For decades, the conversation on climate change focused on mitigation. But its counterpart, adaptation, is coming to the fore as people begin to feel the effects of climate change. One of the most significant adaptation challenges is sea-level rise, which threatens millions of people globally. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report writes that there is a “brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” Why It Matters investigates ways to deal with higher waters and other challenges ahead.
Alice C. Hill, The Fight for Climate After COVID-19
Alice C. Hill, “The Trouble With Climate Adaptation,” NOEMA
Klaus Jacob, “How can we mitigate the flood risks to subway systems?,” World Economic Forum
Lilah Raptopoulos, “Are we safe? Of course not’: climate scientist’s NYC warning after Sandy,” Guardian
Henk Ovink, “It Starts with a Trickle: Valuing water better can spur sustainable development and climate action,” OECD Forum Network
Gernot Wagner, “The Cost to Reach Net Zero By 2050 Is Actually a Bargain,” Bloomberg
Gernot Wagner, Geoengineering: The Gamble
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Claire Felter and Kali Robinson, “Water Stress: A Global Problem That’s Getting Worse”
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Kelly Sims Gallagher, “The Coming Carbon Tsunami,” Foreign Affairs
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Thomas Frank, “After a $14-Billion Upgrade, New Orleans’ Levees Are Sinking,” Scientific American
Francis Wilkinson, “The Jersey Shore Is Sinking. Do We Want to Save It?,” Bloomberg
Haritha John, “On India’s Kerala coast, a man-made solution exacerbates a natural problem,” Mongabay
Helen Roxburgh, “China’s ‘sponge cities’ are turning streets green to combat flooding,” Guardian
Elizabeth Rush, Rising, Dispatches from the New American Shore
ClimateWire, “How the Dutch Make "Room for the River" by Redesigning Cities,” Scientific American
Watch and Listen
“Will New York Be Underwater by 2050?,” Real Engineering
“Why The Netherlands Isn’t Under Water,” Real Engineering
CBC News The National: Streets flooded, neighborhoods submerged.
NBC News: You couldn’t see anything but water, nothing but water.
CBS Mornings: This report by the world’s leading climate scientists is released just once every 8 years, and it’s pretty grim.
ABC News: What’s new in this report are multiple adaptation strategies that can be successful if the global temperature rise is limited to 1.5 degrees celsius.
Adaptation is one of those words that comes up in a lot of different contexts. And it makes sense right, since the beginning of time, all living things have been changing, pivoting and adjusting in order to survive.
When it comes to climate change, conversations about survival have tended to focus on mitigation - how the world can reduce and eventually end its use of fossil fuels.
But adaptation is the other half of the equation. It means preparing our homes, our communities, our infrastructure, and industries, to endure the effects of climate change.
This month, a blockbuster report published by the IPCC confirmed the extent to which devastating climate effects are now unavoidable.
These challenges include more intense forest fires, heat waves, hurricanes, landslides, and famine. Each of these dangers presents an enormous adaptation challenge.
One of the problems at the top of the list was sea level rise. And that’s the part of adaptation that we’re going to be talking about today - how countries can adapt in order to save the coastal cities and the millions of people who live in the ocean’s path.
I’m Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today, adapting to rising tides.
Gabrielle SIERRA: So where are we on the sea level rise timeline?
Klaus JACOB: Well, it began today. It began yesterday. It only gets worse tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.
This is Klaus Jacob, he is a geophysicist, a disaster and climate expert, and a professor at Columbia University.
JACOB: The problem is that sea level rise is actually accelerating. It gets ever faster and faster in its rise. And so if we don't foresee that we will not be able to keep up and so the earlier we start, the better we're off in the future.
WCVB Channel 5 Boston: This morning, forecasting our future. There is a new report painting a dire picture when it comes to rising sea levels. Researchers are calling this new data a global wake up call.
CBS New York: The flood frequencies are going to increase and they are going to become problematic.
CNN: Coastal cities could flood even on sunny days.
