Shoring Up For Uncertain Seas: Seeking Consensus on Sea Level Rise in Coastal Communities

December 13, 2011
Anthony W. King

Imagine the boats moored along a typically idyllic waterfront. They have been rocking more than usual lately. Bad weather is not to blame this time, but rather talk at the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. There’s serious discussion about restricting development close to the shore in response to projected sea level rise in the coming decades. The Commission has learned the Bay could rise by as much or even more than four feet, putting more than $62 billion dollars of development and a quarter-million Bay Area residents at risk. Some argue it would be foolish to ignore the impending impacts, and that communities should be proactively preparing to protect people, infrastructure, nature, and the economy. Meanwhile, others with far more immediate worries on their hands are eager to redevelop existing shorelines and attract new activity for the tax revenue and jobs.

Unfortunately, these tensions are not just imaginary. Coastal cities around the world face rising sea levels, but the speed at which the water is rising and nature of the impacts are not clear. Even more unclear, and thus hotly debated, is the question of how any given community should respond. Some urge preparation for a retreat from coastal areas to let nature run its course. Others argue for investments in infrastructure to protect shorelines and keep the water at bay. Still others feel that it is foolish to make costly investments or planning changes until the impacts are clearer.

These competing positions often reflect deep underlying interests. Coastal landowners understandably want to protect their assets. Environmentalists reasonably see retreat as an opportunity to allow natural systems to return, ultimately protecting both humans and other species. Taxpayers are justifiably weary of plans to spend money on major infrastructure projects with unknowable results. None-the-less, tensions between these competing groups often need to be reconciled as communities grapple with the risks associated with rising waters. What might be done?

Government agencies considering planning changes or large infrastructure projects often engage in some form of consultation. Frequently, however, these efforts are based on assuming the natural and economic order stays pretty much as it is, that planning horizons are at best twenty to thirty years, and that planning is primarily a technical enterprise seeking  a “preferred” alternative with the public an adjunct, not a participant.  But in the face of the possibility of sea level rise, there isn’t one “preferred” alternative. The science is evolving and the answers are contingent on variable factors that include a range of modeled predictions, risk tolerance, time span perspective, this and future generations -- and the weighting of various environmental, economic, and social interests.

Is an alternative approach one that puts various stakeholders with divergent interests at the table to wrestle with the problem? We think so. In fact, the uncertainty associated with climate change and the profound consequences of any response to it necessitates new ways of bringing potentially affected and influential parties together to wrestle with the challenges facing communities.

Over the course of the last three years, CBI, the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program, and the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning have been exploring a range of techniques to engage diverse sectors and the public in addressing this complex issue.

  • In Maryland, across Massachusetts’ coastal communities, and with World Resources Institute in Ghana and Vietnam, we have developed and used negotiation simulations to educate participants about the threat, the uncertainty, and the complexity of finding joint solutions.
  • Along the Lower Hudson River, we have helped facilitate and coordinate a multi-disciplinary team of biologists, structural engineers, coastal scientists, and social scientists to integrate diverse perspectives into developing a range of community responses to sea level rise and storm surges.
  • With the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy and BioEra, we have explored and honed how consensus-based scenario planning can be used to engage diverse citizens in a rigorous process to look beyond past assumptions at multiple future scenarios and how one might make decisions that are robust across those different futures.

Here’s some of what we have learned:

  • Sea level risk among other climate change impacts is best considered as a risk management question.  Rather than engaging in if or how much sea level rise might happen, risk management can frame the problem as ascertaining risks, not certainties, thus reducing the positional discussion that often occurs.
  • Planning for sea level rise cannot be done in a vacuum regarding other risks (storm surges, increase precipitation, public health impacts).
  • Sea level rise, other climate change impacts, and institutional responses are best understood through experiential learning. While the basics of climate modeling, various predicted scenarios, and the like are helpful, the complexity of the issue requires people to taste and feel the issue, precisely because at first blush it is so distant and intangible.
  • Consensus-based scenario planning, when done well, is a key tool to helping diverse parties name alternative futures, consider how various choices would fare in those futures, and given a discussion of scenarios, help make decisions today for longer term infrastructure investment decisions.
  • Citizens can and will grasp the complexities of the issues if they are given the right tools, forums, and opportunities to engage, learn, understand, and deliberate.
  • Adaptation planning for sea level rise, among other issues, is best done as part and parcel of existing planning process for long-term public choices such as infrastructure investment, comprehensive land use plans, and long-term transportation plans.  In fact, it is done best when part of a process to make a decision today for a public investment that has a life of thirty and fifty years (i.e., wastewater treatment facilities, new road construction, development of previously undeveloped or redeveloping shorelines).

Two things are almost certain: today’s shorelines are not likely to be tomorrow’s; and people will continue to live, build, and develop on and near them. Whether the change to them will be modest, or inundation will occur, no one can say at present. But pretending that stable shorelines are a given in our long term planning is neither wise nor efficient. We believe that these tools and techniques can help all of us to begin to prepare for an uncertain future.  

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