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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


September 2007

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Editorial - The Retreat from the Coasts

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group on Impacts and Adaptation, the recent National Summit on Coping with Climate Change, and the insightful article by Susan L. Cutter and colleagues in this issue (“The U.S. Hurricane Coasts: Increasingly Vulnerable?”)—the retreat from an increasingly hazardous coast is the consensus adaptation to climate change. As Cutter and her coauthors put it, “With the increasing exposure of the coasts, including the hurricane coasts, and the escalating losses from common (erosion) and extreme events (major hurricanes and earthquakes), it is time to think about a retreat from the coast.” However, they add, “The transition to a sustainable coastal future will not be easy as there are many special interests, entrenched economic conflicts, and social inequalities that permeate the coast.” How, then, to retreat?

One plan the authors refer to is in the 2004 U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy report.1 Chapter 10 of this report, “Guarding People and Property Against Natural Hazards,” outlines four opportunities for improving federal natural hazards management to reduce losses of life and property along the coasts. Two opportunities address changing the perverse incentives in federal policies on flood reduction, coastal protection, and insurance that actually stimulate coastal and floodplain development. The other two opportunities involve improved information as to experienced losses and future risks to inform local and individual decisionmaking and hazard mitigation planning.
Regarding the perverse incentives, the commission focused particular concern on the roles of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in building protective works or other infrastructure that undermine natural buffers, spread the risk to other areas, or even rely on expanded development to justify the investment in limited protection, as was done in New Orleans. Similarly, the commission expressed concern about the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which provides federally subsidized flood insurance in communities that adopt local regulation and higher construction standards. But NFIP has also contributed to further coastal and floodplain development, with one-third of the 6.6 million buildings on the 100-year floodplains having been built in the 19,000 participating communities after the adoption of regulations. NFIP also fails to address adequately the growing coastal erosion problem (there is no insurance for your home collapsing on crumbling sand on a sunny day) and repetitive loss payments that help rebuild substantially damaged buildings.

As for the commission’s recommendations regarding improved information and planning, here a key is the effort to upgrade the Federal Emergency Management Agency floodplain maps to reflect vulnerability from all hazards, especially from climate change, and to be capable of incorporating social vulnerability indices as well.

But these appropriate concerns and opportunities are insufficient to set in motion a retreat from the coast because the forces of economic gain and popular desire are so powerful. To do so will require new thinking and understanding, new incentives and regulations, and, perhaps most of all, new experience. Is it one meter or six meters of retreat that is required, and is it on a time scale of the current generations or of a century? We cannot answer such questions at this time, but I suspect we will before the next IPCC assessment. Can we reframe the needed retreat not as loss but as opportunity? Can we “move inshore” rather than “retreat” while providing access for all to the new emerging shore? Can we create the new, needed, and replacement facilities (highways, schools, and hospitals) to be safe for the next generation and provide new attractions for moving inshore? Can we evolve a coastal technology of reusable docks, aquaculture rafts, houseboats, and floating tourist attractions as the limited permissible development? Can we find the mix of carrots and sticks that will enable such a vision and go far beyond the tweaking of current policy? And most immediately, can we use the new experience of stronger storms, increased erosion, rising sea level, reverse migration, and diminished coastal livelihoods to put these policies into place?

—Robert W. Kates

1.    U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century (Washington, DC, 2004).

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