40 percent of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometers of the coast.
One of those people is, me. I grew up in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, it’s a small community nestled between the ocean and a bay. Sandy flooded my community and many other parts of New York City. The water reached heights of up to 14 feet, and it destroyed a large portion of my childhood home. When I go back I still see collapsed houses, and it’s a decade later.
Hurricane Sandy was just one storm, but it caused an estimated $70 billion dollars in damages. The cost of extreme weather and rising sea levels is predicted to reach around $1 trillion dollars by 2100, that’s in the US alone.
JACOB: At low sea level, you need a very strong storm to reach a certain height. But as sea level rises, you need ever smaller storms to reach the same point. But smaller storms are more frequent. That means the same place floods ever more frequently. Sandy, the last major hurricane that hit New York City in 2012. That was roughly a storm with a probability of 1 in 700. But now the frequency will increase by a factor anywhere from 50 to 100 more often, the same place gets flooded. That's by the end of the century around there. So it's absolutely amazing how much a seemingly modest sea level rise can amplify the flood frequency and therefore the risks that we incur in time. Sea level rise is not like a bathtub rising everywhere the same. It rises differently in different parts of the world, it's not only the global sea level, it's also the local sea level component that often has a subsidence.
Subsidence basically means that the land is also sinking. Especially in regions with rivers or waterways.
JACOB: For instance, in Deltas, like in the Mississippi River Delta, New Orleans or in the Amazon delta or in the Nile or any other major river, Rhine delta in the Netherlands. Even if there were no global sea level rise from global warming, locally, you still would have an apparent sea level rise, which is really the land sinking. But now you have both phenomena together and that is really causing severe problems.
Modeling is tough because sea level rise depends on how much we mitigate. Today, global sea levels are predicted to rise at least 1-3 ft by 2100. That’s a global average, so in some places it could be lower or dramatically higher. For example, let’s go back to the big apple.
According to the NYC Panel on Climate Change, the city could experience sea level rise of 6 ft by 2100. That means that without drastic changes, large parts of the country’s most populous city could become uninhabitable.
And this will be happening all over the world. By the end of the century, sea level rise could endanger or displace 410 million people from their homes.
Gernot WAGNER: Frankly, sea level rise is an interesting case, largely because it happens relentlessly and at an increasing rate.
This is Gernot Wagner. Climate economist and professor at Columbia Business School, on leave from NYU.
WAGNER: On the other hand, the pace itself is relatively low. So no, we don't have to move New York City next decade because of sea level rise. What happens is that sea level rise makes flooding events much, much more intense. Storm surges, much, much more intense. So even something as steady and relentless as sea level rise has the most costly impact in terms of the extremes. As soon as we stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere, as soon as we are at net zero emissions globally, temperatures will stop increasing. Well, if we were to achieve that temperatures will stop increasing, sea levels will rise for decades, for centuries after and that alone tells us how difficult a problem climate change actually is. It is the most long term, most global, most uncertain public policy problem out there, at least in the combination of those factors.
JACOB: So adaptation can occur in fundamentally different ways. There are essentially three. The first we can call protection, keep the water out. The next can be accommodation, let the water in and live with it. The third one, namely, is managed retreat or strategic relocation.
There are a few buckets when it comes to addressing sea level rise. We can think of bucket one as seawalls and barriers, which tend to be what you hear about most when it comes to adaptation. Even in my parents’ neighborhood, sea walls have been the focus of many a very spirited community board meeting.
JACOB: You can build seawalls on the shoreline and levees and dikes but there are larger systems and they have successfully, in the past, been applied in the Netherlands for instance, where they built entire barrier systems. And they are largely open and only when a storm comes, will they be closed.
The queen of all barriers is in the Netherlands and it’s called Maeslantkering, it is almost as long as the height of the Eiffel Tower, and it weighs 4 times as much. There are all sorts of these barriers of different types and sizes around the world.
