Monday, May 5, 2014

Preparing for Climate Change Requires Collective Risk Management (CRM)

If I told you that your coastal city will probably face rising sea levels, more very hot summer days, and increasingly intense rain and snow storms, would you expect someone to do something? What exactly? And whose responsibility is it to take appropriate action?  Even if  the city wants to do something, what can they do to minimize the worst effects?

The Science Impact Collaborative at MIT has prepared risk assessments for four coastal communities in New England.   Here’s what one looks like (please click the images to view them in full screen format):

By downscaling global circulation models (and checking forecasts against actual meteorological data from local measuring stations) we can generate local forecasts for the near term (about 20 - 30 years in the future), the medium term (about 50 – 60 years into the future) and what we are calling the long term (about 80 – 90 years in the future).  All the towns we looked at are very likely to get hotter and wetter.  You can see all the details about the forecasting methods and our findings at

If I boil all the results down, and tell you that annual rainfall is going to increase 5 inches a year (or about 10%) over the next several decades, the number of times extreme rainfall happens (more than 4” in 48 hours) will double, sea level will increase between two and five feet, and the number of days with 90 degree temperature in the summer will increase from about three to as many as 30, would that worry you? After all, the worst effects might not happen during your lifetime (although they are very likely to happen during the lifetime of your children).   My assumption is that your first reaction would be, “What does this mean for me?”   Well, it means that if you live in a low-lying area, your house is going to be flooded periodically, and you are likely to be without electricity for extended periods.   If you live very near the shore, erosion might make your house uninsurable and unsellable.  If your mobility happens to be limited (by age or illness), you might need to evacuate periodically. And, you may have to stay in an air-conditioned location for long stretches in the summer. It could be that you will be at greater risk of suffering from airborne diseases of various kinds. In general, you can probably expect to be inconvenienced and even endangered on a regular basis.  Your drinking water supply could be at risk.

If everyone in your city is upset enough about all of this, you could press your elected officials to do something.  They could raise taxes and invest in various improvements to the town infrastructure (including roads, electricity transmission lines, drinking water, waste treatment systems, and even water-proofing public buildings).   They might buy a lot more emergency response equipment and arrange to have more trained personnel available.  They might try to reduce the vulnerability of coastal properties by building seawalls or other blockades, although these are very expensive. They could impose new zoning and development restrictions or “buy out” property owners in the most vulnerable areas.  They could adopt revised building codes requiring everyone to build new houses up on stilts or with first floor “breakaway panels” so that water can run through without destroying the whole structure.  Some of these are things that individual property owners can do on their own, most require permission of the local government or collective efforts.

In our surveys, many people are pessimistic about the ability and willingness of their local officials to take action.  They are not optimistic that officials will take climate change risks into account when they make new infrastructure investments today.  It makes no sense, for example, to build a wastewater treatment plant by the harbor (even if the town already owns the land there), if that facility is likely to be flooded out or destroyed multiple times during its 30-40 year life. But, if no one pays attention of the kinds of risks we have outlined, that’s just what will happen.  Can you imagine having to invest multiple times in rebuilding the same facility because no one bothered to take climate risks into account when they chose the site or designed the facility in the first place?

If we publish a list of possible actions your town can take to prepare for climate risks, along with a price tag for each possible move, it’s probably fair to say that there will be substantial disagreement about what should be done.  Some people won’t want the town to take any action.  Some will be indignant about having restrictions placed on what they can do with their own property (even though they will certainly expect to be rescued at town expense in the next big storm and will blame officials if they can no longer purchase property insurance because the town failed to take obvious risk reduction steps).  Until and unless the whole town gets together, educates itself about the likely risks, inventories possible adaptation strategies and reaches agreement on the best way to proceed, nothing is going to happen.

Our work has focused on designing and testing low-cost strategies for preparing coastal communities to take collective risk management decisions.  It turns out not to be that hard.  In a couple of hours, we can help large numbers of residents attending regularly scheduled meetings of organizations, social clubs, homeowner associations or business groups, to learn what they need to know and see how easy it is to generate informed agreements when people listen to each other and take each other’s views seriously. If this is something you want to your community to do, learn more at the New England Climate Adaption Project, the Science Impact Collaborative, or the Consensus Building Institute.