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date: 24 September 2017

Sea Level Rise and Coastal Management

Summary and Keywords

Coastal zone management (CZM) has evolved since the enactment of the U.S. Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, which was the first comprehensive program of its type. The newer iteration of Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM), as applied to the European Union (2000, 2002), establishes priorities and a comprehensive strategy framework. While coastal management was established in large part to address issues of both development and resource protection in the coastal zone, conditions have changed. Accelerated rates of sea level rise (SLR) as well as continued rapid development along the coasts have increased vulnerability. The article examines changing conditions over time and the role of CZM and ICZM in addressing increased climate related vulnerabilities along the coast.

The article argues that effective adaptation strategies will require a sound information base and an institutional framework that appropriately addresses the risk of development in the coastal zone. The information base has improved through recent advances in technology and geospatial data quality. Critical for decision-makers will be sound information to identify vulnerabilities, formulate options, and assess the viability of a set of adaptation alternatives. The institutional framework must include the political will to act decisively and send the right signals to encourage responsible development patterns. At the same time, as communities are likely to bear higher costs for adaptation, it is important that they are given appropriate tools to effectively weigh alternatives, including the cost avoidance associated with corrective action. Adaptation strategies must be pro-active and anticipatory. Failure to act strategically will be fiscally irresponsible.

Keywords: coastal zone management, integrated coastal zone management, sea level rise, adaptation, climate change, coastal policy, climate models

The planet has been experiencing rising sea levels since the peak of the last Ice Age approximately 20,000 years ago. After a period of rapid rise as glaciers receded, a more gradual rise continued with sea level rising by fractions of a millimeter per year over the previous two millennia. From 1901 to 1990, sea level rise (SLR) rose by 1.5 mm/year, and from 1993 to 2010, by 3.2 mm/year (IPCC, 2013). Projections for the remainder of the 21st century indicate still higher rates to come. A one meter rise in sea level between now and 2100, which is within the upper limits given increasing discharge rates from the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, would represent an average SLR of 11.8 mm/year, up considerably over current rates. The impact on coastal areas has been shown through increased rates of shoreline change and more persistent inundation and flooding events, as 100-year storms seem to come more frequently. Vulnerabilities are high and growing, with 44% of the world’s population living within 150 km of the sea. A 1995 report identified 19 megacities, those cities with populations greater than 10 million. A update by UN Habitat (2016) doubled that number by 2015, with 79% of megacities in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The majority of those cities are coastal cities.

While continued efforts must be pursued to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), effective adaptation strategies will be required to minimize impacts, particularly in coastal communities, where high natural vulnerability and rapid development are greatly increasing exposure. Coastal adaptation strategies are most effective when they are incorporated as essential elements of a comprehensive coastal management program. This article traces the development of coastal management, which has evolved over the past 40+ years. Much of the historical focus is on the U.S. experience that was established with the U.S. Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) of 1972 and served as the first comprehensive coastal management program. The more recent focus under the rubric Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) will also be discussed with particular attention to application in the EU. The article tracks the evolution of CZM and ICZM programs over time and discusses the outlook for coastal management in meeting essential adaptation strategies to address the prospect of accelerated sea level rise. The focus is on two of the essential components of an effective long-term approach—a solid information base and a sound institutional framework that effectively address risk associated with development in the coastal zone.

Coastal Zone Management—U.S. Experience

A number of environmental laws were enacted in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to address some of the spillover effects of rapid economic development since the end of the Second World War. Among those pieces of legislation were the Environmental Protection Act of 1970, the Clean Air Act of 1970, and significant amendments to the Water Pollution Control Act in 1970 and 1972. Passage of the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 was a consolidation of two simultaneous initiatives that surfaced in the late 1960s—national land use planning and coastal management. Two oil spills and the more pressing need to address emerging issues along the rapidly growing coast tilted the focus to coastal management. CZMA was unique in that it sought to balance economic development and environmental quality within the same federal agency. The legislation declares that it is the national policy:

  1. 1. To preserve, protect, develop, and where possible, to restore or enhance, the resources of the Nation’s coastal zone for this and succeeding generations; and

  2. 2. To encourage and assist the states to exercise effectively their responsibilities in the coastal zone through the development and implementation of management programs to achieve wise use of the land and water resources of the coastal zone, giving full consideration to ecological, cultural, historic, and esthetic values as well as the needs for compatible economic development. (U.S. CZMA, 1972, Section 303).

