Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Designers, planners and serious thinking about climate change

Two university teachers in planning and design wrote an article in the current Harvard Design Magazine titled Design for Rising Sea Levels. In spite of its title, the most important subject of the article is "our apparent inability to comprehend change that occurs not in dramatic steps, nor at a steady linear rate, but rather exponentially, starting out with a low slope that steepens over time."

This inability to comprehend is, most disappointingly, shared with the people who are responsible for planning the spacial and physical changes to the infrastructure and facilities we depend on as residents of our local areas. Sea level rise is an apt climate change impact to use because the preponderance of projections for how fast it will rise make it seem like not much of a threat. When most planners accept a pace of a foot of rise over the next 40 years, there's not much urgency there. A few sea walls, some levees, some pumps...no problemo.

But such estimates ignore the low percentage risks that the sea level might rise much faster than that. The two authors, Jonathan Barnett and Kristina Hill, have studied the actions of local planners and have concluded that for the most part, climate change has not yet shown up on their radars.

As far as we can tell, most designers and planners aren’t thinking seriously about climate change in the U.S. unless they work closely with the insurance industry, which is dropping tens of thousands of East Coast customers and raising rates on the rest, in part as a result of climate predictions. Ecologists all over the world also know that it’s a very big deal. The World Bank knows. But building and landscape architects, engineers, and planners don’t seem to have connected the dots. Jonathan, the other author of this article, worked on the first reconstruction plan for New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and saw the devastation from a storm surge that could have been prevented if the flood walls had been properly constructed. He became frustrated with the many comments from people outside New Orleans that the city had simply been built in the wrong location and ought to be a write-off, and he began to wonder what would happen if we applied the same standard to other places. Biloxi and other Gulf Coast cities also suffered severe damage from Katrina and Rita. Key West had flooding comparable to that in New Orleans from Rita. If we looked around the country at other vulnerable cities, we’d have to write off many more than New Orleans.
As I've blogged repeatedly in the past, the authors point to the insurance industry as the real bellweathers of change in perspective. They recommend that government policy-makers begin working with insurance companies to implement realistic planning for coastal areas subject to sea level rise.
By working with large insurance companies, government regulators could encourage rationality when either the private sector or public agencies make major investments in coastal urban futures. Important dialogues could begin about how to share the significant investment costs of adapting coastal areas to sea-level rise and new flooding patterns. Because they would bring insurers and institutional leaders together, these new investment and cost-sharing discussions provide a way to allow flexible design and planning solutions to emerge that would be insurable, politically feasible, and recognize the need for social equity in how citizens are protected from immediate and longer-term dangers.
This article makes it clear that even with minor sea level rise and occasional storm surges, the planning required to protect low-lying infrastructure is far from simple and affordable. The impacts on natural and man-made systems will be far-reaching. This is not the time for local planners to be sitting back and waiting for more dire predictions to come from climatologists. The changes are happening now and even best-case forecasts deserve serious mitigation efforts.


Steve Bloom said...

Cliff, you should be aware of Sterman + Sweeney's work. The title of their most recent paper says it all:

"Understanding Public Complacency About Climate Change:
Adults' mental models of climate change violate conservation of matter"

At the same time, it's been noted by climate scientists that the unknowns in the science will be tilted toward negative effects, as we can see here (and this shift has *huge* implications, BTW):

“Widening of the tropical belt in a changing climate”

Abstract: “Some of the earliest unequivocal signs of climate change have been the warming of the air and ocean, thawing of land and melting of ice in the Arctic. But recent studies are showing that the tropics are also changing. Several lines of evidence show that over the past few decades the tropical belt has expanded. This expansion has potentially important implications for subtropical societies and may lead to profound changes in the global climate system. Most importantly, poleward movement of large-scale atmospheric circulation systems, such as jet streams and storm tracks, could result in shifts in precipitation patterns affecting natural ecosystems, agriculture, and water resources. The implications of the expansion for stratospheric circulation and the distribution of ozone in the atmosphere are as yet poorly understood. The observed recent rate of expansion is greater than climate model projections of expansion over the twenty-first century, which suggests that there is still much to be learned about this aspect of global climate change.”

Cliff Figallo said...

Thanks for all that, Steve. Yes, it's tricky trying to change consciousness, and that's really what it's about, rather than changing minds. (Not to get too cosmic about it...)

I remember how disoriented much of the Bay Area was after the Loma Prieta earthquake. Of course, we all live here - among these faults - by choice. But after the earth has shaken so hard, it challenges your core assumption that the earth is SOLID.

Same with climate...difficult to accept that it could change so much...and stay that way.

Cliff said...

Here's the correct URL for the paper by Sterman and Sweeney.