in national preparedness, Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, requiring the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to review and validate local and national preparedness for both natural and human-caused catastrophes.

SLR and increasingly destructive storms have not created the same urgent push for action. Perhaps this is to be expected, given that they are seen more as part of an expected (if worrisome) pattern than as individually shocking events. Yet, weather-related disasters can be just as deadly: Hurricane Maria alone caused nearly the same number of fatalities as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Harvey was responsible for greater immediate economic damages than that 2001 world-changing event.

In short, disasters like those associated with SLR can be just as devastating as a terrorist attack, but they are far more predictable and preventable. Rigorous scientific projections clue us in to how we should prepare and recommend the timeline for preparedness.

This predictability is the key difference between a human-caused disaster and a natural one: there is little risk of surprise, so there is no excuse for failing to prepare.

About the author

Kathryn Strelevitz

Kathryn Strelevitz is a researcher at Fors Marsh Group (FMG) with experience conducting both academic and product-driven research in environmental change, social change, and national security. At FMG, Kathryn supports the Public Policy Evaluation team’s work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to improve national preparedness for disaster events.

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