How fast will we need to adapt to climate change?

October 4, 2016
A composite image of the Western hemisphere of the Earth. Credit: NASA

What would we do differently if sea level were to rise one foot per century versus one foot per decade? Until now, most policy and research has focused on adapting to specific amounts of climate change and not on how fast that climate change might happen.

Using as a case study, researchers at Carnegie's Department of Global Ecology have developed a quantitative model that considers different rates of sea-level rise, in addition to economic factors, and shows how consideration of rates of change affect optimal adaptation strategies. If the sea level will rise slowly, it could still make sense to build near the shoreline, but if the sea level is going to rise quickly, then a buffer zone along the shoreline might make more sense.

The research is published in the October 4, 2016, issue of the Environmental Research Letters.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has defined adaptation as "the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects." Nearly all of the literature on the damage from and adaptation to it focuses on amounts of change: that is, the damage from a world that is 3.6°F (2°C) warmer and a sea level that is three feet higher. But the world is more likely to get progressively warmer, with sea-level rise getting progressively higher.

"It is a very different thing to adapt to a sea level that is three feet higher if you think that sea level will rise no farther after that, than to adapt to a sea-level rise that is three feet higher with the expectation that the seas will keep rising," remarked Soheil Shayegh, a former Carnegie postdoc and lead author of the study.

The researchers analyzed how the rate of sea-level rise affects economic decision making in coastal areas in four scenarios. In the first scenario, there is no adaptation, and people build on land that will be flooded. In the second scenario, people take into consideration some future, specific amount of sea level rise, and create a no-build buffer zone prohibiting development along the coast. In the third scenario, people adapt to ongoing rates of change and consider whether buildings are likely to be flooded during their economically productive lifetime. In the last scenario, people try to adapt by protecting themselves with dikes or seawalls.

The researchers calculated the return on investment for each scenario using the discount rate—a measure that investors use to value future income. A high discount rate means investors don't value the future cost as much as if they have a low discount rate.

It makes more sense to build near the coast if buildings don't last very long, because investors are focused on short-term return, and sea level is rising slowly. Durable buildings, low discount rates, and rapid rates of sea level rise would point to building farther from the shoreline.

Of course, ignoring future sea-level rise is a recipe for failure. A buffer zone approach based on a single amount of sea-level rise fails to make productive use of valuable coastal land. The dike approach provides only a temporary hold, but even though they provide no long-lasting solution, they could make sense if the dikes could be made cheaply enough.

While the researchers focused on , they believe that consideration of rates of climate change and rise should be taken into account in other areas of adaption, including adaptation of agriculture, buildings, and other sectors. The authors point out that their study represents a first step in understanding practical approaches to adaptation, and that more research is needed to understand and manage the response of both human and natural systems to increased rates of change.

Ken Caldeira, of Carnegie Science's Department of Global Ecology, said "Future research on adaptation strategy needs to consider how economic incentives interact with real political systems, so that we might produce better outcomes. Unfortunately, as we have seen after Hurricane Katrina and in other flooding, if politically powerful people are flooded, they can sometimes get the rest of society to pay for the damage. This can set up perverse incentives and result in people building where they should not build, or putting dikes where they make no sense. Developing good policy means taking into consideration both physical and human dimensions of the problem."

Caldeira continued, "I used to live in New Jersey, and there was a river that flooded all the time. Eventually, they turned much of the flood plain into a park. Then, when the river flooded, it was no big deal, and the rest of the year, people could enjoy the park. Future adaptation strategy needs to be more like this, where we think about what the best use of land is, and don't try to fit everything into a 'one size fits all' policy."

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16 comments

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Noumenal
3.2 / 5 (9) Oct 04, 2016
Fucking capitalistic bullshit - fuck the planet and expect us to pay up to fix it, what a fucking joke.
Shootist
1.8 / 5 (10) Oct 04, 2016
How fast will we need to adapt to climate change?


No faster than we had to adapt to the Roman Warm Period, the Extreme Weather events of CE 535-536, the Viking Warm Period or the Little Ice Age.

Warm is better than Ice, I tell you what.
leDendrite
4.2 / 5 (5) Oct 04, 2016
Climate is one gear in the wheelwork of nature, all intrinsically connected. when the gears shift it's like a whole different world. the biosphere, the holobiont of life on earth is as important as the sun in deriving the conditions we require to sustain and regulate our biology and the climate.