JACOB: And that has served in the past, the Netherlands and some other places very well. But whenever you have a river coming out, then these barrier systems have a problem. Why? Because they have to be ever more frequently closed because even smaller storms eventually lead to the same flood level that you want to keep out. But now we have a river coming out that wants to get through the barriers out into the ocean. If the barriers are permanently closed, you get it flooded from behind the barriers. That means it's not a sustainable adaptation solution.
Going back to New York, the city is spending $1.45 billion dollars on something called the East Coast Resiliency Project, a multipart barrier system that is set to wrap by 2026. In many cases these projects could provide immediate protection, but some believe their capacity will be limited in decades to come, if sea levels continue rising. And in other places, seawalls might not be of much use even in the short term.
The Times and The Sunday Times: All of this is storm surge and it keeps pouring into parts of downtown Miami.
PBS NewsHour: The residents of south Florida are already noticing how higher water is changing their local landscape.
KLAUS: The geology of Florida is such that it's made of very permeable limestone. And water can easily flow through that rock. So if you build a seawall on top, the ocean doesn't care, it just flows underneath that seawall through the limestone behind the seawall. And so Florida right now is buying tens of hundreds of millions of pumping systems and building some seawalls, which is a waste of time and money. They should think about how either to build floatable cities, if they are serious and trying to stay there, which is not easy, because there are hurricanes coming in, they can drive them up or Floridians should think how soon they want to sell their property and move up to Appalachia.
As mentioned, on top of barriers, there are other options, like nature based solutions, where we’d build out natural landscapes for protection, one place doing this already is the Netherlands.
Henk OVINK: So climate adaptation is not only about building a bigger wall against the flood, it is really about greening our infrastructure.
This is Henk Ovink, he's a water ambassador, more specifically a special envoy for international water affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Before this, he worked for President Obama's Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. We’ve been bringing up the Netherlands a lot so far and this is why…
OVINK: The Netherlands is a country that is pretty vulnerable when it comes to flooding. A third of the country is below sea level, 60% is flood prone. The way we protect ourselves was not built overnight. It's not that all of a sudden we thought, "Oh, help. We are not flood prone, what are we going to do?" No. In the ages coming from the 12th century and even before, we started to develop measures in our rivers, on our coastlines that helped us protect to the challenges that occurred then. And every time that measure was the baseline for a next measure and a next measure. That type of redundancy in our environments, in our cities, for that matter, coastlines help. So for instance, in the Netherlands along our coast, our sea is battering our coastline. Because of that, we always have to replenish our beaches. But instead of that now, we build an island in front of the coast, an artificial island with sand. Now, because of the current of the ocean, the sand is distributed along the coast and therefore we don't have to replenish it ourselves. But that doesn't work, let's say in Miami where the coastline definitely is not sandy. You can't come up with such an approach like we did in the Netherlands, so you have to think about totally different. And then if you go to Bangladesh where the mangroves are protecting the impact of the floods and the hurricane cyclones that they have there, those mangroves are battered by industrialization and pollution. But restoring those mangroves in Bangladesh or Indonesia helps those coastlines become more resilient. So there are many ways across the world that resiliency and adaptation builds redundancy, capacity, for coastlines and communities but they are different everywhere.
And these concepts are also really important for how we rebuild after a disaster.
OVINK: If you build back, you build back according to new standards not to old. There's infrastructure investments being it a house, a factory or a road, there are building codes. So there are flood maps, there is data and analytics. So I think from government, private sector, and community, there's a lot you can do. If the flood maps are not up to date, well, you just have the wrong flood maps. If the data on the building codes is not future proof, then the codes have to be made future. So there's many of those generic things that you have to do.
Ok, so that was bucket one - keeping the water out. But at a certain point, those efforts might not be sustainable. And that brings us to bucket two of sea level adaptation - letting the water in.
