The degradation of our coasts is one of the many devastating consequences of climate change that impacts millions of Americans. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Ocean Service, in 2010, 123.3 million people (roughly 39% of our nation’s population) lived in counties directly on the shoreline, and by 2020 that number is expected to increase by 8%.
Sea level rise, increased frequency and intensity of storms, and changing rainfall patterns are some of the immediate symptoms of climate change that have already impacted coasts and will only worsen. While these events directly impact coastal communities, they also result in downstream impacts that touch every single American. This includes economic impacts – for example to the farming industry during an interruption in shipping at coastal ports – or sociopolitical, when communities are under pressure from inland migration. It is a critical time to come together and address existing challenges to coastal resilience, help prepare for future challenges, and enact real solutions.
The Aspen Institute Energy and Environment Program, in partnership with Senator Mary Landrieu, former US Senator from the State of Louisiana and Senior Advisor at Van Ness Feldman, convened the Aspen Institute Coastal Resilience Roundtable to gather experts from academia, government, non-profits, and corporations to discuss the state of our coasts and what is needed to protect them and ensure their resiliency for decades to come.
Given the geographic diversity of our coasts and the communities that inhabit them, the scope of the discussion was expansive. The range of perspectives, exchange of ideas, and eagerness to engage demonstrates that this is a truly unifying and bipartisan issue that we cannot afford to ignore. Several key threads emerged, but chief among them was the importance of clearly understanding the components of resilience.
When it comes to coastal resilience, accurate and current mapping of our coastal communities and flood zones is essential. Communities must have a better understanding of their risk so they can be better informed and prepared. In order to provide this type of information, data must be collected from reputable sources. Even before data is collected, government agencies must understand what kind of information ought to be publicly available as well as the best way to present it. Access to accurate and critical mapping not only fosters better responses to disasters from government agencies, but also works to minimize risk in the first place by providing honest information to guide insurance decisions for homeowners.
Another critical component of resilience is more robust regional coordination so that planning happening at the local and city level can be scaled and applied regionally (and nationally) where possible. We need to find a way to honor and respect the uniqueness of different coastal communities while also recognizing that climate impacts do not stop at borders and the decisions made in one area are not always contained. To ensure the longevity of coasts, silos should be broken down and communities should make a concerted effort to share information. A more holistic approach is needed to ensure that resource-rich cities are not the only ones implementing resiliency solutions, leaving cities with fewer resources behind.
Improving financing mechanisms for resiliency is also an essential component of success. The answer is not necessarily more funding, but rather smarter funding. One of the most common sentiments expressed at the roundtable was that solutions and technologies to address many coastal resiliency issues exist, but the resources to scale and implement those solutions do not. There are, however, many ways better financing can be achieved. Participants suggested that simply allocating the finances already available today in smarter ways could better protect the most vulnerable areas and America as a whole. In addition, there is a lot of private capital that can be unlocked and utilized. Localities can increase their tax rates in order to fund coastal flood mitigation and restoration, as Miami’s citizens voted to do in 2017. Also, continued collaboration and coordination focused on pre-disaster efforts as opposed to spending intended to stop the bleeding post-disaster could help free up additional funds.
As a nation of individuals, communities, states, and regions, we have the opportunity to protect our coasts. In the history of our country, we have faced adversity and forces working against us that are beyond our imagination, and we have always figured out how to come together and emerge stronger. Today, climate change is one of those forces and presents a defining moment for our country to lead. Protecting our coasts and ensuring their resilience is yet another challenge that we can solve together as one nation.