Climate Change Resilience in U.S. Coastal Areas
Coastal erosion is a gradual process that has naturally occurred on American shores for hundreds of years. The continuous force of ocean tides wear away at the sediment of the cliff, beach, wetland, or shore. Coastline recession rates vary by location due to geologic and climatic factors; the rate on the Gulf coast is different from the rate on the Atlantic coast. There are 30 U.S. states that have an ocean-facing coast, which amount to about 12,000 total miles of coastline. Regardless of the regional location, climate change is accelerating the natural occurrence of coastline attrition. Coastal policy is a complex sphere of federal government; many players are involved with overlapping jurisdictions. There are about 14 government agencies involved in some facet of ocean governance. Additionally, indigenous tribal nations, private property owners, and local governments also factor into the web of resource control.
The main categories of policy approaches that communities can consider are adaptation, retreat, and resilience. Adaptation is already the status quo for most city and town governments. Retreat is also already being implemented in large and small cities across the U.S., but remains a logistically challenging task. Resilience methods have the greatest potential for protection and prevention. For that reason, an ideal approach to this issue is to implement a combination of these approaches depending on the needs of a specific community. Regardless of the tactic, the content of the bill would include both manmade and ecosystem-based infrastructure solutions.
The predominant coastline resiliency methods are “hard” infrastructure or “soft” (natural) infrastructure. Hardening the coastlines means the installation of manmade structures such as bulkheads, breakwater, jetties, and revetments. However, these tactics can be harmful to the marine ecosystems in which they are constructed. Natural infrastructure works within ecosystems to support animal and plant species while simultaneously fortifying the sea coast. But this type of infrastructure is accompanied by its own host of concerns.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem at the national scale. This is due to the fact that coastal communities vary greatly in ecology, economy, and geography. No matter the federal policy model, the law would be most effective if implemented in a regional fashion. There are several salient approaches to realize ocean management policy at the federal level. Cities in close proximity to the sea coasts are already experiencing the destructive consequences of ocean patterns aggravated by climate change. Action on this policy would alleviate urgent challenges currently faced by Americans.
Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) has risen steadily over the last few decades by an average height of 3.3 millimeters. The 2018 U.S. National Climate Assessment estimates U.S. regional sea levels to increase by a range of two to eight feet. The warming of the atmosphere is increasing the temperature of ocean water, which is causing a cascade of issues, including the melting of glaciers and ice shelves, habitat destabilization, species endangerment, ocean deoxygenation, etc. The land areas most directly and immediately impacted by the change in ocean conditions are the national coastlines. In this policy context, coastal areas are defined by any land that touches a body of water that is under United States jurisdiction and is not landlocked.
Climate projection models show that, with just one additional meter of sea level rise, most major United States cities will be at least partially under water. The coastal areas of the United States are densely populated; 40 percent of the nation calls coastal cities home. Although these land areas occupy a relatively small subsection — 10 percent of U.S. land — they have a disproportionate impact on the economy.
The United States was founded on and built around its port city economies. The most major ports — New York City, Boston, and San Francisco — were gateways to the global economy and newfound prosperity for immigrants. This legacy shaped the nation. The U.S. continues to rely on these port city economies today. In 2018, seaports contributed $5.4 trillion to the economy, about 26% of the national GDP. Any environmental threat to these cities will destabilize the local and national economies. For this reason, it is in the federal government’s best economic interest to act preemptively on climate change.
The problem is that there exists no consolidated federal plan to prepare our shorelines for disaster. This is in part due to the fact that there exist numerous federal agencies and entities that have jurisdiction over the ocean and coasts. An ideal plan would clearly delineate the responsibilities of groups of agencies. As such, implementation of this policy would involve the ongoing cooperation of many federal and state agencies. The status quo is disjointed, malfunctioning, and inadequate to address this significant issue. An ideal policy solution would consolidate efforts, fix broken systems, and fill resource gaps. Federal policy makers must coalesce to address the urgent issue of sea coast resilience against the impacts of climate change.
As has been previously stated, the United States governs coastal and oceanic activity through many different agencies, groups, and committees. The country reached its current patchwork status quo through years of amendments and updates to existing laws and regulations. The issue reached the current agenda mainly through legislation proposals from representatives who hail from seaside districts.
