05/20/2013 07:55 am ET Updated Jul 20, 2013

The Science and Politics of Preserving Our Beach Communities

Memorial Day is rapidly approaching; and here in the Northeast, that is the traditional start of summer's season of fun in the sun. For many beach communities in Long Island and New Jersey, it will include an effort to demonstrate a measure of normalcy, and a sense of recovery. In some towns that won't be possible, in some we will see a partial recovery and in still others, reconstruction is complete. Recently, New York Times reporters Jenny Anderson, Lisa W. Foderaro, Tom Giratikanon and Sarah Maslin Nir published a helpful summary of the area's coastline. According to their report:

With the unofficial start of summer looming, the New York Times looked at the state of the region's battered public beaches, in a survey covering three states and hundreds of miles of coastline, from Margate, N.J., to Stonington, Conn., and to the tip of Montauk, on Long Island. Were bathhouses and concession stands damaged? Was the boardwalk torn off its pilings? Would there be any place to park? The good news: a vast majority will be open, though with some changes.

In a related report, Ms. Anderson also examined the cost effectiveness of beach restoration. Many scientists question the wisdom of rebuilding on these fragile and vulnerable coastal areas, and are not shy about voicing their judgments on the foolishness of rebuilding by the shore.

On the other hand, people like me, who own homes by the beach and have no plans to give up on their homes, are equally assertive when voicing their intention to remain. In deciding to rebuild, my family and my neighbors have taken into account the risk of more frequent and more intense storms. But we also factor in the status of our financial investment in our homes and the emotional investment we've made in our community and way of life.

Just as I often urge climate scientists who are not policy or political experts to be cautious when expressing their opinions on climate policy, I also urge experts on coastal engineering and ecosystems to be cautious when expressing their policy prescriptions on land use policy. Scientific expertise is critical in making informed public policy decisions, but it is not the sole input into the policy making process. Scientific experts are not public policy experts and they should not pretend to be. And while mathematical models can help us anticipate the most probable future, they cannot predict the future. No one can.

There is a need to strike a balance. On the one hand, we need scientific information and analysis to inform decision making. On the other hand, we need to avoid policy prescriptions based on only one element of the decision calculus. New York City has over 500 miles of coastline. Abandoning that coastline would have economic costs that are beyond our ability to pay. The expertise of an academic in costal science can help us understand the future of the coastline, but not the economic, social and political factors that must be considered when making land use policy.

Climate change requires that we transition to a fossil fuel free economy: But at what pace? How will we fund this transition? Who will pay the costs? What technologies will be used? If the transition takes place too slowly, we bear the risks of climate change. If it takes place too quickly, we face the risk of economic dislocation and political instability. Climate science cannot help us answer every aspect of those questions. The same is true of coastal science when we are analyzing the costs and benefits of coastal restoration.

Let me be clear. This is not an argument against the use of science in policy making. Quite the contrary: I am arguing that sustainability decision making requires the input of a wide variety of experts. We need ecologists, environmental scientists, lawyers, health experts, economists, political scientists, engineers and a number of other disciplines. We also need a new form of expert capable of coordinating the work of these other experts, and providing policy and management analysis that can be used by decision makers.

Ms. Anderson's piece in the Times concludes with this quote from one scientific expert, Dr. L. Stanton Hales discussing the future of Osborn Island, New Jersey:

When Dr. Hales told the residents of Osborn Island that they should reconsider rebuilding, they countered that they wanted their children and grandchildren to enjoy the place that was so special to them. "It's really hard," he said. But the reality, he added, is "there's no future there."

He is not alone in making these policy pronouncements. I have many other colleagues doing the same. I am completely supportive of their efforts to provide expert analysis to the public. At Columbia's Earth Institute, we work hard to get out those messages. However, I take serious issue with expressions of clairvoyance, coupled with the inadequate, insufficient policy advice. I see it here at Columbia and I see it throughout the media. Dr. Hales may be right, but unforeseen human and technological innovation may prove him wrong.

It is natural to assume that an expert in one field is expert in another. When reporters ask me questions about climate science, I always respond by saying "I will tell you what I know about the issue, but I am a political scientist, not a climate scientist". The question you are asking me is outside my area of expertise. I then try to give them the names of several scientists who can provide an expert response to the question they are asking.

The world is a complicated place, made even more complex by human impact on our planet's natural systems. When we rebuilt our summer home in Long Beach this year, my wife and I were fully aware of the risks we were taking. We also know that the cost of flood insurance will go up, and there may come a time when we will not have the resources to stay. But like the beach folks in the New York Times story, the shore will always have a special place in my heart and in memory. My wife and I were married on a beach a few miles from our home; our daughters played on the beach and boardwalk growing up; and I associate the shore with soft breezes, the scent of the ocean, and total relaxation. How much are those warm and wonderful feelings worth to me, my neighbors, and to the nation? That is a personal and possibly political decision, not a scientific one.

As we make that decision, people who think their homes are safe from natural disasters should think again. A changing climate and a more densely settled planet, puts many more of us at risk. My own view on this, expressed frequently on this website, is that we must develop a new revenue stream, based on a new tax, and new organizational capacity to create and manage a massive fund to pay the costs of increased resilience, emergency response, and rapid reconstruction. Science tells us that threats are increasing. Let's get ready to deal with these threats instead of running away from them. I suspect that there won't be any place to run anyway.