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Annual Public Lectures Series > Colleen Charles

Scientists and Journalists:
Getting the Point Across
June 8-12, 2009

Tuesday, June 10, 3:30 p.m.
Will Our Coasts Survive Climate Change?
Christophe Tulou, Resilient Coasts Initiative

Summary

We hear it after so many natural disasters - floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, hurricanes - "We will rebuild!" But is that the smart thing to do from an economic perspective?

Christophe Tulou, co-director of the Resilient Coasts Initiative, talked to a group of journalists and scientists at the Metcalf Institute's Annual Public Lecture Series Wednesday. The Initiative is a joint project of the Heinz Center and CERES, with the goal of bringing a broad coalition of coastal interests together to build consensus on the adaptation measures needed to address coastal hazards, especially those related to climate change impacts. For 20 years, Tulou said, he has been watching the cycle of development, disaster and rebuilding. It appears that he has come up with a magic bullet solution for keeping homeowners out of harm's way in vulnerable areas:

"Don't build there."

Of course, things are never that easy. And the scope of the problem is vast. By the middle of the century, Tulou said, there are expected to be about 200 million "climate change refugees," people who have lost their homes due to changes in their environment brought about by climate change.

This includes, but is not limited to, coastal regions, which are already subject to sea level rise from the natural force of land subsidence, but face even more drastic changes if sea levels rise at the rates projected as a result of melting ice sheets. And this rise is not only a concern if the worst case scenario of a five meter (~16 foot) increase in sea levels comes to pass: an increase of only 30 centimeters in sea level would increase the risk of flooding 5 to 6 times.

But climate change alone is not the reason that financial losses due to natural disasters have been doubling every 10 years since the 1960s, Tulou said.

"It's where we choose to grow," he said. "And where we choose to invest. Where we choose to live ... where we choose to spend money."

As of 2007, coastal properties along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts of the United States were insured for about $9 trillion dollars. But these coastal values are grossly overrated, Tulou said, when you consider the various risk factors in these areas. Getting all involved parties - property owners, politicians and insurers - to agree on the true value of coastal properties will be a step in the right direction.

In the meantime, Tulou said, there are several ways to lessen the financial blows dealt by nature. First and foremost, we need better information about climate change; better data for more accurate predictions. Also, coastal towns need to initiate risk-based zoning laws and consider no-build ordinances, or development rights purchasing programs.

Cities and towns also need to strengthen infrastructure along the coasts, decentralizing energy production and delivery, making it less susceptible to failure. And private insurance needs to become a viable player in the process of making coastal cities and towns more resilient. Governments also need a way to help implement these changes without putting an unbearable burden on the poor.

A list of "to-dos" is a start, but implementation will prove difficult, Tulou said, and not only because so many of the changes are controlled by different levels of government or the private sector.

Another of the bigger cultural blocks to implementing this blueprint for coastal resilience is the perception of "beach-front property" as something to be desired.

"We can more effectively deal with policy issues when the value of coastal property comes down," Tulou said. "When people realize it's not ... valuable just because it's on the coast."

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July 9, 2009