31 March 2010

Climate Science and Sea Level Rise: A Report from the Real World

A Guest Post by Skip Stiles

Skip Stiles is the Executive Director of Wetlands Watch a nonprofit based in Norfolk, Virginia focused on the protection and conservation of Virginia's wetlands. In this guest post he describes his view from the front lines of adaptation policy -- trying to deal with both climate science and sea level rise.
I read with interest and conflict, the proposal to spend $50 million to develop more precise models of climate change impacts.

I have been in and around climate change policy for most of the last 30 years. I was hired in 1977 as a legislative assistant to the late Congressman George E. Brown, Jr., as he was drafting legislation to set up the first federal climate change research program. It became law in 1978 and for the next 22 years that I worked for Brown, as his chief of staff and as legislative director for the House Science Committee, climate change was the talk around the coffee pot in the office.

In time, the federal research program began to bear fruit, revealing a great irony: as the research got “better,” the policy response became more confused.

Along the research dimension, as we understood more, we plumbed the depth of our lack of understanding. Simple projections exploded into fractals of real world complexity.

Along the policy dimension, the inability of the public policy and political process to deal with uncertainty was again demonstrated. Politicians at all levels want a “green” or “red” light, or some quantification of the problem before they react. When scientific complexity raises the issue of uncertainly, politicians avoid acting.

The policy process seeks more certainty and more complete understanding. The science community agrees with this policy angst, trained to believe that a range of results will produce a single number if only they continue to sift. So additional research is funded and policy responses are delayed in a benign conspiracy of values, beliefs, and self-interest.

I was fine with that during my time in Congress because I did not see the urgency for action then. Later, during my service on the Virginia Commission on Climate Change in 2008, I still wanted better model results.

The Commission was faced with trying to understand impacts of climate change on Virginia. Unfortunately, the models produced impact maps showing the entire state composed of two pixels, too coarse to compel action. Storm intensity, temperature, and a host of other potential climate problems were poorly quantified. In the midst of our deliberations we sought better information, and would have endorsed something like the new Decadal and Regional Climate Prediction Using Earth System Models (EaSM) program, with a price tag of “only” $50 million.

However, this train of thinking endangers the work I do now with Wetlands Watch on climate change adaptation in coastal Virginia. We are working with local and state government officials to put community adaptation plans in place to address sea level rise in tidal Virginia. Here on the ground in the real world, this conspiracy to achieve predictive perfection is the enemy of preventive action and threatens millions of Virginians.

Where I live, in Norfolk, Virginia, we have seen 1.5 feet of sea level rise over the last 100 years and, with southeastern Virginia being as flat as a billiard table and with settlements in place here for 300+ years, our communities are getting flooding that has grown measurably worse over time. We have old buildings that once were safe that now flood regularly. We have streets that were safe and dry when they were first paved out in 1920 that now flood twice a month on spring tides.

We don’t need sophisticated models in southeastern Virginia, the most at-risk region from sea level rise outside of New Orleans. We get it and clearly see the cost of delay – yet what is the local political response?


We continue to allow buildings along the shoreline. We pretend somehow the seas will recede before we have to pay the bills. We don't make the hard choices politically on land use or other economic investments. Instead, we still ask for better data before we decide.

We do not have to wait for better models to get better data on climate change impacts here. We had a nor’easter in November producing a storm surge of 5 feet above Mean Higher High Water (above the average spring tide line). That gives us a snapshot of where the water will come with 5 feet of sea level rise – no modeling needed.

Here the policy process already has enough information to act: where the pavement got wet, you should stop allowing development and withhold public investments in redevelopment.

In our region, waiting for the EaSM results will mean we get another 6-12 cm of sea level rise and the promise of even more. Worse, in the interim we will have allowed more houses, hotels, and strip malls along the coast, raising the eventual expense of this problem – either in having to buy back these structures we have permitted or in higher insurance premiums as the buildings are flooded by future storms.

Waiting for EaSM model runs also distracts the local and state policy process from the “low hanging fruit:” all the reasonable "no brainer" approaches that make sense today and make even more sense with climate change. There are simple things we can be doing - don't build on the shoreline or on moving shore features like barrier islands, add at least a couple of feet of elevation to new infrastructure before it is built, etc.

So today I spend much of my time trying to undo the past 30 years of my work seeking perfection in forecasts. I ask local government officials to make decisions in advance of perfect knowledge because we know enough and to wait is to invite disastrous results.

I spend my days trying to change the world one IHOP Kiwanis Club meeting at a time, proselytizing on sea level rise. I don’t need to wait for these model runs and I certainly don’t need the distraction from my work they will cause.

If this new federal modeling effort, if other initiatives like the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Service lull the policy process into some dream state that promises them finer data, they will dither and delay. This delay will allow more houses on the shoreline, more port facilities built without considering sea level rise, etc.

If I had control of that $50 million, I’d take $2 million to gather real-world anecdotes of the changes that are happening: flowers blooming earlier, fire ants moving north, storm surges getting higher, robins staying longer in the fall, thawing permafrost catching fire. Then I’d take all this real-world evidence of the climate change that is already taking place and I’d spend $48 million working every Rotary Club, neighborhood association, and Scout Troop with this information until the nodding heads moved policymakers to action before it is too late.