OVINK: I remember in the Netherlands, in our large infrastructure program called Room for the River where based on flood events in the 90s we said, "We have to give the rivers more room again." So, we started not with the solutions, we started with the assessment that we needed to make sure that our rivering system was ready for that future. Also in the Netherlands people don't like the government telling them to move away, we're no different than any other place around the world. So we went into the communities and worked with the farmers and the citizens. And what happened, there was one place that we needed for flood retention. The farmers that lived there had to move. But we also provided the farmers with funding to do research and come up with their own plan. So we provided them with experts and expertise and capacity, and they came up with an alternative plan. And what was interesting, that alternative plan worked better than just moving them away. Because they said, "We want to stay, this is our farm and that of our fathers and grandfathers. And it has to be for our daughters and sons and grandchildren." So instead of moving them away, we took the farms apart and we built terps, a terp is like higher ground. Built new farms on top of them that were also sustainably green. And now the farmers live in an environment that can flood, that they can be isolated for a couple of days and then the water flows again. They take that risk. But this is where they live.
The idea is simple. Rather than fighting the water, you build urban or rural infrastructure so that the water can flood in a controlled or planned way.
OVINK: I look at Harvey in Houston. The combination of a hurricane and a massive rain event flooded the city. The rivering system had not enough capacity to deal with both the surge that came in with the hurricane and the rain event. And the way the rivering system and the bayou system was actually interrupted by infrastructure and housing ensured that the disaster became also a disaster for the people that lived in Houston. And with that, you can rethink, you can really assess that situation, say, "Okay, what did we do wrong? And how can we undo that?" By, again, creating more room for water, restoring that bayou system that actually helped create redundancy in the water system. Don't build along the river in a way where you're more vulnerable, but create more room for the river. Making sure it can meander again, grow and shrink. And with that also create a healthier environment. Those are things we can do all over the world to be able to prepare for the risks, and at the same time, create added value.
There are other fascinating ideas on how to live with the water too …
JACOB: You can build floating cities. And the Dutch have already started to do that. And there are of course floating cities that have been around for many, many centuries, go to Asia. In many harbors, you have essentially boats where people live on and trade and do their business from.
There is a whole new industry known as aqua-tecture, do you get it? Like architecture. Anyway the idea is this, when a flood comes, amphibious homes can float up with the water, but they’re anchored in such a way that they come back down when the water recedes.
JACOB: So that is a solution that in someplace, will work better. I don't think it works very well for New York City and Florida, and many other coastal areas in the Atlantic and in the Gulf because we have these incredible wind storms with huge storm tides that come in. And so to keep floating communities afloat and not make them drift away and bump into each other, that would be quite an engineering feat and I haven't seen anybody trying that in these areas.
Prevention and accomodation methods can work together in different ways to meet rising sea levels, but some feel that even this doesn’t go far enough. That brings us to bucket 3, strategic relocation or managed retreat. It’s a matter of intense debate within the adaptation community.
Alice HILL: One of the ways that humans have always adapted is that people will move.
This is Alice Hill, she’s a senior fellow for energy and the environment at CFR. She served at the National Security Council under President Obama, where she advised on catastrophic risks like climate change.
HILL: Because if the land disappears from underneath their feet or a wildfire occurs and they lose their home. Or if heat extremes or flooding wipes out their crops or their livelihoods, those that can, will in many instances seek to find a better life in another location. And we are seeing this dramatically across the globe. We're already seeing higher numbers of people on the move. Now, they are many reasons that they're displaced as some referred to climate change as a threat multiplier or a crisis multiplier. Climate change adds an additional pressure on people that can be the culminating event or just an added pressure that forces them to the decision to move on. So we are seeing an estimated 50 million people a year moving globally as a result of climate-worsened events. And as we go forward, their anticipation is that this type of migration will increase in fact, to the point where our national intelligence agencies have warned this may be one of the largest consequences going forward. And of course, when people are on the move that creates security risks. For the people on the move, it creates tensions among communities as there's conflicts over already restricted or reduced resources. You can think of many people moving into a community where there's not enough freshwater, not enough food. And then there's a whole new set of needs expressed by the people who are moving into the community. And we see that we are at risk of very chaotic migration if we don't think about planning ahead. One country that is facing an existential threat from climate change that's the country of Bangladesh, which is about the size of Iowa. The state of Iowa. It has 200 million people in it. It's crisscrossed by rivers and then it has a lot of coastline. So it's facing huge flooding risks for its population.