The program established a framework for coordinating federal, state, and local activity and set-up incentives to plan and implement state programs. All 35 U.S. coastal and Great Lake states and territories, with the exception of Alaska, had approved programs in place by the early 21st Century.

One of the requirements of the state plans is the incorporation of an approved shoreline erosion plan. By the 1970s, beachfront communities in the United States had grown rapidly due to post-war prosperity and better accessibility. Meanwhile better scientific information on historical shoreline change and more effective monitoring systems indicated that development too often occurred in vulnerable areas subject to high erosion rates. In highly developed areas, planning was now being introduced after the fact, while land use controls and building setbacks were instituted for new development. By the mid- to late 1980s, the prospect of accelerated sea level rise indicated that vulnerabilities would only be exacerbated. Static land use controls would prove to be insufficient in the wake of increasingly dynamic coastal systems. As a result, the notion of strategic retreat came into vogue arguing that, with shorelines retreating at increasing rates, it eventually made sense to move rather than invest heavily in stopgap solutions that would be temporary at best.

The South Carolina experience is a good example of how state policy with regard to shoreline change has evolved and provides some insight as where state programs may be heading. The state’s Coastal Zone Management Program approved in 1978 was a strong-state program going back to the state’s paternalistic roots in both funding and delegating authority to local government. Nonetheless, with good state leadership, the South Carolina Coastal Council became well established and somewhat proactive in addressing coastal development issues. State authority over beachfront development was expanded with the South Carolina Beachfront Management Act (BFMA) of 1987. The BFMA established a scientifically based setback line drawn on a 40-year projection of historic erosion rates along individual beach stretches. The legislation also established strategic retreat as a long-term approach to deal with receding shorelines. The setback provision was challenged by David Lucas, who had purchased two oceanfront parcels for development shortly before BFMA was enacted. By the time he went to develop those lots, rapid on-site erosion left him with insufficient buildable land based on the new state setback line. The Lucas Case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was returned to the State Supreme Court to assess damages (Lucas v. SCCC, 1992). In the end, the state settled by buying the disputed properties. The Lucas case was seen as a major victory for property rights advocates clarifying the issue of takings with respect to reasonable use. The state in turn took the position that development seaward of the setback line would be done at the owner’s risk. In other words, don’t come asking for public assistance if you are going to build in high hazard areas. Those two interpretations have immediate and long-term implications for addressing adaptation to shifting coastal shoreines.

In the interim, and in light of increasing scientific evidence on climate change, the 1990 Amendments to CZMA stated for the first time that: “(b)ecause global warming may result in a substantial sea level rise with serious adverse effects in the coastal zone, coastal states must anticipate and plan for such an occurrence” (CZMA Amendments, 1990). While the Federal directive was clear, new state initiatives to address increased sea level rise were slow to materialize. Moser and Tribbia (2007), in surveying coastal managers in California, found that among local planners 53.5% strongly agreed with the statement (g)lobal warming is real and already happening now, while 38.6% slightly agree. Perceived hurdles that limited local action were: monetary constraints, insufficient staff resources, lack of funding from the federal/state government, and other currently pressing issues. At the state level, two-thirds of coastal managers were ready to go with best available scientific information and identified vulnerability assessments as the most important information need. Still, the general consensus was that further program development was dependent on clear directives from above. Those directives have been slow to develop due in part to an intergovernmental impasse. State legislators were awaiting pressure from the local level before initiating legislation. Meanwhile, local officials want a push from above but don’t like unfunded mandates.

A survey of state coastal managers in each of the 29 states with active CZM programs by Dyckman, St. John, and London (2014) examined actions being taken to address sea level rise by reviewing state statutes and following-up with telephone surveys. Among adaptation measures, beach nourishment at 85.2% and seawalls at 66.7% were the most often used measures indicating that stabilization and armoring measures continue to be used extensively, with tighter restrictions being imposed on new seawalls. In terms of retreat measures, land acquisition, fixed setbacks, and zoning for hazardous areas were most commonly listed. Among the nine state programs deemed to be the most innovative in their approach, the retreat strategies most available were: land acquisition (77.8%), post hazard development limits (48.1%), relocation (37.0%), and abandonment (29.6%). The coastal management community appeared to grasp the severity of the issue and was moving to expand its toolbox accordingly; still, there has been pushback from anti-regulatory, property rights interests, reinforced by the Lucas case and other court rulings. As such, state policymakers have been reticent to move too quickly with new policy prescriptions. While state leaders have looked to local government, where land use authority resides, to take more of a lead, most local entities have been slow to act given that they are the immediate beneficiaries of coastal development and to date have paid a relatively small share of beach stabilization costs.