The Coastal Zone Management Act of 1988 is the primary legislation encoded in United States law that handles issues of sea coasts. The purpose of the Act is to “preserve, protect, develop, and where possible, to restore or enhance the resources of the nation’s coastal zone.” The Act created three programs, which govern our national water bodies: the National Coastal Zone Management Program, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP). In 2020, the federal government allocated more than $77 million for the implementation of coastal management programs in 34 participating U.S. states and territories.
One avenue for federal action is through the executive branch. In 2010, the Obama administration issued an executive order that outlined a plan for supporting natural and built coastal communities. To date, it was the most comprehensive plan to foster coastal resilience that the country had ever seen. The order included directives for sustainable shoreline development, responsible resource utilization, and ecosystem stewardship. In 2016, the Trump administration dismantled the order and replaced the National Ocean Council with the Ocean Policy Committee, and removed the regional planning bodies in charge of designing plans for their respective regions of the country. Currently, the Biden administration has not yet announced a regulatory plan for American coastal communities, but the President did signal his commitment to building sustainable coastal resilience in his new “American Jobs Plan.”
NOAA began spreading awareness about natural infrastructure methods and promoting its implementation to cities in towns in 2015. In 2017, the Army Corps of Engineers issued building permits under the Clean Water Act to expedite living shorelines projects. In thirteen states, these nature-based infrastructure solutions are already the law. The Water Resources Development Act became law in 2020. The Act directs the government to assess the environmental status of particular regions and make investment recommendations according to their waterway infrastructure needs. This law is largely implemented by the Army Corps of Engineers. There are a variety of funded programs and grants available for which state or local governments can apply. Four of these programs are the HUD Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), FEMA Building Resilience in Communities (BRIC) grants, USDA Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program, and the DOT Surface Transportation Block Grant Program.
Climate change is historically viewed as a partisan issue in Congress. Yet, on the issue of building coastal resilience, there is bipartisan collaboration. Severe natural disasters in both Democrat-majority and Republican-majority districts across the country — like Hurricane Harvey and Sandy — have demonstrated the urgency of the threat of coastal climate change. This issue currently experiences a moderate level of bipartisan support. That support has increased in the last several years, however, there still exist holdouts across the country. One paradoxical example exists in Florida. Real estate agents in Miami are well-versed in the risks of waterfront property; they have witnessed the effects of natural disasters firsthand and know that Florida is one of the most vulnerable states to these climate and weather events. Yet, agencies continue to attempt to sell property in high-risk, low-lying residential zones. Florida’s state officials helped to advance the lack of acknowledgment of potential dangers posed by climate change. Former Governor Rick Scott banned the use of the terms “climate change,” “global warming,” and “sustainability,” from use in official government documents. However, it remains more politically shrewd for Republican representatives to avoid supporting legislation that blatantly acknowledges the existence of climate change. Packaging these solutions within an infrastructure bill instead of a climate-focused bill would increase the likelihood of bipartisan support and eventual passage into law.
Historically, the most common limiting factors to policy implementation and progress are a lack of state- and local-level labor personnel, a steady budget, and inter- and intra-state communication and collaboration.
The three main groups of stakeholders involved in this issue are the local governments, environmental conservation organizations, property and business owners located nearby to the coastlines.
This issue is felt most acutely not by Washington, D.C., but by Aquinnah, Massachusetts; Avon, North Carolina; and Gleason Beach, California. The impacts of climate change are felt the most forcefully by the most vulnerable cities and towns. These are both the major urban centers, and the smaller seaside communities. The empowerment of local governments in leading the fight in this issue is critical. Due to the fact that this issue is highly variable depending on the local environmental conditions, and that the local residents are the most knowledgeable of those conditions, the local municipal government should be tasked with being the main government facilitators in coastal resilience planning and management.
However, this stakeholder has a human resources issue. Local governments are stymied in their effectiveness in implementing resilience programs because many cities and towns lack sufficient staff to distribute monetary resources and facilitate these programs. The solution to this issue is often fulfilling the role by hiring a contractor who may be part-time and/or more costly to onboard due to their expert qualifications on the issue. This can be remedied through the appointment of regional representatives, and frequent communication between regional representatives and federal agencies. The role of these representatives would entail the management of their land and oceanic area, the creation and implementation of conservation and development plans, and acting as a liaison between multiple levels of government. Top-down and bottom-up communication between municipal, state, and federal government is necessary for effective federal policy.