JACOB: There are some tens of millions of peoples that will be displaced in Bangladesh alone. Where do they go? Well, not sure India or Malaysia wants to have them suddenly coming into their country. And we are complaining about a few immigrants from Central and South America coming into the US, well wait until sea level rise makes millions of people, tens of millions of people knocking at our doors.
SIERRA: It also means abandoning your home?
JACOB: Your home, your heritage, your culture, many things. And that is the big, big puzzle. Physically and financially, if we show the political will, it's doable. But the social cultural aspect is the hardest nut to crack.
It can be hard to imagine this scale of change. Potentially abandoning cities that define our culture. Imagine massive crowds fleeing places like New Orleans, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Manila, Tokyo and Shanghai. This could be the future we face.
Moving entire cities would be totally unprecedented. That’s why proponents of strategic relocation think that we have to move quickly to put plans, and funding, in place, to figure out how to do it in the best way possible.
And that brings up an important part of the adaptation picture. Whatever the policy, it’s going to cost a lot of money.
HILL: One 2019 estimate found that real estate worth 1.4 trillion is already located within just 700 feet of the US coast. And that sea level rise alone is projected to affect somewhere between four and 13 million Americans. Retreat from these coastlines would cost a great deal of money. If just 1/10th of these people or buildings retreated, it would cost an estimated $140 billion. So we know that ahead we are going to face some very costly choices about what to do to help communities that live in these areas, already under threat as they make choices about how to live with a changing coastline.
SIERRA: So what types of costs is climate change overall already causing here in the US?
HILL: The United States last year suffered 20 separate billion-dollar climate and weather disasters with total losses reaching $145 billion. So we are already paying a big price in terms of climate change. And last year it wasn't just the United States that was hit. Across the globe, the world incurred $329 billion in total economic losses from climate and weather catastrophes, according to some insurers. And of course, without insurance and many of these threats are not insured, the recovery costs fall on those who are harmed or on their governments or philanthropies that are able and willing to help them. Swiss Re, which is one of the world's largest reinsurers. Swiss Re projected last year that if we continue on our current course of heating, world gross domestic product would drop by 18% by 2050. So we are not yet internalizing the costs that come from climate impacts and their cascading casualties as a result of a flood that then wipes out a community. Kids aren't going to school. There's more illness in the community. The tax base shrinks. All those things that happen, we could be at risk for greater economic loss going forward and really on a very wide scale across the globe.
WAGNER: We are frankly very much still in the mode of having the federal government come in and bail us out over and over and over again which of course right from perspective of the homeowner, this is our social construct. This is our understanding. Catastrophe happens. President declares Federal Emergency, FEMA comes in and helps. And that's a good thing. That's not necessarily stop this, but of course it also comes with unintended consequences. Right, it comes with homeowners building themselves in floodplains close to the coast where yes, sea level rise, storm surges, hurricanes will, you know, at some point necessitate this sort of bailout and it's the government that comes in and does so. That can't continue forever. Many more correlated events, climatic events will certainly necessitate a rethinking of how do we bail out homeowners? How do we ensure that this sort of moral hazard doesn't continue to happen forever. Right, so that starts with ideas like, we can't always rebuild every home in its current place. Now that's an impossible political decision just to be clear, very, very difficult for the mayor to say, "Sorry, you can't move back there." There are always trade offs. Ever since philosopher Mick Jagger told us, "You can't always get what you want." Right, of course, we know that. And so there are trade offs in the real sense. If you spend a trillion dollars on one thing, it's not available for something else. Now, that's what makes this search for measures that in fact, do more than one thing at a time. So important.