That reluctance to act is beginning to disappear as coastal flooding becomes more commonplace. In many cases, it is local initiative that is pushing the agenda. South Florida, with its low elevation, is already experiencing the impact of SLR on its important tourism industry and infrastructure. Miami Dade and Broward Counties are taking action with the implementation of aggressive climate action plans. Among local initiatives, Miami Beach is committing $400 million in local funding to raise streets, install pumps and elevate sea walls. Other coastal communities are starting to move forward as it appears tipping points are being reached, and political inertia is being overcome.

In a follow-up to assess the effectiveness of South Carolina’s BFMA 20 years after enactment, shoreline conditions were compared using NOAA’s composite shoreline for the base period (1984–1987) and digital orthophotos (DOQQs) for 1999 and 2006 (London et al., 2009) (See Figure 1 and Table 1). From 1987 to 1999, the state gained 437 acres of beachfront property but lost 1,001 acres from 1999 to 2006. The net effect was a loss of 564 acres of land area along its beaches in the 20 years after BFMA. Yet, the gains and losses varied by location. For municipal and resort beaches, acreage increased by 1,333 acres from 1987 to 1999, with a net gain of 903 acres throughout the 20 year timeframe. Non-municipal/non-resort beaches lost a total of 1,467 acres in the first 20 years following BFMA enactment.

Sea Level Rise and Coastal ManagementClick to view larger

Figure 1. South Carolina beach renourishment projects.

Source: London et al. (2009).

Table 1. Change in Beachfront Area (acres) since S.C. Beachfront Management Act

1987–1999

1999–2006

1987–2006

(+/−)

(+/−)

(+/−)

Statewide Total

436.92

(1,000.98)

(564.06)

Municipal/Resort Beaches

1,332.64

(429.59)

903.05

Other Beaches

(895.72)

(571.39)

(1,467.11)

Source: London et al. (2009).

The primary reason for the disparity in property gain/loss is the amount of beach nourishment activity that increased decidedly beginning in the early 1990s. By 2006, $251.6 million in beach nourishment projects had been completed along the South Carolina coast. Of that total, $238.9 million, or 95% of those expenditures, occurred post-BFMA. In essence, developed beach stretches in the state had been able to stabilize their shorelines with periodic use of beach nourishment.

Subsequently, an advisory committee charged with updating the state’s policy with respect to beachfront management compiled a series of recommendations. The first recommendation was the most contentious reading: “Replace language regarding the policy of retreat with the following: The policy of the state of South Carolina is the preservation of its coastal beachfront and beach/dune system” (SCBRAC, 2013). In other words, retreat as a long-term policy is out, and stabilization of the beachfront is in as the overarching state policy. The committee recommendation hinges on the fact that institutionally prescribed retreat has had limited impact as retreat continues to be the option of last resort. Where viable, communities will continue to stabilize beaches to avoid retreat.

If stabilization is to remain the first line of defense, the prospect of accelerated sea level rise will require more frequent nourishment cycles and more costly applications given to more remote locations to find compatible sand as well as environmental constraints. At the same time, the relative share of funding for beach nourishment projects by federal and state sources will likely continue to decline. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with primary responsibility for federal funding for beach stabilization, has had level funding over the past decade, and the backlog of funding requests has grown longer. While a number of states have increased funding availability, some of those commitments have come with conditions including in particular larger cost share requirements. With stabilization costs expected to rise, it appears that a larger share of costs will be borne by local and private sources. The prosperous beach communities with a substantial tourism-driven tax base will likely be able to meet increasing beach stabilization expenses into the foreseeable future. Smaller communities without that large tourism-based revenue stream may be forced to adapt with strategic retreat. Ultimately, physical change and economic reality rather than institutional controls may be the drivers that move the conversation.

