It’s now open season for hurricanes: How we can make our coasts more resilient?


Two organizations with exceptional talent and credentials – The Heinz Center, and Ceres— released a 9-page report last month, Resilient Coasts:  A Blueprint for Action.  As we are now entering hurricane season, a good question to consider is:  How can we make our coastal areas more resilient to the harsh conditions that hurricanes inflict?  It’s an important question, as much is at stake:  More than half of the US population lives in coastal counties, and, according to the report, about a third of the nation’s gross domestic product – $4.5 trillion – is generated in those counties and in adjacent ocean waters.  So what more could we be doing to protect our coastlines and the people, natural resources, wildlife, and buildings that inhabit them?  Plenty! says the blueprint.  See details… 

Post by Anne Polansky

While June 1 is officially the day that marks the beginning of hurricane season (note – the rest of the world calls them cyclones, or tropical cyclones), on average only about one hurricane every two years actually makes landfall on US soil during that month, according to one of the best authorities around on tropical storms and a co-founder of the best blog on hurricanes, WunderBlog, Jeff Masters.  See yesterday’s entry

Hurricane season is upon us, and it’s time to take a look at the prevailing conditions and 2-week forecast for tropical cyclone activity in the Atlantic.  June is typically the quietest month of the Atlantic hurricane season. On average, we see only one named storm every two years in June. Only one major hurricane has made landfall in June—Category 4 Hurricane Audrey of 1957, which struck the Texas/Louisiana border area on June 27 of that year, killing 550. The highest number of named storms for the month is three, which occurred in 1936 and 1968. In the fourteen years since the current active hurricane period began in 1995, there have been eleven June named storms (if we include last year’s Tropical Storm Arthur, which really formed on May 31). Five tropical storms have formed in the first half of June in that 14-year period, giving a historical 36% chance of a first-half-of-June named storm.

So, from this, the odds are that we still have a bit of time before we can truly expect to be boarding windows and hiring the buses.  Still, true preparedness takes time, so there’s no time like the present to begin to implement the excellent suggestions in these recommendations. 

The Heinz Center and Ceres joined together a year ago in May 2008 to form the Resilient Coasts Initiative.  According to the press release announcing its formation, it’s “a first-of-its-kind collaboration of private and public sector groups to find public policy and private market solutions to better protect coastal communities from rising sea levels and other potentially damaging consequences of climate change.” 

Indeed, some notables (and unlikely bedfellows—always a good thing when talking about climate change) contributed to this effort: 

Insurers:  Lloyd’s of London, Swiss Re, Fireman’s Fund,  The Travelers Companies
NGOs:  Coastal States Organization, The Nature Conservancy, Center for Clean Air Policy,  National Wildlife Federation, US Business Council on Sustainable Development
Investors:  Deutsche Asset Management, Citi Smith Barney, Calvert Group,  Bonita Bay Group, PAX Mutual Funds
Academia:  MIT Sloan School of Management, Wharton School, Harvard Medical School
Government:  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,  Maryland Insurance Administration

A glossy easy-to-read nine page blueprint resulted from this process; the accompanying press release notes the blueprint was endorsed by a diverse group, including The Travelers Institute, The Nature Conservancy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Wharton School, and the Mayor of Charleston, S.C.

The panel’s recommendations, and our comments for each, follow:

Identify and fill critical gaps in scientific understanding and develop the tools and methodologies necessary for incorporating climate change into risk assessments and risk mitigation decisions.

CSW comment:  Citing uncertainties about the timing and extent of sea level rise and insufficient resolution in existing coastal maps, the authors note that adaptive responses are difficult to formulate.  This recommendation is directed right at the US Global Change Research Program, and, even more specifically, at Dr. John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the President’s Science Adviser with climate change squarely under his purview.  The US GCRP is now in shambles and must be reorganized and redirected, so that it can be responsive to instances such as this where stakeholders deliberate and then express their needs for scientifically derived information.  With whom at the federal level can they enter into a dialogue about what these “critical gaps” are and how best to fill them? 

