Models predict the probability of category 4 and 5 level storms hitting New York and other major coastal cities around the world will significantly increase by midcentury. While there is uncertainty about how much sea levels will rise, and the predicted range of impact is wide, one thing is for sure: the need to act now is certain, said Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University. Oppenheimer spoke to a crowd of more than 100 University of Chicago students, professors, and members of the community on October 14th as the second installment of a two-part series on sea level rise hosted by EPIC.
“I think we can adapt and we have the capacity to deal with it, but a lot of it isn’t done today,” Oppenheimer said. “You have to ask yourself, given the situation today where in some respect our response to climate variability is suboptimal by far, what happens in the future as the climate changes, and changes in ways that are now in a good measure unpredictable or at least very limited.”
The limitations in predicting the causes and effects of sea levels rising stem from limited data and the use of different feedback versions of the climate system in different models. Furthermore, current models cannot accurately take into account structural uncertainty, Oppenheimer said.
“It’s a complex problem with lots of uncertainty,” said Oppenheimer. “We don’t know about future emissions very well. We can’t predict socioeconomic behavior very well either. Then we have to consider the differences between the global and local impact of sea rise.”
The biggest problem in the realm of uncertainty is the inability to predict what will happen with the ice sheets, as the phenomenon of ice sheets shrinking is hard to measure.
Then comes the concept of risk. The degree of exposure and vulnerability are areas that we understand even less about, making it even more difficult to predict the complete future impact, Oppenheimer noted.
“Even if you believe the models will come out at the low end of impact, we still have a problem of doubling the exposure to risk for coastal areas,” Oppenheimer said. “So this is a problem that is going to occur not matter what.”
Despite uncertainty in the predictive models, however, there is enough evidence to suggest that coastal storms will increase in frequency and intensity. Yet the lack of political will to prepare accordingly can be a hurdle, especially when considering that some measures, like building a surge barrier, can take close to 30 years or more to complete. In addition to the time and money it would cost coastal regions to build resilience, governments are not properly incentivizing behavior that would limit storm damage.
“There are government incentives that cut in the wrong direction, causing people and companies to behave counterproductively,” Oppenheimer said. “For example, the natural flood insurance system doesn’t offer federal funding for building resilience, but it ensures that the government will provide funds to clean up the damage after a storm.“
The lack of resilience focused policies and practices increases the risk of damage, particularly to important infrastructure, like subway systems, which can be easily flooded as coastal storms become stronger and more frequent.
Oppenheimer noted that in order to reduce the risk of damage from sea level rise, governments need to impose more precautionary policies. The U.S. would most notably benefit from restructuring flood insurance, legitimizing coast area retreat, integrating hard and soft defenses, updating maps regularly, increasing resilience funding, and reducing scientific uncertainty.
Policy changes that can reduce damage and save lives are not all necessarily costly, however. After enough damage, even countries with limited resources, like Bangladesh, have learned to adapt.
“Sometimes even low-tech changes, like early warning systems and cheap infrastructure changes can reduce the human toll of storms and sea level rise,” Oppenheimer said.