THE BLOG
11/12/2012 12:12 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

Hurricane Sandy Challenges Short-Term Thinking On Nation's Coasts

Back in 2003, Jordan Rappaport, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, published a now-highly cited paper in the Journal of Economic Growth noting that, despite the country's folkloric affinity for the open frontier, America is an aggressively coastal nation.

While accounting for just 13 percent of the nation's total land mass, coastal counties, including those along the two oceans and the Great Lakes, are home to roughly half the U.S. population, the authors noted, and 60 percent of civilian income.

That's not just a matter of chance, the two economists argued, nor is it simply a function of historical forces (access to ports and so forth) that no longer necessarily obtain. Rather, coastal communities are just highly productive places, and people, driven to seek a certain quality of life, want to live in them.

That's understandable, but probably not sustainable, at least not as coastal development is currently conceived. After all, the historic storm and ocean surge that ripped through the Mid-Atlantic corridor late last month did so with a ferocity that washed away coastal communities, rendered tens of thousands of people homeless and left a multibillion-dollar mess from Montauk to lower Manhattan to Margate, N.J. And of course, many scientists have speculated that muscular storms like this one could become more common in coming decades, making our coastal communities -- including most of the nation's major urban areas -- increasingly vulnerable.

So what to do? One long-term, if fantastical, option suggested by a colleague might be an era of coastal flight, with populations reversing a century-long trend of migration toward the coasts and establishing new centers of commerce and culture on higher, less vulnerable ground inland. To be sure, such a scenario would be complicated by a variety of factors, including the likelihood that many parts of the country will be dealing with heat waves, droughts and other climate-related stressors of their own -- though if there is a sweet spot to be found, there could be some financial incentive in finding it.

"It might be sort of like a Venn diagram," said Matthew Kahn, an economist at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and the author of the 2010 book Climatopolis. "If we could make a Venn diagram and find the intersection of the areas that are lowest-risk on some key margins, the intersection of those sets would be safest place in America," Kahn reckoned, "and we should build a place for 20 million people there.

"Shrewd real estate developers should be buying land in those places -- there's an arbitrage opportunity there," he added. "The only challenge is that these climate probabilities are non-stationary."

Indeed, it is in part because of this that our coastal communities are far more likely to stay put and ultimately adapt -- though how quickly and at what cost remains to be seen. Kahn's book, which met with mixed reviews for painting too rosy a picture of the challenges cities are likely to face in future decades, suggests nonetheless that the reflex toward innovation and resiliency that created our coastal cities in the first place is likely to persist in the face of climate change -- a sentiment shared by other experts.

"Cities are ultimately going to fight the impacts of climate change," said Michael Cote, a climate change consultant who works with organizations and municipalities to develop ways to adapt to a warming planet. "They have a lot to protect, and moving is really not an option."

sandy development
A damaged home tilts to one side along the beach in the Belle Harbor section of the borough of Queens, N.Y., in the wake of superstorm Sandy.

What would that fight look like? Cote, who maintains a climate change adaptation blog with the slogan "I want to punch climate change in the face," pointed to what was almost immediate talk among New York state and city leaders of a $7 billion (or more) surge barrier and associated levee projects that would effectively insulate Gotham from seas that have risen more than seven inches over the last 100 years -- and will certainly rise higher over the next century.

Given that estimated losses associated with last week's storm could reach $50 billion, that could prove to be money well spent.

And as has been pointed out by others, New Amsterdam can look to "old" Amsterdam for inspiration. The Netherlands, after all, means "low country" in Dutch -- and it is aptly named. Roughly a quarter of the country's land area, and a similar percentage of its population, are nominally below sea level. Fully half the country is no more than a foot above the sea.

Naturally, then, floods had long been part of life for the Dutch -- but when rising seas became an increasingly existential threat, they did what they had to: engineered a system of moveable dams, storm surge barriers and levees that keep even the angriest seas out, at least for now.

Relentlessly rising seas and the threat of higher storm surges as global warming continues apace have prompted the Dutch government to continue investing in climate adaptation strategies -- to the tune of $1.6 billion in 2010 alone.

Venice, the almost comically flood-prone Italian port city that is actually sinking as sea levels rise around it, is putting the finishing touches on a nearly $7 billion system of giant inflatable storm surge gates, which, when needed, would seal off the island city and the Venetian lagoon in which it sits from any potential incursions of the Adriatic Sea.

There's also the possibility, as flood waters rise higher, that cities might simply hike up their skirts and take just a few steps back from the coast -- a tack that scientists have been suggesting as prudent for some time. Overdevelopment of coastal areas -- particularly atop the natural wetland barriers that would be best positioned to absorb rising tides -- is one of the key factors behind last week's devastation.

"Maybe at some point we'll retreat a bit from the coastline and let nature claim back some of that land," said Mathias Ruth, a professor at Northeastern University's School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. "So that way we have natural water infiltration in wetlands and coastal protection like we had before all this development."

Such initiatives are already underway in some cities, Cote noted, including San Francisco, where city leaders and conservationists angling to preserve the Bay Area's wetlands have battled with developers keen on building on top of them. Which side will win, Cote suggests, will depend in part on whether federal and state governments continue to subsidize insurance for homeowners and businesses in such areas -- a benefit that critics say encourages building in risky areas at taxpayer expense.

"New Orleans is one of the biggest examples of some of this foolishness," Cote said. "People shouldn't even be there. But all the politicians, the mayor -- they all supported rebuilding. But again, there's no real vision for protecting people."

Earlier this year, Cote joined a small delegation of American researchers, conservationists and policy experts on a visit to the Netherlands. The goal of the trip, organized by the Florida Earth Foundation, was simple: learn about public flood management -- and the social and political dynamics that get it done -- from the planet's experts.

Part of what Cote came away with was a sense that, in the Netherlands, efficient adaptation was a byproduct of deep cooperation among local, regional and national leaders, all of whom agreed that the sea posed a threat and supported ambitious measures to address it, including relocating some citizens from flood-prone areas.

When and whether that kind of unity of purpose could be achieved here is an open question. Leaders in New York and New Jersey have been warned for years, after all, that their highly developed coastal areas were vulnerable to rising seas. And despite the bold talk of massive infrastructure improvements in the direct aftermath of the storm called Sandy, Cote wonders if the nation's famously short memory will prove a barrier now.

"Politicians, they are short-term thinkers," Cote said. "They think in the short-term needs of the public, and there's not much visionary thinking."

"And that," he added, "is highly risky."