Environmental conservation groups serve the role of being public informants and caretakers of environmental integrity in a variety of fields. Stewards of marine ecosystems include the researchers, ecologists, environmental planners, fisheries managers, and others tasked with monitoring the activity of marine ecosystems. There are hundreds of organizations active in this sector, who collaborate with government entities to realize conservation policies. Environmental groups stake a role in this issue because their mission statements direct them to care for ecosystems and the living beings that inhabit them. These groups work on behalf of the natural world in order to maintain it for future generations. In the case of coastal policy, this same mission applies. Examples of types of groups within this category include the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund, Oceana, and ConservAmerica.
Property owners and business owners who reside or operate on the seashore, at sea-level, or at a vulnerable elevation are on the frontlines of assaults by natural forces. These Americans are both personally and politically invested in the protection of coastal areas because their homes and livelihoods are the buildings that are flooded, eroded, and otherwise impacted by the elements of the ocean. These communities can play a key role in mitigating the impacts of climate change by sharing their empirical knowledge with the local government and environmental groups to further enhance and customize environmental policy interventions to the geography. Their group of people can also serve as advocates for continued federal government support because they can demonstrate and leverage their economic and emotional interest in a coastal area. For example, wealthy owners of waterfront homes can be the most outspoken proponents of action against climate change.
There are three general approaches that policymakers can pursue: adaptation, retreat, and resilience.
Adaptation is the dynamic shift in approach to changing conditions over time. This is the predominant climate change response method in U.S. policy. The majority of American infrastructure was built decades ago. Our roads, bridges, transit lines, harbors, and public buildings are aging and, in many cases, structurally deficient. The federal government has not set forth a major nationwide infrastructure rehabilitation program to adequately address these challenges. President Joe Biden recently proposed the American Jobs Plan, which includes provisions for infrastructure reconstruction and climate change preparedness. However, it is not highly likely that this plan will be able to equitably and effectively rehabilitate infrastructure in every urban, rural, and suburban area. In order for the United States to proceed confidently against the worst coastal impacts of climate change, adequate funding must be secured from Congress, distributed to vulnerable cities and towns, and channeled into development projects. We can assume that these conditions will not be met universally, and therefore, infrastructure will remain susceptible to degradation. In the absence of effective federal government mobilization to redress these large-scale issues, local governments are forced to continuously adapt development and management plans. This reform process can be taxing on smaller governments, which have limited time and resources to complete the regular routine tasks of governance. Targeting the weak points of existing infrastructure is the optimal way to apply adaptation techniques.
Retreat is the process of migrating people and buildings away from seashore areas. This large-scale movement planning results in either the permanent demolishment or relocation of buildings, and the crediting or rehousing of residents. Recession inland has occurred with increasing frequency over the last several years. While this is the safest option to achieve the goal of protecting people and buildings, it is logistically challenging, cost-intensive, and unpopular. Most communities are not enthusiastic about this option, however, this is the optimal solution for certain situations. For example, in 2012, the town of Aquinnah, Massachusetts, located on the island of Martha’s Vineyard engaged in a three year plan to determine the best strategy to move the historic Gay Head Lighthouse away from its perch atop a crumbling cliffside. The project to move the operational lighthouse just 130 feet from its original location required $3.4 million dollars. This one time- and resource-intensive project will soon be replicated for thousands of essential buildings and historic landmarks across the country. A cost-benefit analysis is necessary to determine whether retreat or demolition and reconstruction is the best solution in each case.
Building resilience is the process of proactively taking steps to ensure the strength and tolerance of infrastructure. In the context of coastal policy, this means the fortification of manmade and natural infrastructure against environmental impacts. This type of proactive approach is worthy of consideration for three reasons. First, taking action before the onset of disaster has been shown to diminish property damage. Second, it reduces the disruption of societal function. Third, it saves money in the long-run. The implementation of resilience methods most commonly comes in the form of both “hard” and “soft” infrastructure.