Require risk-based land use planning.

CSW comment:  Common sense dictates that planning for development would include protecting structures from threats like storm surges, storm-generated waves, and erosion, but all too often this is not the case.  One would also think that, in areas especially prone to coastal hazards, a decision to refrain from erecting any sort of building may be wise, yet, all too often we are still engaged in maladaptive behavior.  The suggestion that coastal managers could designate “no-build” and “no-rebuild” zones, and perhaps provide private property owners with incentives to relinquish property or development rights through land exchanges, land banks, and the transfer or trading of development rights, is an excellent one, and should be considered in all coastal areas. 

Design adaptable infrastructure and building code standards to meet future risk.

CSW comment:  The report calls for construction, retrofit and operational standards for new and existing public and private infrastructure to be routinely assessed and modified to take into account the risks of climate change.  For example, decentralized energy and water treatment systems less susceptible to catastrophic loss or disruption than the traditional centralized systems should be considered.  Stronger building codes are needed.  We simply must bring our built environment into line with the realities of the climate threat, or risk needless loss of human life and property.

Strengthen ecosystems as part of a risk mitigation strategy.

CSW comment:  This recommendation is an example of the different ways we talk about climate change solutions—while “mitigation” normally refers to steps taken to reduce emissions, in this case it is used in the context of risk mitigation—reducing the risks of harm—by recognizing and protecting “the enormous protective value of ecosystems and other natural infrastructure, such as coastal wetlands, barrier islands, trees, mangroves and other vegetation.”  The report recommends building in incentives to make ecosystem preservation and enhancement part of adaptation funding, risk-based land use planning, and post-disaster rebuilding.  All too often, we opt for an engineering solution such as a dike or a dam, but, in many cases, natural systems can be protected or restored to provide the same function, even more effectively.  This point is a good one, and should be a matter of national policy.

Develop flexible adaptation plans.

CSW comment:  The panel emphasizes the importance of building in flexibility to any adaptation plans, given the uncertainty in many forecasts of climate change.  Larger margins of safety should be incorporated, such as planning for more storm surge than is currently anticipated.  Of course this makes sense—- however, all too often, in cost-saving measures, corners are cut, and we consider short-term factors over longer term risks.  Adaptation means building in a certain amount of play into every decision so that adjustments can be made.

Maintain a viable private property and casualty insurance market.

CSW comment:  The authors stipulate that it is critical to maintain a private property and casualty insurance market by allowing private insurance companies to set risk-based premiums that thereby communicate the cost of risk to consumers, and they warn that insurance cannot play its role if land use regulations, building codes, and physical protection are not sufficiently robust.  They rightfully note that insurance premiums should adequately reflect risk, and act as disincentives for maladaptive behavior, i.e., building on land too vulnerable to harsh climate conditions, or building to a minimum code that fails to protect structures from damage.  This is an important economic issue:  they note that insured property values along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts have been roughly doubling every decade, and that by the end of 2007, these coasts had nearly $9 trillion of insured coastal property.  A comprehensive assessment of natural hazard insurance is needed to help ensure that we are not inadvertently encouraging people to make unwise decisions in coastal development. 

Integrate climate change impacts into due diligence for investment and lending.

CSW comment:  It should be simple common sense, but the panel calls on investors to better understand the level of exposure imposed by climate change, and to build climate risk consideration into due diligence.  To the extent that this is not already happening—we wonder—what might be the appropriate federal role in advising investors on best ways to think about climate change impacts as a consideration in making investment decisions?  Whose job is this?  Is it being done now?  If so, where, and by whom?

These recommendations are too general, too broad to be translated directly into policy.  However, they do provide an excellent framework from which to springboard more thorough reviews and more specific action items that could be undertaken to make our coastal areas more resilient, less risky places to live and work. 

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