Integrated Coastal Zone Management—E.U. Experience

Coinciding with the early focus in the U.S., the Council of Europe drafted a resolution on the Protection of the Coastline in 1973. A series of European Community action programmes were subsequently launched focusing on the planning and ecological management of coastal resources in Europe. That effort led to the European Coastal Charter approved in 1982 as a Resolution of the European Parliament (EC, 2016).

The formalization of Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) parallels the emergence of sustainable development as a development construct as outlined in the Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987) and adopted in Agenda 21 of the UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janerio (UNCED, 1992). The driving forces in both cases include rapid population growth, a lack of understanding of the economic value of natural resource bases, the lack of formal means of addressing long-term resource conservation issues, and, particularly in the case of the developing world, poverty exacerbated by dwindling resources (Clark, 1992). The ICZM framework has been applied widely over the past three decades with applications in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries as well as the developing world, including Small Island Developing States (SIDS), where vulnerabilities to climate change are particularly high. In addressing climate change, ICZMs should serve as an integral part of National Communications on Climate Change.

In the European context, the notion of ICZM gained traction with a series of E.U. demonstration projects that focused on problems affecting 35 representative areas across Europe in the late-1990s. That effort was followed by the European Commission (EC) Communication on Integrated Coastal Management Strategy for Europe in 2000. The strategy calls for an integrated, participative approach “to balance environmental, economic, social, cultural and recreational objectives, all within the limits set by natural dynamics” (EU, 2000). From the overarching E.U. Strategy, each of the 22 E.U. coastal Member States was expected to develop individual National Strategies and an implementation framework with action taken at the local and regional levels. A European Union ICZM Recommendation in 2002 provided further detail for the implementation of the ICZM Strategy including the eight ICZM principles (Box 1) that were to become an important component of the European approach to ICZM. Important elements include interdependence, long-term perspective, precautionary principle, adaptive management, local specificity, and carrying capacity.

Box 1. Eight Principles of Good ICZM

Principle 1. A broad overall perspective (thematic and geographic) that will take into account the interdependence and disparity of natural systems and human activities with an impact on coastal areas.

Principle 2. A long-term perspective that will take into account the precautionary principle and the needs of present and future generations.

Principle 3. Adaptive management during a gradual process that will facilitate adjustment as problems and knowledge develop. This implies the need for a sound scientific basis concerning the evolution of the coastal zone.

Principle 4. Local specificity and the great diversity of European coastal zones, which will make it possible to respond to their practical needs with specific solutions and flexible measures.

Principle 5. Working with natural processes and respecting the carrying capacity of ecosystems, which will make human activities more environmentally friendly, socially responsible, and economically sound in the long run.

Principle 6. Involving all the parties concerned (economic and social partners, the organizations representing coastal zone residents, non-governmental organizations, and the business sector) in the management process, for example, by means of agreements and based on shared responsibility.

Principle 7. Support and involvement of relevant administrative bodies at national, regional, and local levels, between which appropriate links should be established or maintained with the aim of improved coordination of the various existing policies. Partnership with and between regional and local authorities should apply when appropriate.

Principle 8. Use of a combination of instruments designed to facilitate coherence between sectoral policy objectives and coherence between planning and management.

Source: European Commission Communication on ICZM.

A review of National ICZM Strategies indicated that, as of 2010, variability in program development existed among member countries. An initial group of four countries had taken their strategy through the implementation phase, while 10 countries had compiled documents serving as a National Strategy. The remaining countries have National Strategies in various stages of development. Some progress is being made on developing legislative actions and plans that support ICZM, with additional efforts to improve tools, including databases. Important at this point is the level of buy-in on the part of member countries. Still, the adoption of ICZM principles has been constrained by the challenge of translating ICZM principles into an effective management framework.

A further impediment to effective implementation is the trans-boundary issue, with 22 individual coastal nations as part of the E.U. Different legal frameworks, as well as economic priorities, cultural traditions, and language issues, come into play. At the same time, the regional sea initiative addressing trans-boundary reaches along the Baltic, North, Mediterranean, Black Seas, and the Atlantic have had success in identifying areas of common concern and coordinating essential institutions (EC, 2012). More recently, the European Commission a Directive was adopted in 2013 to establish a framework for integrated coastal zone management along with maritime spatial planning (EC, 2016).

