The Danger of Isolation
Immediately prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Benjamin Franklin famously told the delegates to the Continental Congress, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately”. The notion of us all being in a situation together has many applications in the realm of environmental policy, not the least of which are policies governing coastal areas in an era of climate change and sea level rise. The acknowledgement of that fact could be our collective salvation as surely as the failure to recognize that our fates are all tied together will eventually lead to our individual demise. Not only do we have a common interest in addressing environmental threats, there is also a need for a concerted course of action to meet them.
Similarly, the story of the blind men and the elephant brings a related lesson to our approach to policy making. Making decisions based only on a limited perspective can lead to miscalculation and misunderstanding of the nature and scope of the problems or circumstances that we face resulting in a failure to appropriately address the threats that exist. After all, describing an elephant as a snake or a rope may be accurate based upon your limited view of the world, but it is hardly an appropriate description of what you’re facing. This proverb provides no more apt a lesson than for coastal communities that face hazards with systems-based origins but respond with solutions that are only focused on what is right in front of them.
The dangers that coastal communities are facing from the combination of a gradually increasing sea level and flooding and damage from strengthening storms requires a response that looks at the bigger picture. The problem is, that in many areas, our policies and actions are controlled at the local level. This leads to measures being taken that fail to look at real root causes of the hazards. Putting aside, for a moment, the global scale of climate change, the failure to address the expected effects on a regional or systems basis leads to ineffective or inappropriate response measure that continue to put people, property and infrastructure investments at risk. The inability (or unwillingness) to see that what we may be facing at any particular place or point in time is just part of a much larger picture and use that perspective to drive our response is a serious and dangerous shortcoming.
The Need To Act On A Regional Basis
In 1972, Congress passed the Coastal Zone Management Act in an effort to manage the nation’s coastal resources and provide a balance between economic development and environmental protection. Section 307 of the Act encouraged coastal states to implement their own management programs by providing for integrated federal and state permitting in coastal areas for states that were deemed consistent with the CZMA. This led to the adoption of coastal management programs in every coastal state along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts as well as in the Great Lakes states. The theory was good. The practice-not so much.
States took different approaches to managing their coastal resources and the definition of what was deemed consistent with the Federal Coastal Zone Management Act had a fairly liberal interpretation. Some states, like California and North Carolina were very aggressive in managing growth in coastal areas and created powerful commissions with both regulatory authority and the technical capacity to support land use decision making. Other states, like New York and New Jersey, passed regulations, but left left much of the decision-making power in the hands of local government. Additionally, New Jersey’s regulations were written in a manner that saw the bulk of typical “Jersey Shore” development fall outside the purview of the restrictions. It’s interesting to note that when North Carolina’s governor signed that state’s coastal management regulations into law he made a statement to the effect that it was to prevent coastal North Carolina from becoming the New Jersey shore.
We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning – Werner Heisenberg
The politics of regional authority and stronger land use regulations can be very difficult to navigate. However, we can no longer afford to approach coastal land use in the same manner, nor can we continue to manage land use in a piecemeal fashion. Whether its Dauphin Island, AL or Duck, NC or Ortley Beach, NJ, how we recover from the last weather event or prepare for the next storm must have some level of consistency. I’ll leave the methodologies that need to be applied for another day, but the underlying principals need to be based on reduction of vulnerability and hazard reduction and avoidance. Responses cannot be based solely on the interests of any single community or particular interest in isolation. A fragmented approach to a regional problem will never work.
A sea wall that protects one community at the expense of another, an expensive beach replenishment project for the benefit of a small number of people, or an infrastructure investment that supports an unsustainable or vulnerable community are just some examples of the results that a fragmented approach to coastal management can bring. It will not get any easier going forward as difficult decisions will need to be made. Just looking at Sandy recovery, it becomes obvious that there are places that can be re-built, there are places that can be re-built with modifications, but most importantly, there are places where we cannot or should not rebuild. Yet, I can almost guarantee that we will rebuild things right where they were before the storm, that we will favor one community over another, that we will use public funds for infrastructure that is unsustainable and that we will continue to make decisions on a local ad hoc basis. It doesn’t make Sandy recovery any different than Alabama after Frederic in 1979 or Louisiana after Katrina in 2005, but that’s the point; you’d think we would learn by now.
Before the next storm, and there will be a next one, coastal states need to assess their land use management and infrastructure investment practices. Dunes, wetlands, floodways and no-build or buy-out zones have to be a part of the equation and you will not achieve this on a town-by-town basis. The evaluation of vulnerability and resource protection needs to be done regionally. Engineered solutions like jetties, dikes or sea walls all have impacts beyond the project areas that must be assessed. If you don’t look at the big picture, it becomes the old arcade game whack-a-mole. Solve a problem here, it creates another someplace else, and the problems just keep coming. This doesn’t even touch on the resource limitations that individual towns face having to take on a tremendous effort to re-think their footprint without adequate support. Political will, resources and the right perspective are the elements necessary to succeed. Unfortunately, these seemingly simple ingredients are all in short supply. However, not taking the political risk or making the proper investments now will only result in real risk and unaffordable expenses in the future.-Ben Spinelli