Hardened infrastructure can be highly effective at blocking the onslaught of storm surges, flooding, and other natural forces. The installation of hardened infrastructure is highly common in the U.SAccording to a 2015 survey, 14 percent of the U.S. coastline is “armored” with seawalls or other similar manufactured blockades. However, the presence of these artificial structures — typically made of metal, plastic, or wood — can disrupt sea creature and habitat migration, and leach chemicals or material debris into the water. Additionally, these structures require continuous maintenance to prevent malfunction, corrosion, and other forms of devolvement. For these reasons, hardened infrastructure is not the ideal long-term solution to erosion prevention.
Nature-based infrastructure, often referred to as “living shorelines,” is a method that has received more attention in policy circles in recent years. The most common solutions are “beach nourishment,” vegetation planting, edging, sill construction, oyster bed and marsh habitat management. All of these are restorative approaches to climate change mitigation. Advantages to this approach include creating a defense zone against storms, protecting nearby homes and businesses, increasing carbon sequestration, reducing pollutants, making space for fisheries and other kay species habitats, and supporting tourism, social leisure, and cultural significance of coastal areas. While all of these can be environmentally and structurally beneficial, they are not without their own array of issues. For example, beach nourishment involves obtaining large volumes of sand and applying it to replenish diminished beaches. This is a temporary fix that must be repeated annually or more frequently. It can incur steep costs from purchasing sand from an artificial manufacturer, the use of fossil-fuel powered all-terrain vehicles to spread the sand, closing off the beaches for maintenance and loss of foot traffic, and other costs.
Advance, or land reclamation, is another form of resilience building that falls between hard and soft infrastructure. It is the old technique of artificially reconstructing land masses that have been deteriorated. This involves building out into the sea through piling large volumes of sediment to attach to the existing coastline.
In order to most effectively prevent the short-term and long-term impacts of climate change on the United State’s seashores, the federal government should consider reforming its current approach to coastal management and planning policy. This section will detail the most viable policy recommendations, and their respective costs, political or social palatability, feasibility, and ease of implementation.
- Reintroduce and Enact the Ocean Act of 2020
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the central source of federal power for coastal resilience policy. Enacting legislation with new provisions for NOAA is a direct way in which to improve the U.S.’s climate change preparedness approach.
The most viable current legislation is the S. 5056 Ocean Act of 2020. This act is a conglomeration of many bills of recent legislative sessions, which all seek to advance ocean policy in the face of climate change through all three policy approaches of retreat, resilience,and adaptation. The current version of this bill was first introduced in the Senate in December 2020. The Ocean Act includes provisions from the H.R.3115 Living Shorelines Act, a bill originally introduced by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), and would incentivize local governments to invest in the research and development of natural solutions that work within the existing ecosystem instead of against it. That law was subsequently absorbed by the H.R.729 — Coastal and Great Lakes Communities Enhancement Act, which passed review in the Natural Resources Committee, and passed by a significant majority in the House before the end of the 116th congressional session. This present Senate bill includes the language from these previous legislation and dedicates a whole section dedicated to coastal resiliency and adaptation. This section defines “living shorelines projects” as those that “restore or stabilize a shoreline” through the use of nature-based materials and functional ecosystems to create defense structures against climate change that simultaneously enhance habitat health. These projects would be required to utilize natural components, environmental engineering principles, and retain the existing topography.
This implementation of this law would require the allocation of a significant amount of appropriations. The Congressional Budget Office has not yet calculated an amount of funding necessary to realize this legislation. However, the CBO did enumerate the amount of appropriations necessary for the H.R.729 — Coastal and Great Lakes Communities Enhancement Act, which provides some insight into the costs that may potentially result from the larger Act. H.R. 729 was estimated to cost the government that the law would cost $22 million over the 2020–2024 period and $5 million per year after that period. The CBO found this amount to fall within budget function for the natural resources and environment committee. The majority of the yay votes were Democratic representatives. The law obtained widespread bipartisan support in its voting session in the House. Through coalition building, it is possible to see the same level of acceptance and support in the Senate. There is little public data on the public’s support of this specific bill; there have been no major polls conducted on the social palatability of this mitigation technique. However, we can assume that the public will support this measure at approximately the same rate that they support other climate change mitigation efforts. According to a 2020 poll, 65 percent of the American public believes that the government is doing too little to respond to climate change, and most prevention policies gain a majority of American’s approval. In order to implement this law, robust inter-agency and inter-state coordination is crucial. Checks and balances can be added to management practices in order to ensure the ongoing fortitude of this implementation process.