In some cases, local and regional initiatives under ICZM are an outgrowth of previous coastal management initiatives. In 1964, the National Trust commissioned the University of Reading’s Geography Department to compile a complete survey of land use along the coast of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That survey helped raise awareness and served as a basis for the Neptune Coastline Campaign initiated in 1965 to save pristine coastal stretches. A follow-up survey in 2014, using digital mapping rather than fieldwork compared condition changes over the past 50 years, including continued development pressure and natural shoreline change, helping to raise awareness of the importance of the nation’s coastal resources (National Trust, 2016).

At the regional scale, the Severn Estuary Partnership offers an integrated approach for marine planning in England and Wales. The partnership was formed in 1995 to bring together those involved in development, management, and use of the estuary. The 2001 Severn Estuary Strategy established a strategic management framework that encourages the integration of interests and responsibilities to achieve common objectives. The 2016 Severn Estuary Strategy moves the framework forward with five key principles, each with a series of objectives, outcomes, and actions. The partnership includes national and local agencies, statutory authorities, ports and harbors, university and research groups, and environmental, recreational, and cultural organizations. It serves as an example of a proactive bottom-up initiative to address coastal management issues in an important estuary (Severn Estuary Partnership, 2016). The ultimate success of both national and local initiatives will require a) a good information base, and b) an institutional framework that sends the right signals.

Information Base

Despite substantial improvement over the past 40 years in the scientific understanding of atmospheric and ocean processes as they affect climate change, there remains a disconnect in terms of public perception, and policy response in turn, as indicated in Figure 2. Nowhere is this disconnect more obvious than in the United States where climate change denial continues within segments of the population and elected officials. As the understanding of the physical processes related to climate change has evolved, better information on impacts on natural systems have evolved as well, including effects on coral reefs, fisheries, and species migration. The implications on socio-economic systems that require a good understanding of physical and natural systems as a starting point are less developed at this time. Nonetheless, they are important drivers of the conversation affecting public perception and policy response. While climate change is occurring, the extent of that influence on individual storm events and drought conditions is hard to quantify. In the case of sea level rise, the cause and effect is more obvious as coastal communities experience shoreline retreat and more frequent flooding events. It may be that sea level rise is the canary in the mineshaft when it comes to climate change. Understanding and better quantifying the current and future implications of climate change on coastal communities is important in identifying vulnerabilities and formulating options for adapting to that change.

Sea Level Rise and Coastal ManagementClick to view larger

Figure 2. The continuum from science-based information to policy formulation.

The assessment of impacts associated with climate change in coastal areas began as an extension of shoreline change modeling, incorporating accelerated sea level rise during the mid- to late 1980s. Early studies in the United States were conducted at Galveston, Ocean City, Sea Bright, Charleston, and Myrtle Beach (London, 2012). Subsequent work using LIDAR elevation data and improved modeling capabilities has allowed applications to larger geographic areas.

An early effort to expand to larger regional scale assessments by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Maps of Lands Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise,” was developed to identify areas along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts that are vulnerable to sea level rise. At a 1.5-meter rise, it was estimated that 58,000 square kilometers along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts would be inundated (Titus & Richman, 2001). A later interagency assessment simulated a one-meter sea level rise for the U.S. Atlantic coast from Florida to Massachusetts (Titus & Craghan, 2009). The study indicted that more than 80% of land in Florida and large areas north of Delaware to Massachusetts that are less than 1 meter above sea level are currently developed or in an intermediate development stage. Less than 10% of land for the entire region was set aside for conservation.

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the development and refinement of the Digital Coast assessment tool provides elevation files, land cover, critical habitat areas, and demographic and economic data sets. Early applications along the Gulf coast and Long Island projected inundation and storm surge to identify areas and populations at risk. The current menu-driven iteration of the program, including the Sea Level Rise Viewer and the Coastal Change Hazards Portal, provides visualization to identify areas of inundation under alternate sea level rise and storm surge conditions.

Before the Recession of 2008 hit, a series of state level studies provided more updated assessments of the economic impact associated with sea level rise scenarios in California (King et al., 2008), Florida (Harrington & Walton, 2007; Stanton & Ackerman, 2007), and North Carolina (Bin et al., 2007). The assessments provided broader geographic coverage, with multiple counties included to estimate economic impacts from sea level rise and increased vulnerability to storm events. The assumptions and methodologies differed, so comparisons between states are difficult. Still, the projects start to generate the type of information essential for quantifying economic exposure and assessing local adaptation options. Some methodological consistency would be helpful as a basis for aggregating results over larger geographic areas as well as a basis for prioritizing projects as part of state and federal funding programs (London, 2012).