JACOB: Yes. There will be choices and they will become ever more difficult and urgent. Now here's one problem. Those with the resources for them, it's not a difficulty to adapt. It's those folks without resources, within our own cities, but also globally. And just think of these little atoll islands in the Pacific and the Indian oceans, like the Maldive islands and so on. They were the ones that hardly contributed to global warming. It's us, and yet they pay already the price. They are already having to leave their island atolls. It is an equity issue because the people with the least resources have the least power. And yet often there are for historical reasons living in the most endangered, coastal areas because in their right mind, nobody would build there in the first place. And then where would we put those people? We put them where nobody else wants to live and the only places that are left over are those that are most endangered by flooding.
SIERRA: And people with less resources, you can't just afford to pick up and leave.
JACOB: Of course not. And that's why we have to have a government plan that assists those who need it most in the best possible way, which means we have to first create public housing in high-lying areas. So when the day comes that they really have to leave, the housing is already there that they can move into.
WAGNER: Frankly, one of the most important things to know about adaptation is the rich will adapt. Of course, so the rich jet off with their private plane to higher ground. The poor will suffer.
OVINK: Climate change is not an abstract future, it is here and now. And the impacts are everywhere every day. Google a flood, a drought, a storm, a disaster, and you find more than one every day somewhere around the world. Who suffers? The most vulnerable in every country around a region. And in the context of a health crisis like a pandemic, in the context of terrorism, in the context of economic decline and biodiversity loss, those climate impacts are massive. They are just, sometimes the last event pushes a community over the brink of collapse. Coming out of the climate conference, the COP 26 in Glasgow, adaptation rose to the top of the agenda. Why? Because the most vulnerable, the most marginalized of the world are impacted now not, tomorrow. We have to take action now to protect the most vulnerable first and then build on that level of protection to protect the rest of the world.
SIERRA: Well, I mean, with that, I guess my question is, is there a centralized authority in the US for coordinating and resourcing such a massive effort?
HILL: We do not have a central location for all of these issues. I haven't heard much talk about creating a new national department. I think a good place to start is simply creating a national adaptation strategy, which is what we do in other areas where you have a multitude of agencies with responsibilities to responding to the particular problem or crisis.
On top of governance and institutional leadership. There needs to be buy-in at the community level. And rallying this type of buy-in is a massive challenge in and of itself. Trust me, I’ve seen it firsthand.
SIERRA: How do you manage getting people on board? Because I specifically think about my parents in Manhattan Beach, which is an extreme flood zone. They were flooded by Sandy and the way that my mother talks about their community group meetings, and you know, they can't even agree on these measures within their own community. You know, how do you get people on board with these solutions?
OVINK: I remember when we started Rebuild By Design and we started to reach out to the communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, a lot of community said, "We don't really see the benefit of working with you, and why? I mean, who are you? The government, we don't have that good experience." And that was even a nice way of what was said, of course not always in the most friendly way. But we came back and said, "Okay, you know, we need to work with you. It's not about us telling you what to do, but it's about us together figuring out what is actually your needs. It's possible, but it's not easy, but that it is not easy should not prevent us from trying.
Nobody wants to have to go through radical changes in their community. Nobody wants massive expenditures. And most of all... nobody wants to leave the home or city they love behind. But some of these things will be necessary because of the climate effects that are already baked into the equation. The time to start preparing is now.
Still, the most extreme adaptation measures don't have to happen. We can avoid them if we get way more serious about mitigation.
Remember, the two things are linked. The more we mitigate the less we will have to adapt. And that’s why keeping warming at or below 1.5 degrees celsius is critical.
OVINK: Without mitigation, there is no future. The world is on the brink of collapse with four or five, six, seven, eight, nine degrees climate change. So without mitigation, it is like we die tomorrow. But without adaptation, we die today.
For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes.
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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Asher Ross, Jeremy Sherlick, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Rafaela Siewert is our associate podcast producer. Our intern is Roshni Rangwani.
Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Extra help for this episode was provided by Claire Felter.
Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke.
For Why It Matters, this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you soon!