2. Enact an infrastructure reform law
This plan is President Joe Biden’s infrastructure reform plan. This is not legislation itself, but rather, a proposed course of action for Washington lawmakers. In order to implement portions of the provisions of this plan, Congress would have to adopt them into new or existing bills. The Plan calls for an investment of an additional $17 billion in inland waterways, coastal ports, land ports of entry, and ferries. This money can be appropriated to cover routine costs as well as construction and development costs, which could aid climate-resilient infrastructure projects. One notable difference between previous executive infrastructure plans and President Biden’s is the inclusion of nature-based infrastructure, denoted as “Maximize the resilience of land and water resources to protect communities and the environment.” The policy agenda has widened to include ecosystem-based solutions as viable policy options. The plan specifies the allocation money for building resilient infrastructure. The plan makes the claim that “Every dollar spent on rebuilding our infrastructure during the Biden administration will be used to prevent, reduce, and withstand the impacts of the climate crisis.”
Any bill that includes these ideas should also include orders for new rules and regulations to improve climate preparedness. Through an infrastructure law, congress can direct the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to formulate some rules such as the following. Collaborate with NOAA and EPA to determine high-risk terrestrial flood zones. Ban new public and private construction within the high-risk zones, with appropriate exemptions for military bases and others. Issue a mandate for climate-resistant construction in all new buildings. Retrofit all existing public buildings with climate-resilient external fortifications in roof, foundation, and wall material. Subsidize the cost of durable, climate resilient building materials to increase its accessibility to private and public construction companies.
Biden’s plan estimates that climate resilience building measures would cost $50 million, and the infrastructure plan as a whole to cost about $2 million. However, Republican lawmakers are capping their compromise pay level to $800 million. The President is currently in conversation with Senators on both sides of the aisle to help reach an agreement on appropriations and approach. There is high political willingness to enact an infrastructure bill in this legislative session; it would be viewed as a beneficial action by the majority of representatives’ constituents. The feasibility of realizing all the ideas in Biden’s original plan is moderately low. The President has already demonstrated that he is willing to compromise and remove certain provisions from his plan to bargain with conservatives. Implementing a policy of this scale would be a massive undertaking and require the mobilization of dozens of agencies and private sector actors.
3. Amend the Stafford Act
The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act was originally enacted in 1988. The purpose of the Act was to provide relief funding through FEMA to The amendment in particular is to include the allocation of funds to regions that experience both high-vulnerability to climate change and are historically resource-deprived. This would direct aid to those places that need it most prior to the onset of disaster. This change would not incur additional costs, but rather, would redistribute existing funds to the groups who need it. There does exist political will and an open policy window to make these amendments. Senator Elizabeth Warren suggested it as part of her “Blue New Deal” policy plan during her campaign for the 2020 presidential race. Across the aisle, Republican Rep. Garret Graves introduced a bill to achieve almost the exact goal outlined herein in 2020,with a majority of Republican co-sponsors. This change is popular among demographic groups who identify as being part of the beneficiaries of such a policy change. Residents of coastal communities in historically discriminated areas are enthusiastic about this policy change. This stance is less palatable to voters who believe that allocating more money to disaster mitigation is a negligent and irresponsible use of monetary resources. Given the current voting pattern of the 117th congress, this amendment is highly feasible, conditional on the ability for Congress to secure majority approval. Implementation of this amendment could be difficult given the current imperfect, complex coastal management system. However, if implemented concurrently to the aforementioned changes, the process should proceed more smoothly.
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Grace Tucker is a Resilience Coordinator for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Correspondence: Grace and I corresponded via email and spoke on the phone over the course of a few weeks, 3/14/2021 to 3/29/2021.
Amanda Vargo is a Senior Climate Resilience Analyst for the International Climate Fund.
Correspondence: Amanda and I corresponded via email and spoke on the phone over the course of a few weeks, 3/18/2021 to 4/5/2021.
Bruce Monger is a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University.
Correspondence: Bruce and I corresponded via email and spoke on the phone over the course of several days: 4/5/2021 to 4/8/2021.
Nancy Pyne is a Field Director of U.S. Campaigns at Oceana.
Correspondence: Nancy and I corresponded via email and spoke on the phone over the course of a few weeks, 3/18/2021 to 4/8/2021.