The European Union has moved in that direction with the Climate Cost Project, which offers a consistent, multi-jurisdictional assessment framework (Brown, Nicholls, Vafeidis, Hinkel, & Watkiss, 2011). The project stems from the Dynamic Interactive Vulnerability Assessment (DIVA) Model that is used to project mean sea level rise scenarios at a global scale. Local demographic and economic data is overlaid, and socioeconomic change is estimated with and without adaptation. Cost avoidance is estimated as a residual. Major costs are to land loss and to people who would have to relocate. In the interim, the integrated assessment (IA) approach reflected in the Tyndall Coastal Simulator provides a still more detailed framework for overlaying physical, ecological, and socio-economic data at various scales, allowing global drivers of change to impact local conditions (Nicholls, Dawson, & Day, 2015). In the process, a hierarchy of decision support systems is established. Critical for local decision making is the generation of outcomes at a scale relevant to local decision-making. The application at East Anglia in the United Kingdom, incorporating integrated assessment, a scenario framework, and local stakeholder participation, moves the conversation toward a relevant adaptation approach.

These recent advances in technology and geospatial data quality at the national and regional scale have led to a more robust modeling capability with the means to simulate physical change with finer resolution over larger geographic areas. A critical piece of data development is the identification of local exposure including economic, ecological, and cultural resources that can be overlaid on physical change scenarios. This approach brings richness to the assessment process with information needed by local officials to more effectively identify vulnerabilities, to examine options for addressing those vulnerabilities, and to assess the viability of those options in addressing immediate and long-term impacts on coastal communities related to sea level rise and inundation. Central to that discussion is the determination of cost avoidance due to corrective action.

Institutional Framework

In addition to an improved information base that better captures vulnerabilities associated with accelerated sea level rise and shoreline change, the institutional framework must be more anticipatory and adaptive. Coastal management as a concept has been overlaid on a shoreline already largely developed. While the system moved to a new normal with substantially improved information on coastal processes and a targeted management framework, vulnerabilities have continued to increase in recent decades. Worldwide, real estate and infrastructure losses from extreme weather have tripled over the last decade (Bienert, 2014). In the United States, coastal storms accounted for 14 of the 15 highest expenditure events for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from 1996 to 2013 (NRC, 2014).

New policy initiatives that differ significantly from existing policy are likely to face resistance as climate change policy carries an unusually high acceptance threshold. Perceived risk is clouded by uncertainty over the timing and magnitude of change and the long-term planning horizon needed to address the issue. McGuire (2015) characterizes perceived risk as a combination of hazard and outrage. As long as the outrage is muted, perceived risk remains low and policy change is slow to adapt. In the case of coastal development, both individual and community risk are under-estimated, leading to market distortion.

Subsidization of land development in coastal areas has contributed to distorted coastal land markets, increasing the level of financial exposure. In the United States, the Federal Flood Insurance Act of 1968 was designed to encourage community adoption of minimum standards for construction and development. Participating communities were eligible for flood insurance below market rates as an inducement. While the intent was good, the continued subsidization of coastal development under the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) for close to 50 years has been increasingly out of step with market reality as coastal vulnerabilities have increased. The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 extended NFIP for five years but required significant reform including the raising of rates to reflect true flood risk and to make the program—at the time $24 billion in debt—more financially stable. An outcry on the part of property owners as well as coastal realty and banking interests led to the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act of 2013. The new legislation delayed the implementation of Biggert-Waters to ease the shock on property owners. Nonetheless, it does appear that a movement toward actuarially based coastal insurance may be occurring after years of debate. Although painful, a rational development policy must restructure incentive systems to better reflect the risk of building in high hazard areas.

While the federal government has assumed a greater responsibility for coastal protection over the past half century, the bulk of expenditures have been for post-storm recovery. In essence, the approach has been reactive rather than proactive and to some extent “discourages state and local governments from taking appropriate actions to reduce risk and enhance resiliency” (NRC, 2014). More recently, a fiscally conservative U.S. Congress approved disaster relief funding following Super Storm Sandy, which hit the heavily populated East Coast in 2012, but asked how many $60 billion bites would need to be supported with public funds. Although some relocation programs were introduced in New York following Sandy, the majority of federal funding continues to be expended for disaster recovery rather than disaster prevention. The current funding model, tilted heavily toward post-disaster recovery without sufficient attention to prevention, is not sustainable.