Ecosystem Engineer is a biological term that describes any organism that significantly alters its environment. people are clearly profound ecosystem engineers, unique in that some of us are aware of the sum of our actions, but perhaps not very unique in group outcome. we are like the yeast in the wort, consuming all the sugar and creating a environment no longer conducive to our biology. space weather is an additional and external factor. we must quickly become responsible and effective ecosystem engineers if we are to have a future without a population crash and one in which we can adapt and live symbiotically and sustainably in our ever changing and dynamic environment.
leDendrite
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 04, 2016
unfortunate that we remain distracted and divided by divisive and confounding conditions that we fall far short of our potential... it seems to me that the actions and steps we should be taking (should have taken) as a civilization (as an organism) are the same regardless of the direction or cause of climate change. we have not made good or advantageous use of this grace period, a uneventful moment in geologic history.

We need an emergency global biosphere restoration effort. we need to rewild and permaculture our civilization. Escape the confines of antiquated economic system that places arbitrary values on resources and arbitrary limitations on the actions we can take.
tblakely1357
1.4 / 5 (9) Oct 04, 2016
Given that the initial predictions about Global Warming stated that by now our coastlines should be under several feet of water, mass famines and global wars of unprecedented ferocity I'm not particularly worried about any new apocalyptic predictions.
philstacy9
2.5 / 5 (6) Oct 05, 2016
"Americans were skeptical" Scientists used to be skeptical.

http://www.cnsnew...e-change
greenonions
5 / 5 (7) Oct 05, 2016
Given that the initial predictions about Global Warming stated that by now our coastlines should be under several feet of water, mass famines and global wars of unprecedented ferocity I'm not particularly worried about any new apocalyptic predictions.
That's a relief. I was starting to pay attention to the thousands of trained climate scientists around the world. Glad to know that I can relax (sarcasm). One could hope that some day tblakely would produce some evidence of the scientific consensus that made these predictions - but that would be expecting due diligence - which is not going to happen.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (8) Oct 05, 2016
That's a relief. I was starting to pay attention to the thousands of trained climate scientists around the world. Glad to know that I can relax (sarcasm).

The onion jackass brays again. This jackass brayed about his 1200 mile jaunt, during which he emitted over a tenth of the US annual average CO2, in just 2 DAYS. Imagine what he would do if he did not pay attention to those thousands of scientists. Glad to know this jackass can bray. Big relief.
jeffensley
1 / 5 (2) Oct 05, 2016
Get creative... maybe new skyscraper construction along coastlines should incorporate an "expendable" ground level with interconnected first floor elevated walkways so if for whatever reason, seas did rise suddenly, you'd have a modern Venice instead of inundated buildings. I like the idea gradually giving ground than committing to the amazingly expensive (and possibly fruitless) fight against the sea via walls, levees, dikes, etc....
ddaye
5 / 5 (6) Oct 05, 2016
Given that the initial predictions about Global Warming stated that by now our coastlines should be under several feet of water.


I see this claim frequently but never a link.
greenonions
5 / 5 (4) Oct 06, 2016
I see this claim frequently but never a link.


Yep - despite multiple posters pointing out the strawman - and requesting some support for the claim. I think it is called trolling.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (5) Oct 06, 2016
I see this claim frequently but never a link.

It's the Trump tactic

a) make random claim
b) if someone questions it : ignore (or claim it's not their job to provide references)

How anyone ever falls for that is beyond me.

Off topic: But nearly 50% of the American voting public seem to be perfectly fine with that type of 'argumentative' style (and more so if you count all the religious people).
We have a term for this: Americans are a "Kindvolk" (translation: "a child(like) people"). All superficiality and no in-depth knowledge of anything.

Note that this tactic is effective because to refute the claim takes a lot more effort than to throw out 10 more random ones. (By which time the idiots who believed the first one have already forgotten all about it and have lapped up numbers 2 through 10)
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (2) Oct 09, 2016
How fast will we need to adapt to climate change?

About as fast as it takes me to walk to the thermostat and adjust accordingly...
snoosebaum
1 / 5 (2) Oct 09, 2016
Clinton tactic ; use media to avoid even thinking about 'certain issues' , keep the focus on triva
snoosebaum
1 / 5 (2) Oct 09, 2016
Clinton tactic ; lie like hell then smile at everything.
dustywells
not rated yet Oct 16, 2016
jeffensley
Get creative... maybe new skyscraper construction along coastlines should incorporate an "expendable" ground level with interconnected first floor elevated walkways so if for whatever reason, seas did rise suddenly, you'd have a modern Venice instead of inundated buildings. I like the idea gradually giving ground than committing to the amazingly expensive (and possibly fruitless) fight against the sea via walls, levees, dikes, etc....
A much simpler method would be for scientists to identify areas in danger of flooding and insurance companies refusing to insure in those areas. Governments could also prohibit new construction due to the anticipated cost of reclamation and emergency services. Anyone buying or building there would do so entirely at their own risk with no chance of disaster support.

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