In the European experience, climate change has been established as a priority item for the EU. As a result, the EU has been much more pro-active in mitigation efforts to reduce GHG emissions than the United States. That buy-in has carried over to adaptation efforts, where the European Commission has provided leadership in driving the conversation from an EU Strategy for ICZM to National Strategies. Although the formalization of ICZM in Europe came later than the American CZM, the political will at the top has been important in moving policy development and implementation forward. The difference in approach is also being influenced by the different planning traditions on each side of the ocean. Europeans have traditionally been more inclined to national planning initiatives than their American counterparts, who have been more laissez faire on addressing important issues of the day.

If climate change policy is to be effective, it is important that funds are available to reflect that priority. To this end, climate change is one of the priorities of the EU’s current multi-annual financial framework (EU, 2016). The injection of public funding to address climate-related costs does not imply that market-based instruments, insurance, and public–private partnerships are not important. It does mean that the social cost associated with climate change, an external effect to market forces, is being addressed. There remains uncertainty as to the true impacts associated with climate change and, therefore, the social cost to be borne, still it is important that interventions are at least moving the issue in the right direction.

While the establishment of national strategies and planning frameworks are important, the fact that communities are becoming more actively engaged as major flood events seem to occur more frequently is a positive outcome. There has been an increase over time in the development of vulnerability assessments and adaptation plans, with the realization that more of the responsibility for addressing long-term risk will fall locally. The problem in the past was that many of these plans were ad hoc, with varying levels of information on which to make informed, long-term decisions. Until recently, little had been done from an implementation standpoint. That situation is now changing as more communities are seeing sea level rise not as a problem to be addressed in the future but as a current issue with impact on local property and infrastructure. It may be that the tipping point has been reached in those communities.

The Path Forward

Much of the early focus of coastal management was on coastal beach communities that historically had been the frontline, with disproportionate impact from shoreline change and coastal storms. Less attention, here as well as in the literature, has been given to the loss of coastal wetland ecosystems, which are being lost at rapid rates as the natural migration that should occur with sea level rise is being blocked by inland development that significantly reduces estuarine habitat. As sea levels continue to rise at increasing rates, the exposure of urban areas has increased, broadening the focus, as major population centers with concentrations of property and infrastructure come into play. An OECD report estimates the potential for a 9-fold increase in global risk of floods in large port cities between now and 2050 (Hallegatte, Green, Nicholls, & Corfee-Morlot, 2013). The same OECD report indicates that three of the top four cities in terms of overall cost of damage are located in the United States. Adjusting to damages as a percentage of GDP, 9 of the top 10 cities are in non-OECD countries. The impacts on the developing world, including small island developing states will be large and must be addressed as a matter of both economic reality and social justice.

Effective adaptation will require a good understanding of vulnerabilities. Although uncertainty as to the magnitude and timing of change will continue, the refinement of global change models, and the ability to overlay those physical change models on local data sets reflecting land use, population, building footprints, and ecological and cultural resources provides a basis for bracketing impacts over time and space. An effective means for identifying local vulnerabilities is essential as a basis for identifying options, and for assessing the benefits and costs of corrective action. To date, those changes have generally been overlaid with current development patterns or, at best, business-as-usual development scenarios. Much more needs to be done to quantify the impact of human behavior both in terms of development pressures and mitigative and adaptative response to climate change phenomena.

From an institutional perspective, the game has changed in the 40+ years since coastal management, as we know it, was introduced, with accelerated sea level rise already apparent and projected to increase at higher rates in the coming decades. The level of exposure is already high and will be higher still as new development is introduced. Continued development in vulnerable areas will make it more difficult and costly to adapt after that development has already occurred. It will also leave behind stranded assets when it is no longer feasible to hold the line. Addressing the impacts of climate change in coastal regions will require good information and the political will to take necessary measures appropriate in a more dynamic coastal environment. That is why it is essential that an adaptive institutional framework is in place and that the right signals are sent to encourage responsible development patterns. The failure to act strategically with respect to climate change in coastal areas will be morally and fiscally irresponsible.

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